Watching from the seats in the Little Haiti Cultural Center’s theater, Cherilyn Marrocco directs two young actors to move upstage until they feel the bright lights on their faces. One boy winces, while the other shields his face.
Finding the light, she says, is everything.
“As a performer I love being on stage. When the lights hit me, I come to life. And that’s what I try to pass on to my students,” says the 31-year-old director and teacher. As a child of a struggling single mother, Marrocco was saved by her love for the stage. Now she’s passing on that same inspiration to her dance and musical theater students — more than half of whom are on scholarship — at MAD Dance Miami in Little Haiti.
Marrocco’s parents split when she was 8, and her mother’s health faltered soon after. Soon Marrocco, her older sister and her mother were barely scraping by. Marrocco sometimes arrived for classes at Miami City Ballet on an empty stomach. “My world shattered, except dance. That really saved me,” she remembers. “Dance kept me going. I was the student that would get to class like two hours early.” Being in the studio took her away from the troubles at home. “I was always happy. I could be not eating for a week … but still have a smile on my face. I was pretending to be someone else.”
Now she’s passing on that happiness to her flock at MAD Dance at the Little Haiti Cultural Center. With after-school and evening classes, the diverse programming for kids ranges from training in ballet, hip-hop and salsa to lessons in singing and acting. More than half receive scholarships, and Marrocco teaches dance at Hialeah High School to support the program.
She trained on scholarship at Miami City Ballet alongside Patricia and Jeanette Delgado, currently two of the troupe’s star dancers. But as a teen she fell in love with musical theater, earning a bachelor’s of fine arts from the New World School of the Arts, and playing the lead role in a production of Urinetown at Actor’s Playhouse. “I loved ballet, but there was something more to me,” she says.
She moved to New York in 2009, with dreams of landing on Broadway, auditioning for lead roles in Westside Story and In the Heights. Though she came close, she never landed a part. So Marrocco returned to Miami and refocused her ambitions.“This is better than Broadway for me,” she says. “My goal never really happened, but all of these little ones have those same dreams. And if I could at least instill something in them to feel the same thing that I felt at their age, then that’s what my purpose in life is.”
Marrocco’s beginning and intermediate musical theater students, ages 5 to 12, are preparing for their June 8 performance of Dear Edwina. Laden with song and dance, the children’s comedy centers on Edwina Spoonapple, an advice guru who answers letters from neighborhood kids. Training is intense but fun, with a lot of encouragement. At a recent rehearsal, the diverse cast was disciplined, but still comfortable enough to laugh spontaneously during a scene. Most are required to take additional dance classes to round out their skills.
“It’s a lot of work. They have to commit,” says Veronica Rodriguez, whose 9-year-old daughter, Mia Rodriguez, has been taking classes since the program began.
Marrocco started MAD Dance in August 2011 with the help of her husband. The program now serves about 120 kids from Miami-Dade and Broward, with classes seven days a week, which have been full almost since the beginning. On a recent evening, groups of giggling dancers filled the center’s lobby — some of the older ones with muscular physiques, reflecting years of training, while others clearly still developing.
The program will host a free festival this Saturday and showcase its dance students in a performance on Sunday; Marrocco launches her first summer camp this July.
She takes pride in her students’ diversity.
“I have kids from Little Haiti going to sleepover parties in Miami Shores. It’s like a melting pot,” she says. “I have some parents who only speak Creole. It’s been a challenge in that way, but at the same time just to see everyone get along makes me happy.”
She has seen the program help the inner-city kids the most. “They come to me very shy, but that changes quickly,” she says.
Marrocco takes great satisfaction that performing has been a sanctuary for other kids much the way it was for her. “I’ve watched them grow. I’ve seen their progression and they’ve seen it, the parents have seen it. And that’s enough for me.”
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