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Leaping into the future

Central Georgia Natives are fueling the growth of the region’s dance scene with collaboration, inclusion, and balance (not just the type on your tiptoes)

story by Julia Morrison

photos by M. Carson Photography, Caitlin Adele Photography, Mike Young, Will Hanley, and Michael Martin

 

Karan Kendrick of Kendrick Academy wanted to create the dance studio she says she didn’t have growing up in Fort Valley. Faith Madison Holton was born to do this, emphasizing, “Dance has always inherently been in me,” as she stepped into her mother’s pointe shoes at Madison Studio Pilar Wilder Lowden sparked the inspiration for Hayiya Dance Theatre while still a freshman at Wesleyan College. And Alice Strawn Sheridan was fulfilling a decades-long dream shared by dozens of others in the community with The Jean Evans Weaver Center for Dance.

Famous choreographer Merce Cunningham explained, “The most essential thing in dance discipline is devotion.” These artistic leaders may have different curriculums, philosophy, and programs, but their brands are all years in the making, and they share a devotion for serving more children with quality training and enrichment.  

The teaching artists I spoke to had similar insights about what would strengthen the dance community in Macon and Central Georgia. They discussed common themes that, in combination, form a graceful approach to nurturing the next generation and preparing them to shine in the spotlight. 

An open door for every dancer

Every leader I spoke to aimed for greater inclusion. “If our studios were all filled to the max, we still wouldn’t be serving every child in Middle Georgia,” said Karan Kendrick, illustrating the need for more programs. In an advocacy brief, Dance/USA, the national service organization for dance, notes that, “There are huge, persistent disparities in access to arts education,” citing that schools with a higher concentration of students in poverty were less likely to offer arts education.

Kendrick feels that a broad array of courses is a major asset to any child’s education. Her studio curriculum goes beyond ballet to include Modern and Horton dance styles and acting and filmmaking coursework.  Audiences might know Kendrick from acting roles in major films including The Hunger Games, Hidden Figures, and The Hate U Give.

In trying to return the kind of training that made her successful to her hometown, Kendrick was influenced by her time at Spelman College with Debbie Allen as a guest artist, as well as other Black-led choreographers and companies like Pearl Primus and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. 

Part of that training was being boldly proud of what makes each dancer unique. “We are going to show up as ourselves,” explained Kendrick, describing when she entered her Kendrick Academy students into a national competition in Orlando. Dance competitions often feature dancers with slicked-back buns and straight ponytails. In contrast, Kendrick said, “All my students were African American, and all but one wore natural hair. Show off your Afros, Afro-puffs, Afro-hawks, twists, braids. They were able to stand fully in who they are – and win.” 

Pilar Wilder Lowden agrees. When she came to Macon as a college student, she noticed there was no one teaching West African dance, like the training she had received in Augusta, Georgia. So she decided to fill the gap with Hayiya Dance Theatre. For many Central Georgians, seeing a Hayiya performance is their first experience with West African dance, whether as a performer or participant.

“Hayiya has taught at or performed for nearly every school in the Bibb County School system as well as a host of churches and universities.  Yes, yes, yes! Just say the word, and we are there,”

Lowden has enthused. Opening the door wider, through annual “Thriller” themed Halloween parades to performances at Magnolia Soap Box Derby or the Tubman Museum, can help more people catch the bug for dance.

The Jean Evans Weaver Center for Dance opened in 2022 and was named for the founding artistic director of the Nutcracker of Middle Georgia.  Current artistic director, Alice Sheridan, explained that one of the visions associated with founding the studio was to have more opportunities for more dancers. “One of our main goals right now is to get a scholarship program going. My mantra is always about training dancers, but I want to offer dance to children that really want it. You know? There’s a lot of students here that want to learn and don’t have the opportunity. That’s the first thing.”

