Twice a week, 7-year-old Camila Rodriguez goes to school with her hair in a neat bun wrapped in pink flowers.
She has to be ready as soon as the school bell rings to hop on the Ballet Bus.
Realizing tuition isn’t the only barrier keeping deserving kids from learning to dance, the Miami City Ballet is bridging access to its elite programs by providing not only scholarships, but a free ride.
“That’s the thing: to be able to get out of work, pick her up from school, bring her here, wait — this is like a blessing,” said Camila’s mother, Patricia Rodriguez.
The “Ballet Bus” launched this school year with 16 little girls and two boys from neighborhoods like Liberty City and Hialeah. At the end of the school day, the second- , third- and fourth-graders board a yellow bus and head to the renowned dance school in South Beach.
Along for the ride are dance instructors who also serve as counselors, asking the kids about their school day and life at home while dishing out snacks. Sometimes, instructor Herman Payne also has to wrangle kids who start dancing in the aisles.
“They really love to dance — love to dance,” he said.
Payne said he volunteered to be a ballet bus counselor to nurture that love. A Julliard graduate who fell in love with dance as a student in a Miami-Dade magnet school, Payne says he can relate to the young students he now watches over.
One of them is 8-year-old Kimani Hopkins, who can barely contain his urges to dance hip hop. In ballet class, he marches alongside his classmates while his arms groove to a funky beat that seems to be playing in his head. But ballet seems to be growing on him, too.
“They say ballet is for girls,” he says of his friends. “But I say it’s for people who are strong enough.”
The first bus to arrive carries four girls from Feinberg Fisher Elementary in South Beach. They bound down the stairs carrying backpacks, lunch boxes and black duffel bags embroidered with the dance school’s logo. Then it’s off to the changing room to slip into leotards and slippers provided by Miami City Ballet.
With some time to spare before class, instructor Jahmal Chase tells them all to take out their homework. Eight-year-old Katelyn Avila scowls, but Chase gently pushes.
“If you need help, you can ask,” he says.
Kids across the county auditioned in school auditoriums and cafeterias to be accepted into the program. Auditions for next year will likely be held in elementary schools across the county this spring. Those who make the cut will be evaluated annually just like the other dancers, and students with talent will remain on scholarship and progress to the next level along with their peers.
It’s not a casual endeavor. It tries to be an impact in their lives for years.”
Darleen Callaghan, school director at Miami City Ballet
“It’s not a casual endeavor. It tries to be an impact in their lives for years,” said Darleen Callaghan, school director at the Miami City Ballet.
Tuition for the classes being covered by the ballet school would cost a family $2,500 a year. In Miami-Dade County, census data show 28 percent of children lived below the poverty level in 2013. The kids chosen for the ballet bus program come specifically from needy schools.
“I wanted to make sure that all children had a chance to experience this,” Callaghan said.
Without the program, Kelni Brown says, her daughter probably never would have had the opportunity to become a ballerina.
“I couldn’t afford it,” said Brown, who finds work when she can doing hair.
Eight-year-old Kemauria Gray has been dancing since Brown can remember, mimicking what she saw on TV and teaching herself how to stretch, bend and do splits. Now Kemauria gets pulled out of her regular class a few minutes early to make sure she can get to the ballet school on time.
“That’s how important this opportunity is for us,” Brown said. “This has been her dream.”