Helping People

This is how kids with talent but no money learn to dance

Student dancers at Thomas Armour Youth Ballet school rehearse for December’s celebration of the 40th Nutcracker performance of the school at Miami Dade County Auditorium, on Saturday September 10, 2016.
Student dancers at Thomas Armour Youth Ballet school rehearse for December’s celebration of the 40th Nutcracker performance of the school at Miami Dade County Auditorium, on Saturday September 10, 2016. pportal@miamiherald.com

If you have a child whose artistic soul has just got to dance, but your family can’t afford the necessary studios or schools, there is hope. You might not be forced to temper his or her dreams after all.

South Florida studios offer plenty of help identifying and assisting kids who have the talent, desire and physical ability to succeed, but lack the funds or equipment to nurture and hone their skills.

Two such programs are the Thomas Armour Youth Ballet in South Miami and Dance Empire in Pinecrest. Both are top-shelf studios (Dance Empire was even crowned the top studio in the nation this year at a competition by Break the Floor Productions) whose alumni have gone on to excel all over the world, in all genres. And both subscribe to the belief that children shouldn’t have to come from wealthy families to get an opportunity to do what they love.

“There’s so much untouched talent in Miami, and there’s no reason for them not to be training like other kids who can afford it,” said Angel Logan, artistic director of Dance Empire, who started a not-for-profit branch at the school in 1998. “Right now we have 25 dancers on need-based scholarship, and I have lots of hope that they’re going to be something big in the dance world.”

Logan should know. In the program’s first year, she gave a free master class at Coral Reef High School, where she discovered a boy named Jamar Roberts.

“There was this young gentleman in the back just jumping up and down, with no technique, but tons of athleticism,” she recalled. “I walked up to him and asked if he was with any dance school or studio, and he said no.”

Roberts couldn’t afford any instruction beyond public school, but Logan gave him a bus pass and invited him to train weekly at her studio.

“Jamar showed up the next week, and religiously after that, and that was the end of the story for the next four years,” Logan said with a laugh. Today, Roberts is a Bessie Award-winning principal dancer with the legendary Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York, and has made several appearances on the hit TV shows “So You Think You Can Dance” and “Dancing With the Stars.”

The Thomas Armour Youth Ballet, which has nearly 600 students on full scholarship in five locations, boasts similar success stories, one of which involves Jean Floradin, who was accepted to Carnegie Mellon University, but was struggling with its financial requirements.

“We helped him get a computer, get to New York and helped set himself up with an apartment,” said the youth ballet’s director, Ruth Wiesen. “It took about a year for him to really get his feet on the ground, and we would help him in little ways all along, sometimes with food, sometimes with rent.”

All the assistance paid off, big-time: Floradin recently signed a contract with the Chicago production of “Hamilton.”

“Without all of those little things,” Wiesen said, “he wouldn’t have ended up where he is today.”

The monetary help is crucial, but each dance studio offers much more to its students. Once a young dancer gets a foot in the door, he or she pretty much has a mentor for life.

“We started out just teaching dance, but along the way we discovered that so much more was happening,” Wiesen said. “Only a few kids are going to go on to dance professionally, so what they’re taking with them from studying any art discipline are life skills — the discipline, the focus, attention to detail, being able to work well with others. This really is about helping them for life and using dance as a vehicle for success.”

Added Logan: “This is my third generation of dancers that I’m training, and the connections that we have — they’re like our children. There’s not a dancer who will come to me that is talented and really dedicated and really wanting it that I’m not gonna give that opportunity to train. It’s just in my heart — it’s what I do. It’s what makes me happy, makes me feel like I have a purpose in life.”

Getting involved

Dance Empire of Miami: 8853 SW 132nd St., Miami; 305-232-5573 or www.danceempire.com

Thomas Armour Youth Ballet: 5818 SW 73rd St., South Miami; 305-667-5543 or www.taybballet.org

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