Article and Photography By: Kendra Lyons
Brandye Lee, Director of Community Engagement at Collage Dance Collective, located on Broad Street in Binghampton, is a petite lady with big ideas for how her studio fits in with the big picture of the city of Memphis. Lee grew up in Washington D.C., and is eager to share her passion for classical ballet training with the community. The specific goal for Collage Dance Collective is to provide a high-achievement formal ballet studio to African American students, to dispute the traditionally white-dominated background associated with the artform. Lee’s vision for the studio goes beyond excellent ballet training, and is directly related to improving major concerns that the community struggles with, particularly regarding the well-being of our youth and the continuation of using art to improve our city and unite Memphians under the common goal of providing opportunity and equality for young people. Lee and Collage Dance Collective are breaking boundaries in more ways than one by reconstructing racial and gender norms, and promoting health and wellness in a city notorious for childhood obesity.
For someone who has never heard of Collage Dance Collective, what is it and who was it made for?
Brandye Lee: Collage dance Collective was established in 2005 in New York City as a professional ballet company. Our professional company is a network of 25 dancers who work all over the country and throughout the world, and we bring them here to Memphis for each performance season. Our mission is to inspire the growth of ballet and we aim to do that by increasing the profile of black dancers in the art form. When the company relocated to Memphis in 2007, we quickly realized that in order to increase the numbers of black professional dancers, we really needed to get at the heart of training. So in 2009, we founded the conservatory. In our conservatory, we serve 120 students of diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds each week, and then we have about 200 students that we serve weekly outside of the building at several partner charter schools.
How do you encourage unlikely ballet students to give it a try?
BL: At Collage, it starts with our teachers. It’s really important to us that the students have teachers who may look like them. So, we are very strongly committed to having black male and female teachers throughout our programs. Not to say that these are our only teachers, but it certainly helps when recruiting students of diverse backgrounds. Our charter school programs are also very helpful in reaching new students. Fortunately for us, we partner with schools that allow our program to flourish. They really work with us, so these kids are getting ballet more than once a week during the school day and sometimes after school. I’ll use KIPP Memphis as an example. The kids are getting ballet during their regular day, and so it’s not treated like an after school hobby, it’s treated like a class. They have to commit to it, and once they do, they see not only can it be fun, but they grow to understand that it’s a service tool for their bodies and spirits and they grow to love it, and then it catches on. Our students perform, their schoolmates see them perform, and then it becomes cool. Another way that we really try to attract a broader audience to ballet is through our programming with the professional company. Our shows are geared towards our audience and the experience allows people to feel and relate to ballet in one way or another.
You teach ballet with the specific purpose of motivating African Americans to become passionate about ballet. What inspired you to make this your mission?
BL: My personal history is that I grew up in a ballet school from the time I was five years old until I graduated from high school. I trained at the Jones-Haywood School of Ballet in Washington D.C., which was founded in 1941 during segregation by two African American women who believed that black children deserve to learn classical ballet, because there were very few places offering such training at that time. And so, this is the tradition that I come from, and I just know how powerful my training has been over the course of my life. After high school, I went to Smith College and earned a degree in economics and African American studies. From there I studied briefly at The Ailey School and was then invited to join Ailey II dance company. I then went on to perform with Disney’s The Lion King national tour, and even after all of that, was able to come back to ballet, put my pointe shoes on, and perform at a professional level. I just know how powerful the training is when it’s right, and that it is an oral tradition. It’s passed on from generation to generation. I’ve always felt it has been a calling of mine- a duty of mine- to share the information that I have with other children, because of the confidence it instills, because of the discipline it instills, because of the self-expression outlet that it provides, and just because I know that it forces you to see things through from beginning to end, and our kids need that. They need as many tools that reinforce that in them, no matter what they want to be in life. These kids might not become ballet dancers, but hey, they will hopefully become something else great, and still need that same discipline in whatever they choose to do.
I feel like you’re in Memphis at such a pivotal time. It’s remarkable to me how you are impacting the kids in Memphis in a way that’s indirect, but really is affecting their whole experience as being brought up in this city. I think we need more of that. There’s so much focus on, how can the schools fix everything? Obviously that’s a huge chunk of it, but they need a whole life here.
