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.


  • Comment number 1.

    Congratulations you have seen one of the most wonderful things in the US

  • Comment number 2.

    6 weeks "sat"?

  • Comment number 3.

    My wife and I went to NYC this summer, and went up to Harlem to see what it was like. We wandered many blocks, eventually growing hungry and starting to look for a place to eat. I spied a rice and beans shop on a corner, and we went inside. On the way in, I noticed there was a picture of Che Guerra above the door, and figured it might be a good sign.

    We stepped in, and were immersed in delicious smells of roasting chicken and rice. As we like to seek out culinary adventures, we became excited. We picked out some lamb and chicken dishes that we couldn't get easily get back at home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and took our dishes into the back room.

    Glancing up at the wall, I noticed a line of photographs, not of family vacations or far-away destinations, but of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Immediately next to that was a picture of Barack Obama. I was knocked out by the pairing of the two men. Though a long-time supporter of him, I hadn't thought of Obama as being quite on the same level as Dr. King.

    We finished our meal, and set out down the street again. As we were walking, an African-American woman was walking towards us, wearing a t-shirt that had Dr. King on one half, and Senator Obama on the other.

    The Harlem community's hopes for Senator Obama have stayed with me, and when I got back to Wisconsin, I made sure to redouble my commitment to the Obama campaign. Every moment I've been doing it has been been worth it.

  • Comment number 4.

    I had read about DTH for some time before coming to know the significance it has for so many. This is truly a remarkable organization in every way. Their commitment to ensure that any child has access to classical ballet training. The challenge of keeping the program affordable as well as accessible in the midst of an economy that is crashing. The discipine, excellence and passion that is poured into every child whether they go on to become a Lawyer, Physician, Marine Biologist or a CEO is priceless. This organization is a life changer and deserves not only recognition for all of the excellent work it has successfully accomplished over the last 40 years but also needs the ongoing support of donor corporations, individual donors and philanthropists to ensure its future for generations to come.

  • Comment number 5.

    Heartily agree with post #2. Could I also ask what you consider to be the plural of a unit of British currency to be?

  • Comment number 6.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 7.

    To #4 Standwme

    Excellent Post! I have just made out a small check that I will send to keep this work alive. If the big corporations are too 'poor' to help out maybe small contributions from many will continue to support this very important program.

    I was taught that no matter my financial circumstances, there were always others who were in need. Sharing what I have is a way of life for me.

  • Comment number 8.

    "the significance of Obama's ethnicity couldn't be overstated" - see what happened when Howard Stern Show researchers went to Harlem to find out why people want to vote for Obama:

  • Comment number 9.

    #8 - good to see that the demonic "liberal" media is dominating the discussion.

    I admit Howard Stern is funny, but this is about as relevant as going to a fundamentalist Christian gathering and asking people about how they feel about Sarah Palin. (And yes, I know there are countless other you-tube clips of that!)

    Why is it a bad thing for African-Americans to vote for Obama predominantly because he is black? People want to feel represented by someone they identify with, and this huge segment of society finally has that. What is interesting is that so many educated white voters also support Obama.

    In this campaign where to be "educated" is portrayed by the Republican supporters as somehow a defect, we need to realise that there is a big world out there, and I for one want the best educated, most open-minded and frankly most socially inclusive person possible to run the USA.

    The significance of Obama's ethnicity cannot be overstated simpy because this is the first time that the USA can show the rest of the world and itself that it is able to lay its ghosts of apartheid to rest. Obama is half-black, half-white - what makes people so scared of him ...... (unless you're Asian or Hispanic of course)

  • Comment number 10.

    More racism

  • Comment number 11.

    John, it is terably sad and ironic that the funding for this school may be cut due to the credit crunch (after all that everyone's gone through to be there in the first place like you said!!) Perhaps they can find another source of funding? The UK does a pretty exalent job of funding comunity centers etc throughout its teratory? What are British citizens and the government doing to fund their public areas? Perhaps we could emulate those tactics?

    Also in reading your '"Fast Food Nation" thread, I was pleased to learn that the Americans you talked to did care a great deal what the rest of the world thought of them and this country! But that got me wondering, what do British people think of how they and their government are viewed abroad? Do they care what Americans think of them? If you have any insight on this that you could give me before you end your trip, or perhaps if you could start another blog about it, I would be greatly appreciative and interested to learn of their thoughts. We always hear of what "Americans" think of how they and their nation's government are viewed abroad. Well what about other countries?

  • Comment number 12.

    #5 SDensley

    British currency is Pounds Sterling, so the plural is pounds (or pence, if you're talking small change).

  • Comment number 13.

    #8 Arkancide

    Fair play, these voters in Harlem didn't know what they or Obama are talking about.

    But how many ill-informed people in the deep south could you do that with using Obama's economic policies for McCain?

    Ignorance is a part of every election on all sides, right?

  • Comment number 14.

    This is an inspiring story. I lived in Manhattan from 1963-64 on W. 87th Street. Harlem began at the northern boundary of Central Park at 110th Street and might have been another world for a white person like me.

    If you were white it didn't matter whether you were prejudiced or not. As much as you wanted to go to The Apollo to see and hear the jazz greats, or see what soul food really was like, only the most daring would venture there. Even white taxi cab drivers would avoid picking up black people at night out of fears they might want to go to Harlem.

    None of the fears of Harlem were based in reality. A white person could walk the streets and only would get odd looks because they stood out. White people got mugged in my own neighborhood by white people. Black people got mugged in Harlem by black people.

    Now Harlem has become a destination for New Yorkers and tourists of every ethnic and national background.

    I live south of Boston, and haven't been back to New York in 20 years. I hope to get back there and see the new Harlem some day, made more proud than ever by a President Barack Obama.

  • Comment number 15.

    Although I haven't commented in the past I have read your blogs daily and wanted to let you know that I've enjoyed them very much and am sorry that your trip is coming to a close. This country is too massive to do anything more than scratch the surface in 38 days. I was also hoping that perhaps you'd be able to keep the blog going from your side of the Atlantic. I'd love to read your blogs as you travel the UK finding personal interest stories. They wouldn't need to focus on an election, just give us some insight into the place you call home.

  • Comment number 16.

    #9 RomeStu "Why is it a bad thing for African-Americans to vote for Obama predominantly because he is black?"

    You really don't see why it is considered a bad thing that black people are voting for a black man(I know he is not really a true black man because he is half white) because of the sole reason that he is black?

    Here let me put it too you this way, would you have a problem if white people were voting for a white candidate for the sole reason that person is white?

  • Comment number 17.

    Culture and talent, not race, are the issues here (at least for me -- am I alone?) Obama has mixed cultures on several levels, and his talents are appealing. And what about color? There's so much mix of color where I'm coming from, you couldn't sort half of us out. (See Bill Moyer's interview on PBS with minority leaders tonight.) I agree that we are in a post-racial society, with racial and genetic blends being more normal than in past generations. Harlem is no exception. It would be interesting to go back and do the campaign with no visuals, only audio. No color, just culture, character (real or pretended) and ideas. Would Obama still have the lead? I think so. And I'm talking from the other side of the fence. But he's America's golden boy now.

    If he wins, he might not be able to save Harlem's ballet school. The issues are much bigger than him, and depend on the kind of community organizers that took his place. So, break a leg! I hope for the sake of the Arts that Americans will prioritize their spending better in lean years and support such organizations as this in larger numbers. Do the math. We have the numbers. The economic trouble for the Arts is a matter of culture.


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