Jordan Levin

Discipline and talent take dancer from poverty to success

Uri Sands, a Miami-raised dancer and dance company director, revisits his old neighborhood after more than twenty years, Tuesday, September 23, 2014. Sands was the son of a single mother who grew up in South Dade, and began dancing at RR Moton Elementary, an arts magnet school, and later danced for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
Uri Sands, a Miami-raised dancer and dance company director, revisits his old neighborhood after more than twenty years, Tuesday, September 23, 2014. Sands was the son of a single mother who grew up in South Dade, and began dancing at RR Moton Elementary, an arts magnet school, and later danced for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Miami Herald staff

Uri Sands has not been back to the Perrine neighborhood where he grew up in 23 years. Much of it looks the same; small, sun-faded concrete homes, chain-link fences, strips of tiny liquor and convenience stores, trash-strewn or lushly overgrown lots.

He shakes his head at how simultaneously foreign and familiar it all seems, remembering nights that echoed with gunfire, running to the store to play a number for his grandmother, overhearing the grownups talk about so-and-so getting shot, or the neighbor lady who’d become a prostitute.

And he remembers his certainty that there was something better than what he saw around him.

“I just felt like there was more — there has to be more than this life,” says Sands, now 40. “I knew there was a world out there. I didn’t know how to get to it. I just wanted a chance to have a life that was different from what I experienced.

“I knew all the black people in the world weren’t oppressed and struggling. I knew there was a beauty and happiness and fulfillment beyond the strife that so many families I saw were going through.”

Sands found fulfillment as a dancer, earning a spot in the renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, with which he danced from 1995 to 2000. He and his wife, fellow Ailey dancer Toni Pierce-Sands, went on to form their own troupe, TU Dance, in Pierce-Sands’ home city of St. Paul, Minnesota.

This week, Sands will return to where he started as TU Dance performs Saturday at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center and conducts a series of classes in the area this week.

In September, a Miami Herald reporter and photographer accompanied Sands to his old neighborhood, to explore what enabled him to rise above poverty and limited horizons.

Two other factors were just as crucial as Sands’ talent in lifting him out of bleak circumstances. One was the arts programs at R.R. Moton Elementary School and Southwood Middle School, which introduced him to dance, and at New World School of the Arts, where he finished his training. The other was his determination and focus, which were almost as extraordinary as his dance ability.

When Sands was 6, he would get up at 5 a.m. on weekdays and call his mother at her overnight shift as a data clerk to check in. Then he’d wake up his 3-year-old brother Marcus, get him dressed, make him breakfast and call his mother again before he walked Marcus down to the van that took him to pre-school. And then Sands would take something out of the freezer for dinner and get himself ready for the bus to school.

“I wasn’t supposed to leave them, but I had to work at night,” says his mother, Beverly Wright, 64. “That’s how the routine went for about two years. Uri was smart, and I could depend on him. If I told him to do something, I knew he would do it right.”

Wright, born and raised in South Miami-Dade, struggled as a single mother. Neither of the boys’ fathers paid child support or helped raise their sons. Though she worked steadily as a clerk and found money for school supplies and Christmas presents, Wright also used food stamps, and the family moved frequently. For a time they lived with her stepmother (Wright’s mother died when she was 5). But her parents raised her to be self-sufficient, and she taught her sons to be the same.

“I didn’t make it easy for them,” she says. “My parents didn’t make it easy for me. They gave me what we needed more than what we wanted. I don’t want to give myself credit. But I had to take care of my kids, and I think they saw the determination that I wanted them to have.”

Sands met his father just twice, once before he started school, and again when he was 23, before a Miami show with the Ailey troupe. He shrugs when asked about his father’s absence. “Could things have been different and better? Sure. But I can’t speculate. I had a mother who was home and who loved us, that we saw and knew. Some people have no parents.”

Sands’ resolve took physical form — he liked doing flips off of dumpsters and tagged after older boys to learn to break-dance. When he was 9, he begged his mother to let him enter a hip-hop dance contest at the local library — at the site on which the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center now stands — and astonished her by winning out over the older dance crews. So for fifth grade, Wright enrolled her older son in R.R. Moton, which had a dance program.

“That was something that he loved,” she says. “And he was so sure of himself.”

The doors to the world started to crack open for Sands at Moton. He took a ballet class. On the studio wall was a picture of Rudolf Nureyev, the dancer who vaulted to international fame from a Russian village. “Moton was a place I felt alive,” Sands says. “I felt really good there. I had a place to exist.”