Sheridan also serves as the artistic director of The Nutcracker annual production, and she believes the vision of The Weaver Center can offer even more possibilities for transforming dancers and dance viewers, just like the founder’s vision has been transformative for generations. For many local children, the school performance of The Nutcracker is the first live performance they’ve ever seen. Over 150,000 people have seen the show since Weaver created it in 1985. Nutcracker board president Holly Riley says she’s particularly proud that many of these kids attend Title I funded schools. With the resources of The Weaver Center, Sheridan envisions more professional workshops, or even a second yearly production. The downtown location of the studio on Orange Street, just around the corner from where the production takes place at The Grand Opera House, means the sky is the limit. 

All of this means more dance available for more kids. But what about high-quality dance throughout a lifetime? Faith Madison Holton of The Madison Studio was a “studio kid,” the daughter of founder Jane Madison, and left the region to pursue a professional dance career. As she’s returned, she’s puzzled over how to keep dancers like her in the area: “After high school, many of our city’s dancers feel that their dance career is over,” Holton noted. 

Holton envisions that a professional dance company based in Macon could grow the field. “I think Macon having a company could inspire families and dancers alike to see dance as the professional arts avenue that it is, rather than only a hobby.” Holton thinks current teachers and performance professionals, who don’t often have high-level performing opportunities, could benefit.

Shattering stereotypes for greater wellness

Dance, particularly at the pre-professional and professional levels, has had a cultural reputation for intense study that has had negative mental health effects on students, resulting in heightened issues like anxiety and disordered eating, according to Minding the Gap, an organization dedicated to improving dance culture. 

In a survey for Dance Magazine written by dance wellness advocate Kathleen McGuire Gaines and psychologist Brian T. Goonan, it was discovered only 10% of dancers would definitely feel comfortable talking to a teacher if they were having a mental health issue, while 80% didn’t feel that the dance community does enough to address mental health. Luckily, Central Georgia studios are united in combating this mindset.

Lowden thinks it’s important for her students to feel like Hayiya is a home for students of any age and any ability. “We ‘Lead with Love.’ Dance is one aspect of healthy, holistic, arts-integrated education.” She is a leader in this effort herself, pursuing Ph.D. research focused on body image and improved mental health in dance education. “I would love to see a collaborative effort made in our community that can be replicated across the globe that supports mental health, positive body image, and a holistic pedagogy,” Lowden said. The idea of being a holistic facility means Hayiya teaches other courses like piano, acting, and tumbling alongside dance and other academic enrichment like a leadership institute.

Kendrick agrees, noting work-life balance is very important for her dancers. “We want to be a studio where students have time for homework, family, and fun time.” She noted that she’s very intentional about building the whole artist because “I don’t just want a good dancer, but a good dancer with a good heart.” 

Holton thinks this is key for her students, too, saying that for the Madison Studio, a good dancer “is a good person first— for good people and strong team members make great dancers!” This has inspired her studio’s motto: “For discipline and grace to last a lifetime.” Holton thinks this helps whether students plan to pursue the performing arts formally, become future arts patrons or supporters, or use the lessons of dance in another career.

Kendrick believes her time working on film and television sets, where the cast and crew spend long 14–16-hour days together, has inspired this emphasis. While skill alone may get you hired, she explained, staying hired largely depends on your character and personality. “What keeps you is character. Who do you want to be around? That’s who works.” 

“Better together” – Fueled by collaboration and service

All of the dance studios saw one another as colleagues, not competitors. In fact, every leader interviewed in this piece cited at least one of the others as a key collaborator or a mentor. For Sheridan, the connection with Nutcracker of Middle Georgia has meant she has long worked with students from many studios, and she wants to bring that energy into The Weaver Center. “I feel like this is a neutral territory for a lot of these kids… there’s no threat to them, which is what I want it to be.”

Sheridan explained that she welcomes students who dance at another studio to come to The Weaver Center for a summer intensive or camp, or for Nutcracker alumni to come and take class with her if they miss the experience. She explains that besides The Nutcracker, The Weaver Center is host to Middle Georgia Youth Ballet, another collaborative group, with overlap in board members and in youth ballet artistic leader Lindsay Misch Crisp. 

“It’s going to sound so corny, but I really believe we’re better together,” says Kendrick on building a dance community in Central Georgia. She cites Lowden as helping her, specifically, explaining that Lowden’s mother helped build the Kendrick Academy studio by “literally, really knocking down walls.” 

