The holidays are a time when people pull together and help those in need feel a sense of community— but with the crippled economy many people are struggling and limited to taking care of their own family’s needs. During this time, it is comforting to hear others’ success stories and find a little light in the darkness.
Barry and Anna VanCura of Ballet Tennessee and VanCura Ballet Conservatory have done more than simply provide a sense of community for Lookout Valley. They have created a family atmosphere where students and parents can celebrate as one.
This year marks the company’s 25th anniversary, and takes them a long way from their humble beginnings on 11th Street at the Farmer’s Market. A major component in keeping them on the road has been the many devoted parents, students, and interns working in personal relations, serving as technical assistants and helping backstage.
The VanCuras are perhaps proudest of the company’s multiple outreach programs. Area school residencies, a one-day lecture demonstration on site, and daytime performances presented to home schoolers, public and private school audiences all provide “a new vehicle for learning and art appreciation,” according to the company.
A 15-year partnership between Ballet Tennessee and the City Parks and Recreation Department presents the annual Dance Alive sessions of free dance classes to children ages 8-11, culminating in a summer performance at the UTC Fine Arts Center, another Ballet Tennessee partner.
A seven-year partnership with the Siskin Children’s Institute integrates learning and dance for children with disabilities and their typically developing peers. And branch classes serve preschool children in community-based settings. Ballet Tennessee maintains two locations for after-school classes at Mountain Arts Community Center in Signal Mountain and Good Shepherd School on Lookout Mountain.
The Talent Identification Program provides talented and motivated students with scholarship assistance to continue their study of dance throughout the school year and gives them performance opportunities with Ballet Tennessee.
Barry VanCura explains the circumstances of the current students: “All three children are in single-parent homes with economic challenges that would make professional ballet training cost prohibitive.” He adds that they all also “display significant talent that is worthy of scholarship assistance and an opportunity to develop professional careers.” The VanCuras’ obvious affection and dedication to these students is clearly reciprocated. When interviewed, they displayed a true attachment, saying that the VanCuras have given not only of their time, but also of themselves.
Nia Sanders, 14, a GPS scholar student, began the program five years ago. Sanders notes of her decision to dance, “I definitely wasn’t serious about dancing. Just did it for fun. It wasn’t really until I started going en pointe that I kind of knew that this was something I could see myself doing for the rest of my life.” Supported solely by her mother, Sanders agrees it can be difficult pursuing dance under those circumstances. “It’s definitely a lot different than having both parents there. But here [Ballet Tennessee] is another support system, another family that you can talk to. When my mom can’t be there, I can always come here.” Sanders offers her perspective on her Ballet Tennessee “parents”, saying, “The VanCuras can be hard on us, but it’s because they want us to improve.”
Alondra Gomez, a CCA student, entered the program at age 8. Now 14, Gomez admits she was pushed into ballet by peer pressure, “I wasn’t actually thinking of ever being a ballerina until I started and gave it a shot and realized this is really fun.” She went on to explain that Ballet Tennessee students have many opportunities to perform for the community and have appeared on the stages of the Tivoli, the UTC Fine Arts Center, the Memorial Auditorium and several local schools. As a result of the performances in local schools, many new students have joined the Ballet Tennessee ranks. Gomez echoes Sanders’ comment on the VanCuras, adding, “They have made us so strong in our art form it is really incredible.”
Forrest Davis, 16, a Signal Mountain High School student, had a different story to tell about his initial involvement with ballet. “I’ve had a lot of problems since I was little,” he admits, speaking of a troubled childhood. “And dance has really helped me in school a lot. Since I started dance, I’ve gotten As and Bs. It’s helped me have something to live for.”
He got his start with the Dance Alive Program. His first dance camp took place at the Center for Creative Arts, where he was offered a scholarship for nine months to Ballet Tennessee. Davis’ dance roots include break-dancing and hip-hop, but he points out that ballet has greatly enhanced his abilities in these other dance forms.
As for his mother’s support, Davis speaks candidly of her reaction to his interest in ballet, “At first she was like, ‘This is gonna be something like baseball or something that he does for a year and he’ll get over it.’” Yet his interest and commitment have been sustained.
Davis speaks affectionately of the VanCuras, confirming the familial atmosphere felt by everyone at Ballet Tennessee and the surrounding community. “The VanCuras have given me so much. I feel like I can call them up, and I can say, ‘Financially right now, we cannot afford to pay for this,’ and they will either extend it or they will say, ‘We got it.’ Because they do know that this is a positive thing in my life that needs to be there.”
Sanders, Gomez, and Davis along with the rest of the Ballet Tennessee company will perform The Nutcracker for the third consecutive year at the UTC Fine Arts Center. Guest artists this year are former BT student Fredrick Davis of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and Sean Hilton of the Northwest Florida Ballet.