On his return visit, he wonderingly surveys Moton, located on a now-placid stretch of Homestead Avenue that used to be one of the most crime-ridden streets in South Dade. The school has changed in some ways — a colorful mural decorates the front wall — and not in others. Almost all the 337 students, from kindergarten to fifth grade, are African American. Principal Eric Wright takes Sands to the cafeteria, bustling with children, and the tiny stage where Sands did his first performance in a school talent show. “It was such a big thing,” he says. Now he could cross it in a few steps.

Upstairs there’s a resplendent new dance studio, where Sands banters with a substitute dance teacher, Rachel Shaw, and a music theater instructor, Arnitris Williams, who also grew up in South Dade and went to Moton and then to New World School of the Arts. The two women listen admiringly to his story. “I’m excited for you!” Williams says. “You’re representing us.”

A dozen or so blocks away, in front of his grandmother’s former home, Sands seems overwhelmed. Across the street is the house, now boarded up, that belonged to relatives of the neighborhood’s biggest celebrity, a high school football star, Derrick Thomas, who went on to play for the Kansas City Chiefs.

Next to it is an overgrown lot that used to hold the house belonging to Miss Bebop, who took in the boys and their mother when the grandmother, who was an alcoholic, drank too much and went on one of her rampages. He smiles, remembering how Marcus tried to kick a bowling ball across the street. “That toe got so fat!” he says, laughing.

“It was OK and it wasn’t,” he says. “It’s crazy to be here and look at this stuff again. It’s almost a symphony of emotions — anxiety, pride, sadness, joy. Everything.”

The sense of possibility that Sands felt at Moton expanded at Southwood, primarily because of his ballet teacher, Patricia Penenori. “It was the first time I felt challenged, one of the first times I felt someone believed in me,” he says. “It started to become real.”

Penenori, a Cuban immigrant, saw something special in the tall, skinny boy who made up with resolve what he lacked in technique. “Every day he grew,” she says. “If you gave him something he couldn’t accomplish that day, he would come back the next day and do it better, so you were able to give him more. I don’t know where his motivation came from. But he was always ready to go. He was a dream of a student.”

Peninori never doubted that Sands could succeed. “A lot of people with talent never make it,” she says. “When you audition they’re looking for something about you that stands out, that gets that director to say ‘Wow!’ That’s what he had.”

The discipline he learned from Penenori helped Sands to dance for four years in the North Carolina Dance Theater, a ballet troupe with which he performed challenging neoclassical pieces like Balanchine’s Agon.

“Dance, to me, is just movement,” he says. “Ballet is a way of speaking. You learn the nuances, the gestures, the English of what it means. Then you can do jazz or ballet or anything.”

Sands came closest to losing his way at New World. He had become so independent that he was practically living on his own, with a girlfriend and a restaurant job, even while he strained to make a predawn bus to the downtown campus.

“I was stubborn, and I thought I knew it all,” he says. But he was frequently late and struggled academically. When he got a warning from the school, he left, took the GED to get his high school diploma, then returned to start college. In the summer of 1992 he got a job dancing on a cruise ship, where a fellow dancer warned him off the easy routine there.

“He told me I needed to get off the ship,” Sands says. “He was one of those key people that, when I was most down, kept saying we love you and you can do this.” That fall the friend helped Sands move to Philadelphia, where he was soon taken into Philadanco, a respected modern dance company, where he worked for two years before joining the Ailey troupe.

Sands and his wife started TU Dance (the name combines their first initials) in 2004, after moving to St. Paul so Pierce-Sands could take care of an ailing family member, and launched a school in 2011. Sands no longer performs, but he teaches and choreographs for the 12-member repertory troupe that will perform three of his dances on Saturday. They include the duet High Heel Blues and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, inspired by the book on race and medical ethics.

He and troupe members will teach classes at several South Dade schools, as well as open workshops at Inkub8 in downtown Miami and the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center. In January, Sands will return to Miami to rehearse one of his works with New World dance students, for a performance next May.

Both TU Dance and its school have received various awards. The school’s focus on community outreach has brought significant support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. And Sands has been talking with officials at the Miami-Dade Cultural Affairs Council, which manages the South Dade cultural center, about the possibility of starting a similar dance center in South Dade.

“I want to do as much as I can,” Sands says. “There needs to be another way out than carrying a ball. I need to find a way to give back. Because dance changed my life. It’s really simple. It just changed my life.”

If you go

What: TU Dance

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, 10950 SW 211th St., Cutler Bay

Info: $20 to $35, or 786-573-5300.

Additional activities

What: TU Dance lecture/demonstration

When: 7 to 8 p.m. Wednesday

Where: INKUB8 Arts Collective, 2021 NW First Pl., Miami.

Info: Free; RSVP at or 305-482-1621

What: Creative movement class (open to ages 10 and up)

When: 11 a.m. to noon Saturday


Info: Free but reservation required, or 786-573-5300