BL: Absolutely. It doesn’t just happen in the schools. It’s about after school, it’s about the weekends. What are you doing in the meantime? You’re absolutely right, we focus so much on the schools, and the schools should be right, however, we have kids who live right around the corner from the studio, who walk here from school, who walk home after their ballet class is over, and before Collage was here, this was an empty warehouse. It’s a very powerful testament, I think, to the fact that we are here, we are making change in our community, it’s tangible, it’s visible, we’re in the trenches, we’re here day in day out and we’re rolling up our sleeves. We are with our students on a very consistent basis providing excellent training and holding them accountable; we know them and we love them. And I feel like it’s the most important work that I have done in my life.
Does your job description go beyond being an instructor? Do you feel like you are a mentor to the students as well?
BL: Because one of my teachers, Charmaine Hunter was a principal with Dance Theater of Harlem, I had a lot of exposure to black ballet dancers, from taking company class to watching them from the wings. I can’t tell you how important that was for me at the impressionable age of 10 or 11, because I never knew that black dancers had a hard time in classical ballet. I never knew that it wasn’t for us. It never occurred to me until I started to of course, get older, and hear stories and so on and so forth, but my personal experience was that I could do this, and I had amazing examples. So, what we’re doing here at Collage totally reminds me of that, and it’s very powerful, and it’s just the truth. When you know the truth and walk in your truth, others come along and it becomes their truth.
What kind of impact do you think Collage has on Memphis specifically, and how do you think it’s unique having the studio here as opposed to another city?
BL: Memphis is a predominantly black city and there are high rates of poverty. Right here in Binghampton, there are people who don’t necessarily have a lot of money. Ballet is an expensive artform to take up. It really is. It takes a lot of money to pursue, which is why it has remained so exclusive. I was at a pointe shoe fitting yesterday with some of my new little pointe dancers, and those pointe shoes are $91 a pop, and so you’re asking families to commit all of this money, and that’s where it becomes tricky. What do we do? How do we help? We strive to make the ballet classes here affordable and accessible and about 30% of our students receive some type of scholarship assistance. On a different note, Memphis has been open to us as we present ballet to other eyes and ears and drop little seeds of beauty along the way. For example, we just partnered with our neighborhood business association and won a national ArtsPlace Grant, to transform the loading dock across the street into an amphitheater. The grant also requires us to produce a dance festival, so we are going to have an eight-week dance festival, Dance on Broad, starting in May, right here in Binghampton on Broad at this beautiful new space that we’ve dreamed up. That’s just one of the ways that we are really working with our community to make change. And it’s not just about ballet, it’s about arts. It’s about commerce. It’s about opportunity. It’s about so much.
BL: It’s very important, especially for our boys, to have something to do, to have opportunities, to have an outlet, to have people who care about them who are holding them to a high standard. One of the things that we are very proud of this year, is we were chosen by the Junior League of Memphis to be a Community Partner. What that means for us is that we get a certain number of volunteers in the building here every week. They formed a homework club. A lot of the kids like to come in early with nothing to do, so we said you know what? You’re bringing a book, you’re bringing homework, because we don’t want C students. We want A and B students. With all of our students, it’s important for us to do the work and be here for them consistently. I couldn’t see that happening in certain other cities. We aren’t in NY, we aren’t in D.C., we aren’t in a city that might already have programs like this, because we know that the need is here, and we feel very strongly and deeply rooted right where we are. We have two very strong male role models in the building every day, and they’re not going any where, and they are watching you, and they want to see you do well. I think for the boys and the girls alike, that’s very important.
It sounds like you’re breaking tons of boundaries, but your focus on having more boys here, and having an African-American based studio- those are just two boundaries being cross that are typically, not addressed in this business.
BL: Change is slow to come. By and large, it’s a very new focus for some major ballet companies, and my hope is that we definitely see more black professional dancers on stages all around the world as a result of all of these initiatives that different organizations are taking on. In the next five to ten years, it is our strong desire that our students will be out there, on professional stages and making their presence known. And that the doors have been opened for them. It doesn’t make any sense for us to push ballet if there’s no opportunity for them, so that’s why the professional company here exists, because we are an outlet. We provide contracts to professional dancers of color, and we just hope more and more of these opportunities will come all over the country as the years go on.
BL: I don’t believe in a post-racial society, but that race and socioeconomics definitely inform an experience, for better or worse. It doesn’t have to always be at the forefront, but it’s always there, and I don’t think we can deny or get away from it given the history of our country. But I do believe that we should embrace it, and air it out, and let it sit with us and let it be with us, and then on top of that, just be who we are, but be our best selves, and then be our best selves together. I think that’s ultimately how you build positive and powerful experiences and strong communities.
Learn more about Brandye and the rest of the Collage Dance Collective team at their website, www.collagedance.org.