Thomas Armour Youth Ballet, which celebrates its 40th anniversary performing “The Nutcracker” this December, has been using dance to teach life skills since the 1950s.
The South Miami school opened its first outreach center in 2000 at Morningside Elementary School in Little Haiti. Since then, it has expanded to five outreach sites across South Florida and grown into a weekly program reaching more than 1,100 students annually with help in academic and higher education resources.
Ruth Wiesen the school’s director and ballet instructor, said that students there are among the most disciplined and usually the first to attend college in their families. The classes are taught by 18 master instructors and are based on a first-come, first-served basis open to kids in Miami-Dade. She said that although many factors may prevent the children from continuing at the school, they are hands-on about the actions they take to keep them on a straight path.
“A major component is obstacle removal. Kids stop coming to class or have trouble in school for lots of different reasons, so we try to look at what’s happening by looking at changes in their behavior or attendance and not just assume they dropped out or are a problem child,” Wiesen said. “We look at the family and try to access services for the kids and everyone involved. Dental health and transportation is a really big problem, but we look at all the obstacles it’s not just about the free dance classes.”
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The combined outreach programs cost about $1.2 million a year to run. The dance company is currently seeking to raise $150,000. So far, $30,000 has been raised. The money will help pay for new “Nutcracker” sets when students perform the holiday ballet in December.
Stephanie Fuentes, a former student and now teacher of the program, knows how essential it is to provide low-income students with educational resources. She started at Thomas Armour Youth Ballet at age 14.
“I was under Mrs. Ruth’s scholarship, so I can be considered an outreach student. My mom didn’t have the financial means to pay for my classes, and I was able to get a full scholarship,” Fuentes said. “The kids learn about teamwork, discipline and communication. Because it’s dance even though they may be shy, they get out of their comfort zone. They also get help with academic studies, and I know that was something that sometimes limited me but being in this program is something you carry your whole life.”
The performances are open to all audiences in Miami and include sensory-friendly “Nutcracker” production for children with autism and their families. The show produced in collaboration with Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs, CCDH and All Kids Included are given a welcoming, accepting and supportive environment, Wiesen said. Accommodations include headphones for noise reduction, pre-show entertainment, fidget toys, and professionals working in a quiet room that live-streams the show with no additional cost to parents.
“Parents have told me that the whole family can’t enjoy the production of the “Nutcracker” generally because the child with autism may like to clap, sing, or stand up during the production and people in the audience will turn and shush the child making it uncomfortable for the entire family,” Wiesen said. “We started this production for those children and families. We’ve learned a lot over the last five years, and I’d like to think we keep fine tuning it. ”
Despite all of the bumps in the road, Wiesen said she’ll continue to push her students and the program forward because of the potential she sees in them. Funding is their biggest obstacle she said, and she hopes they will be able to complete the rest of the fundraiser for her students to continue to dance and perform in a safe environment.
“This program goes beyond the dance steps or the art form that is learned. This program is creating successful individuals that hopefully come back and are professionals within the community who are contributing members and also serve as role models for their whole families and the neighborhoods that they live in.”
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How to help
▪ To donate to Thomas Armour Youth Ballet, visit https://thomasarmouryouthballet.givingfuel.com/nutcracker-40th-anniversary
▪ For ‘Nutcracker’ information, visit http://taybballet.org/nutcracker