Since its inception in 2002, Compton Dance Theatre has inhabited various spaces, but one element has always persisted: flowers—and more importantly, their growth. From colorful orchids to carefully planted gardens, the sweet smell of success is never far for the kids who flock to CDT from all over southern Los Angeles. “My kids have come to know me as the teacher who always has fresh flowers in the studio,” says founder and Artistic Director Carol Bristol-Henry. “They are responsible for taking care of the garden—and they do.”

Such earnest dedication on the part of the dancers is surprising to some who view Compton, California, as a hotbed of violence, crime and corruption. From a dance standpoint, the city has typically been associated with hip hop, gangster rap and krumping (as spotlighted in the 2005 documentary Rize). Yet Bristol-Henry’s ballet-centric efforts are beginning to change the face of dance there.

“For more than a decade, I watched as urban cities like Compton became known for glorifying criminal acts, ultimately leading to the neglect of our youth,” says Bristol-Henry. “What has been most intriguing to me about this travesty is how young people in the area survived by dancing their way through those turbulent times. I did not intend to have ballet strike a chord with young street dancers; I simply wanted them to experience dance outside their zip code.”

But strike a chord it has. According to CDT Board Vice President Adrienne Malka, parents and students alike are devoted to keeping the studio’s efforts alive. “Carol has a huge following; the parents will do anything to get the girls to class and provide whatever Carol needs to continue with the program,” says Malka. “The idea of classical dance in the inner city sounds like trying to mix oil and water, but [CDT] has truly been a breath of fresh air.”

Planting the Seeds

If asked 10 years ago where her career would be now, Bristol-Henry never would have imagined she’d be teaching in an inner city. Raised in New York City, Bristol-Henry trained at such institutions as Dance Theatre of Harlem, LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and later earned a master’s degree in dance education from New York University.

At the onset of her career, Bristol-Henry’s focus was performance, with credits such as “Bill Cosby’s Salute to Alvin Ailey” and Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity.” She became a seasoned choreographer, earning nods from the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts and the NAACP.

But it was while involved with numerous touring projects that Bristol-Henry discovered her true calling as a dance teacher. “Leaving New York City, I noticed how hungry people were for the opportunity to receive technical training,” she recalls. “They were eager to be in a professional studio environment and share what so many of us in New York take for granted. I realized it was my duty to help the arts survive and thrive.”

Her opportunity to do so came in 2000 when she moved to Los Angeles. Although initially hesitant, she accepted a position teaching dance at Compton High School. Prior to that, she had always opted to work with conservatory and college dance programs. “Knowing that most public schools contend with greater challenges than not having access to regularly scheduled dance classes, I refused to believe at that time that I could make any sort of difference,” she explains. She took the job as something to do until her next performance gig.

Once ensconced in her new position, she became disturbed by the violence she saw on the school grounds every day. So, in addition to her existing classes, the new teacher began offering after-school lessons to a small group of three students—which quickly blossomed into a much larger group of friends, relatives and young dancers from the surrounding communities of Watts and Carson.

“Several students confided in me about not having alternative activities to gangs and other risky behavior, and that dance was their only reason for showing up to school every day,” says Bristol-Henry, who incorporated the program in 2002 as the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Compton Dance Theatre Foundation to gain more funding.

Since then, the program’s rapid growth has necessitated several moves, from the high school auditorium to a tiny commercial space to a private charter school. Though larger in size, that space was still far from ideal, with a tile floor, a pillar square in the middle of the room and a long desk acting as the ballet barre. “Coming from The Ailey School, it was a humbling experience,” says Bristol-Henry. “Yet the kids had a commitment I hadn’t seen in a really long time; I learned later that it was because they didn’t know the difference. It was one of the purest moments I’ve experienced because it was just about dance.”

The Magical Garden

Several years later, CDT is in full bloom and thriving inside a brand-new dance studio gifted by the city of Compton, replete with maple floors, wall-to-wall mirrors, dressing rooms and lockers. “It’s amazing to see the pride the dancers feel when they walk in, especially those who have stuck it out from the shoebox to the charter school and now to this beautiful space,” says Bristol-Henry.

Ballet serves as the centerpiece of the program, although classes are also offered in tap, jazz, hip hop, modern, African and Latin dance. In 2006, the program staged its first original ballet, Ms. Bristol’s Magical Garden. “I didn’t think it was fair to ask them to perform one of the standards, so we made up a ballet,” she remembers. “I didn’t want to ask them to do something they couldn’t identify with.”

The 17-minute piece was a hit, with dancers dressed as flowers (representing promise and hope), butterflies (representing innocence) and ladybugs (representing good fortune). “There wasn’t a dry eye in the room,” says Bristol-Henry. “We wanted to use the garden as a dance metaphor that meant something [for the kids] other than the Bloods and Crips.”

Along with the after-school program and community dance classes, CDT now houses a professional company for dancers ages 19 and up. In 2004, Bristol-Henry hired additional teachers, some of whom now teach on behalf of CDT at various schools throughout the Los Angeles and Compton School Districts, which act as “feeders” for the after-school program. Bristol-Henry has also forged a relationship with the Music Center in downtown Los Angeles, which now offers free and reduced tickets to performances for CDT participants. From that partnership, Bristol-Henry’s students had an opportunity to audition for American Ballet Theatre’s 2008 summer intensive in Los Angeles. The company hosted an on-site workshop and selected a CDT student to attend.

In March, Bristol-Henry’s efforts were rewarded when she received the Addie Patterson Award for Outstanding Service in Community Development from the city of Compton. At the ceremony, she and CDT were also bestowed with certificates of recognition from the U.S. House of Representatives and the California State Assembly. Though the tangible awards are well-deserved and appreciated, Bristol-Henry says the real reward lies in seeing her students accept dance as a means of self-discipline, direction and fulfillment.

“I can’t get enough of this; I’m driven by what I do,” she says. “Every day, I think about preparing the young people in my program to discover their personal genius and how it will factor into the world that awaits them.” Thanks to Bristol-Henry, their world now blooms with possibility. DT

Jen Jones is a freelance writer and certified BalleCore instructor in Los Angeles. Her website is www.creative-groove.com.

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