“We don’t have to be fearful of sharing. Every child has their own strength.”

Holton also loves using dance with other artists, recently debuting a music video with the Otis Redding Foundation and serving as a choreographer with Theatre Macon. 

Lowden added, “And how exciting it is to learn something new from a fellow artist?! It is pure joy,” when explaining Hayiya’s long list of collaborations with institutions inside and outside the dance world, from working with Macon Pops and Mercer Theatre to offering free services like tutoring and S.T.E.A.M Fridays.

All teachers emphasized community service, with a stunning breadth of activities from working with Bibb County School students, to free dance days, to museums, to funding childhood cancer research, to dancing at senior centers and for nursing home residents. 

Kendrick explains, “We take dance to people. Not everyone is going to come into the studio to dance. It’s not all financial – it’s perception.” This relates back to inclusion as a core principle, according to Kendrick. “If you see dance as one thing, and it’s not somewhere you believe you belong, you won’t go in. If I can share with you, where you are, what I think dance is and what it means, you might be open to it.”

Overall, the “better together” motto seems to work for dancers and teachers in the region, who all spoke highly of one another, their students, and other cultural institutions. It’s an exciting time to be a dancer in Central Georgia, with more to grow.

Holton should know, as someone who has been involved in the local dance scene since she was a child. She sums up the sense of strong community: “The arts are about holding up a mirror for ourselves, the audiences, and the world, and I so appreciate my fellow teacher friends that are willing to share real experiences and cultivate love for this art form. The same goes for my students!” 

 

Let’s dance!
in public schools

Bibb County School District (BCSD) teaches Dance as part of the school day at Veterans Elementary School, Vineville Academy of the Arts, L.H. Williams Elementary School, Miller Fine Arts Magnet Middle School, Weaver Middle School, and Central Fine Arts & International Baccalaureate Magnet High School.  

Terra Gallemore Hitchcock, who has worked in BCSD dance programs for 14 years and now teaches at Veterans Elementary School said, “Dance allows students to explore their emotions, tell their stories, and give teachers insight into how they feel. There is freedom and power in movement.” 

Whether students also attend private dance lessons, the BCSD dance program allows students to experience: 

  • Adventure, passion, expression, courage, and joyfulness 
  • Growth in areas of artistic expression 
  • Students taking their everyday life and turning it into natural, creative movement 
  • Dedicated and experienced teachers who provide fun, inclusive, nurturing and safe environments to explore both an advanced and foundational dance instruction 
  • Performances in and out of the community, such as Cherry Blossom Festival, The Battle of the High School Bands, holiday and seasonal recitals and programs.  
  • Inspiring field trips such as seeing Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, exposing them to knowledge of careers in the field of dance 

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Ballerina Rylyn Harris, in a Misty-Copeland-inspired photo taken for Kendrick Academy’s 2022 “Inspire” calendar. Photo by M. Carson Photography.

Check out a workshop or a show:

The Madison Studio presents The Great Pumpkin & Jay and Cristin Jernigan’s ‘Twas the Night Before Halloween

A fun and thrilling two-part production to get you in the Halloween spirit! 

  • Saturday, Oct. 28 at 7 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 29 at 2 p.m. 
  • Porter Auditorium, Wesleyan College
  • $15

The Kendrick Academy presents Adult Dance Pop-Up: Holiday Party Edition

Dance the turkey away at our final Adult Dance Pop-Up of the year! This week, we will get you Holiday Party ready with three line dances! Issa Combo. And a whole lot of fun! Limited space; register now! Ages 18-99.

  • Sunday, Dec. 3 at 4 p.m.  
  • 198 S. Houston Lake Road, Warner Robins 
  • $15

Nutcracker of Middle Georgia presents The Nutcracker 

The vivid story of Clara’s dreams coming to life embodies the magical spirit of the holiday season. Come witness the best of this Christmas tradition at any of five performances! 

  • Thursday, Dec. 7-Saturday, Dec. 9 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, Dec. 9 – Sunday, Dec. 10 at 2:30 p.m. 
  • The Grand Opera House 
  • $25-35
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