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Best foot forward

  • Jon Kelly
  • 17 Oct 08, 05:57 AM GMT

NEW YORK, NEW YORK: The young members of the Dance Theater of Harlem (DTH) were putting me to shame. I watched bewildered as the largely African-American troupe stretched, spun and contorted with impossible suppleness.

I marvelled at their athleticism, their poise, their strength. Then I looked down at my paunch, acquired during six weeks sat immobile on the bus eating burgers, and regretted slightly less that my journey would end the next day.

Ballet performers at the Dance Theater of Harlem, led by Keith Saunders Harlem might be best famous for its basketball, soul food and jazz - and, of course, as one of the focal points of US black culture.

This was where Duke Ellington played and Billie Holliday sang, where Malcolm X preached and W E B DuBois agitated. Although the area's reputation nosedived in the 1970s and 1980s amid soaring crime and crippling poverty, recent years have seen the area begin to undergo some measure of gentrification - a development that hasn't met with universal approval.

With the DTH on its doorstep, Harlem could also legitimately call itself a ballet capital, too. The theatre operates a world-renowned touring ensemble as well as its own school, which teaches more than 1,000 pupils each year.

I wondered how such a troupe would fit to an inner-city neighbourhood. During a break in rehearsals one of the dancers, 25-year-old Brandon Perry-Russell, quietly explained as he wiped the sweat from his brow.

This was no oasis of gentility in urban New York. The DTH had roots deep in the community. The students were far from privileged: some 70% were here on grants or scholarships.

Brandon Perry-Russell "We reach out to kids, and they realise pretty quickly that it isn't sissy," he said. "You've got to be physically tough to do this, you've got to be athletic. Plus, the little boys get to an age where they want to hang out with the little girls.

"Dancing is valued in Harlem, and we fit into that."

Like the rest of Harlem, he said, the troupe was changing: he danced alongside white, Hispanic and Asian performers. In the streets outside, the vibrant cultural scene was drawing people of all races and backgrounds to the area.

All the same, though, I'd noticed the Obama posters and flags that seemed to adorn every window. I asked Brendon what it meant in such a strongly African-American area that a man of colour stood, for the first time ever, within reach of the country's top job.

There was no doubt that people were inspired and energised. But wasn't so much the fact that Obama was black that excited them, Brendon said. It was because victory for the Democratic candidate would signal that there were no barriers to opportunity.

"If he's elected, it sends out the message that even if you come from a single parent family, if you've been raised on food stamps, you can still become president. Or a teacher. Or a ballet dancer."

For Keith Saunders, however, the significance of Obama's ethnicity couldn't be overstated. As he took a pause from leading a dance class, Keith, 55, told me that he'd first joined the DTH in 1975. Back then, Harlem was a very different place: hardship and racism were ever-present.

"I think if you'd asked most African-American people even two or three years ago whether they'd see a black president of the USA, the answer would have been no," he said.

"It's wonderful to witness a moment in history like this. I feel truly privileged."

Just as Senator Obama's successes so far have plotted a new template for black leadership, Harlem, too, has become upwardly mobile in recent years. As the crime rate was brought down, young professionals began to move in, attracted by the handsome brownstone apartments and the relatively cheap property prices.

Ashley Murphy On my way here I'd seen the upmarket delis and the renovated buildings that signposted pockets of gentrification. But another young dancer, Ashley Murphy, 23, told me that the changes hadn't been good for everyone in the community.

"They're building a lot of condominiums, refurbishing the apartments, but that's making it more expensive," she added.

"Although it's improving, some people have had to leave because they can't afford the rent."

But a more ominous danger was threatening the area: the credit crunch. A project like the DTH was dependent on philanthropy; much of its funding had come from donations provided by the collapsed Washington Mutual and the troubled AIG.

Lavine Niadu, the theater's executive director, admitted he feared that up to a third of the $300,000 it received each year from corporate sponsors was under threat. There was already a waiting list for places at the school, he said, and it was likely to rocket if funding were cut further.

I looked out at all these talented young people, utterly composed and focused as they moved into first position. I wondered what each had sacrificed to be here.

This was what America was supposed to be all about, wasn't it? It seemed a bitter irony that at a time when their political hopes looked close to realisation, the dancers' own aspirations and ambitions were at risk of being snatched away.

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