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TUPAC Is Modeling Mission-Driven Dance Education in Tacoma

Photo courtesy TUPAC

When legendary Black ballet dancer Kabby Mitchell III died unexpectedly in 2017, two months before opening his Tacoma Urban Performing Arts Center, his friend and business partner Klair Ethridge wasn't sure she had what it took to carry his legacy. Ethridge had been working with Mitchell to co-found TUPAC and planned to serve as its executive director, but she had never envisioned being the face of the school.

Now, Ethridge is heading into her fourth year of leading TUPAC, which she has grown from a fledgling program in an unheated building to a serious ballet school in its own sprung-floor studios, reaching hundreds of students across the Tacoma, Washington, area. The nonprofit has become a case study for what it looks like to carry out the vision of a founder who never had the chance to see his school open—and to take an unapologetically mission-driven approach.

For Mitchell, who in 1979 became the first Black company member of Pacific Northwest Ballet, TUPAC was the culmination of a longtime dream: a professional-level ballet school for Black students, where no one would be excluded or overlooked. Ethridge, who first connected with Mitchell in San Francisco while on tour with The Wiz, and then 20 years later in Tacoma, had studied at American Ballet Theatre as a child. As the only Black student at ABT at the time, she felt overlooked, alienated and inadequate. She went on to dance professionally—performing in The Wiz, at The Golden Globes and in commercials—but found real career success in film and television production, ultimately winning an Emmy Award. "We were very fortunate, and we had these opportunities," Ethridge says of Mitchell and herself. "We wanted to give these opportunities to people in this community."

When Mitchell passed, the future of TUPAC hung in the balance. But with his memorial came an outpouring of support, encouragement and donations. Dozens of students had already enrolled in the school, and TUPAC's board of directors believed wholeheartedly in Ethridge. There had never been a ballet school for Black students in the Pacific Northwest, and the Tacoma community had already rallied behind TUPAC. So Ethridge retired from her production work and focused all of her energy on opening the school.

Building TUPAC's Foundation

To bring TUPAC to life as planned, Ethridge had to step up to the plate quickly. And she did: TUPAC held its first class on July 10, 2017—just over two months after Mitchell's death. Ethridge built on her and Mitchell's professional network to pull together an esteemed faculty with professional dancers and instructors from diverse backgrounds. Julie Tobiason, a former principal dancer with PNB, became TUPAC's founding ballet director in Mitchell's stead.

But by December 2017, TUPAC's students were wearing coats and hats to the barre. The space Mitchell and Ethridge had secured that summer had enabled TUPAC to launch on a thin budget, but it didn't have heating.

With the financial backing of the school's first donors and grants, Ethridge focused on finding and renovating a new space for the growing program. In 2018, TUPAC reopened in a spacious studio in downtown Tacoma, complete with sprung floors, marley and mirrors—and nearly twice as many students. TUPAC now employs a faculty of 16 teaching artists and 5 accompanists, and has tripled enrollment from 83 students in 2017 to nearly 250 today.

Striving Towards Sustainability

Though Ethridge is single-minded in her focus on providing opportunities to Black students, she realizes the connection between an organization's capacity to give back and its financial sustainability. But as much as TUPAC's enrollment and programming have grown over the past three years, achieving sound financial footing is still a goal—one that COVID-19 has made more difficult to achieve.

With tuition making up only about 12 percent of its annual revenue, TUPAC relies on donations, grants and fundraisers, including a yearly dance concert, frequent master classes with guest faculty, plus their original—and consistently sold-out—Urban Nutcracker. This September, opera singer J'Nai Bridges performed a benefit concert on YouTube and Facebook Live in support of TUPAC.

But TUPAC's two largest fundraisers have been canceled this year due to COVID restrictions, and the Urban Nutcracker will likely be canceled too. An emergency check from The Bamford Foundation helped to weather the first few months, but Ethridge isn't sure what the fall will look like financially.

But just as TUPAC's lean budget has posed problems for the organization (Ethridge has funneled her own savings into TUPAC at times, and has never taken a salary), it has also taught Ethridge to be resourceful. This spring, in addition to holding online classes, TUPAC held its African classes outside, with an instructor, a live drummer and students dancing—literally—on a rooftop.

Creating a Mission-Driven Model

Though racial justice is currently a national focus, it was always at the heart of Mitchell's vision for TUPAC. "We don't wear pink tights and shoes, we wear flesh-colored tights and shoes," says Ethridge. "When our children see other children who look like them and teachers who look like them, it really forces them to elevate. We wanted them to have that feeling of self-esteem and being accepted in a formalized ballet school."

TUPAC doesn't turn anyone away—most of their students are on financial assistance or full scholarship. If students can't afford leotards, tights or shoes, TUPAC provides them. Ethridge ensures there are healthy snacks and meals available at the studio for students who need them, and quiet places to study in between classes. And though TUPAC's focus is ballet, African dance classes are included in the curriculum "to keep our students in both worlds," says Ethridge.

TUPAC also partners with the City of Tacoma Office of Arts & Cultural Vitality for outreach work in the city's public schools, and in 2019 was recognized by the city with the AMOCAT Arts Award for positively impacting the community.

The Show Goes On

This moment—as #BlackLivesMatter and national upheaval calls us to pay closer attention to how dance organizations are serving their communities, and Black dancers in particular—has potential to be one of new growth and recognition for TUPAC.

This summer, TUPAC partnered with Tacoma Arts Museum to present a release of an expansion on last year's production of Harriet: The Black Swan, an original full-length ballet based on Harriet Tubman's life and accomplishments—Harriet: The Black Swan, In the Year of COVID-19. The new work will be projected onto the façade of TAM on September 22. Ethridge staged, filmed and produced the ballet, with a combination of in-studio and online rehearsals.

This fall, classes will resume at TUPAC—in the studio when they can, online when they can't, and on rooftops if they have to.

A dream that began in Kabby Mitchell's heart has taken hold in Tacoma—and Klair Ethridge carries the business with dedication and purpose. "It is a huge burden to have young people believe in what you are trying to do for them," she says. "We wanted them to have a place where they could be comfortable, where they could be successful, in their own eyes. That's our reason for being open. If we are teaching them correctly, even just being good human beings, then they're going to pass that on."

Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.

"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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