Harlem School of the Arts' dance program director dreams big.
"Dance with your back," Aubrey Lynch II calls over the music during an evening rehearsal with a trio of teen dancers at the Harlem School of the Arts in New York City. "Your arms are a little spaghetti-ish—we want wrought iron!" He's encouraging and kind, but he also demands passion and proper technique.
During the night's final run, one student becomes emotional. Her performance is heartbreaking and real, and Lynch uses it as a teachable moment for the other two dancers. "Tears mean courage," he tells them. "What you just saw was very brave and very beautiful. The audience wants us to be vulnerable. People look at dancers to tell the human story."
Lynch knows what audiences want; he comes to HSA after performing with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and in the original cast of The Lion King on Broadway. In his first year as dance program director, Lynch has used his professional expertise to imbue a venerable community center with a serious conservatory atmosphere. "I want the students to have fun, and to get real dance training at the same time," he says. "Most of all, I want them to feel empowered. They should leave here feeling like they have been seen, they have been heard and they are accepted as who they are, wherever they are in their training and their lives."
A Historic Institution
When he joined HSA's staff last summer, Lynch became part of a Harlem legacy. Founded in 1964 by Dorothy Maynor as a free after-school program, HSA held its first classes in the basement of St. James Presbyterian Church. New York City Ballet's Arthur Mitchell joined the faculty in 1966, and the school grew from there, breaking ground on its custom-designed facility in 1975. (George Balanchine offered advice on the design of its three dance studios.)
Today, HSA is a crucial part of the cultural fabric of Harlem. Students ages 2 to 18 come after school to study dance, music, theater and visual art from experienced, professional faculty. Total enrollment is around 600 students—roughly 175 dancers—and HSA's outreach programs reach another 2,000 public school children. All students can take an array of dance classes recreationally, and kids ages 12 and older can audition for HSA's structured pre-professional program. Although the school is now tuition-based, a number of scholarships are offered, particularly to students on the pre-professional track.
Because of its longevity, HSA has a unique family feel. "In the dance department, I've seen people who brought their children now bringing their grandchildren," says Yvonne Curry, a tap teacher at HSA for 14 years. "People in the area know about and respect Harlem School of the Arts."
A School in Transition
In 2010, HSA's funding ran out and the school was forced to close its doors for three weeks. It was brought back to life by generous private donations but needed revamping. Yvette L. Campbell, a former member of Elisa Monte Dance and the founder and director of The Ailey Extension program at The Ailey School, took the reins as president. She hired new program directors, including Lynch, who in turn hired an array of prestigious dance faculty, whose affiliations include New York City Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Ailey and Complexions Contemporary Ballet.
To increase the overall seriousness of the program, Lynch enforced the dress code, lengthened class times and shifted the focus toward technique—even for recreational students. "I knew we had to be patient with the kids who were used to a different kind of training," he says. "I told my teachers, 'Bring me your best tools, but meet the kids where they are.' I don't want to lose the community center feel, but I want the training to be real."
Students on HSA's pre-professional track are getting a true taste of conservatory-style training. They take ballet, modern, African and jazz classes each week, go on dance-related field trips and have additional performance opportunities. "I've designed this program so that if you take the classes in the order I've set them out, you can be a dancer, if you want to be," Lynch says.
A major component in HSA's revamping is the addition of a musical theater program, which Campbell and Lynch hope will unite the school's four disciplines into a fifth. Although only two musical theater classes were offered this year, the program's expansion is in the works.
"We eventually want to create a full production each term, with set design and costuming coming from the visual art students, the music students playing and singing, and the actors and dancers onstage," Campbell says. "Dancers are sometimes afraid to speak and sing onstage, and actors and singers might be afraid to move, but you have to do all three on Broadway. If we can get our students over those fears early, they'll have more performance options in the future."
Lynch's background has also enabled a partnership between HSA and Disney Theatrical Group that brings in the cast and crew of The Lion King. This semester, participating students have learned about African and Asian cultural arts (including dance, music, storytelling and mask-making) and have studied the songs and choreography from the Broadway production. The project culminates in June in the first-ever children's production of The Lion King, a collaboration of HSA students, faculty and Disney guest artists.
A New Vision
In recent years, HSA has become a training destination not only for the local community, but also for students commuting from Connecticut, New Jersey and surrounding New York areas. "I think people come from all over because it's a very hands-on organization," says Horton Technique teacher Freddie Moore. "We get to know students and their families and show them that we really care. HSA is known for that, and it will continue with Aubrey, who really has a heart for people and is a go-getter."
Lynch's dream is for the school's reputation to soar even higher. "When our kids audition for high school, college or companies, I want having HSA on their resumé to mean something," he says, "and for you to see the training on their bodies." DT
Kathryn Holmes is a writer and dancer based in Brooklyn, NY.
Photo by Giuliana Mackler