Published on December 14th, 2013 | by Brian Hagenbuch1
Eight Years of MLK Ballet
It’s Tuesday evening at a spacious, well-equipped dance studio on the third floor of Urban Grace Church, and Lennon Burgess is worried his pants are too short. Five young dancers, three boys and two girls, are warming up at their weekly dance class with the tuition-free MLKBallet when seven-year-old Mr.Burgess interrupts instructor Brittany Humphrey, peering over the ballet barre to address her.
“These are too small,” he says, pointing at his black pants hemmed well above the ankle.
Ms. Humphrey, a grade school teacher by day, dismisses his complaint with aplomb and pushes on with the class. They are preparing a piece for MLKBallet’s annual Christmas show and fundraiser, Mistletoes, and time is at a premium. The diminutive Mr. Burgess, who is the lead dancer in the holiday piece, will later also register a complaint about his shirt, but he seems to suspect he’s looking hip in the black high-water pants, little red western shirt with shiny metal snaps, and white ballet shoes. Despite nagging wardrobe concerns, he’s energetic, focused, and just looks like a ballet dancer. At one point in the class, during a brief lull in which Ms. Humphrey changes the music, he freestyles in the corner, bursting into explosive jumps and a fairly smooth pirouette.
It’s kids like Lennon Burgess who current MLKBallet director Faith Stevens hopes will use these classes as a springboard to pursue dance studies elsewhere.
“Our goal here is to start them on their journey…Tacoma has good ballet instruction, but it’s the step from no dance to formal ballet training that is often out of reach,” Mrs. Stevens said recently after MLK’s Monday night adult ballet class.
And that’s what MLKBallet has done over the years. Founder Kate Monthy estimates she has sent at least 15 kids on to higher dance studies, most to Tacoma City Ballet (TCB) but some to Washington Contemporary Ballet.
She points to cases like that of Kayla Mathurin. At six years old, when Ms. Mathurin started at MLKBallet, she and her mother were sleeping on friends’ couches in the HIlltop neighborhood. Now ten, she is the youngest company-level dancer at TCB and is studying dance on a scholarship at Annie Wright, Ms. Monthy’s alma mater.
Kayla’s mother, Alicia, recalled her daughter’s first days at MLKBallet:
“We instantly felt welcomed. I knew that Miss Kate cared about my daughter. Without a million questions or having to fill out financial paperwork, she gave my daughter a leotard, tights, and ballet shoes and put her right on the bar. It spoke volumes,” Mrs. Mathurin said.
It was cases like Kayla Maturin’s that drove Monthy to create MLKBallet in 2005. Ms. Monthy, a Tacoma native and lifelong ballet dancer, saw Mad Hot Ballroom, a documentary about a public school program in inner-city New York that was transforming fifth graders into inspired dancers. At the time, she was living on Hilltop and, moved by both by the documentary and her environment, decided to rethink the traditional, tuition-funded dance studio model and come up with a way to give free classes to kids who didn’t typically have access to ballet instruction.
Ms. Monthy noticed buildings along Martin Luther King Jr. Way often had entire floors that were vacant, some large enough for a dance studio. She thought there might be the possibility for some philanthropically-minded squatting to occur in the neighborhood; free rent would put her well on her way to the goal of providing free instruction.
To dream up ways to put together the money to start the project, Ms. Monthy called her smartest friends.
Among these smart women was her mom, who had the idea of selling her ’85 Volvo, which fetched around $500 and became MLKBallet’s start up cash.
Instead of advertising publicly, they called up families with children who might be interested in ballet, but didn’t have enough money to send their kids to classes. They also circulated their project by word of mouth around the Hilltop neighborhood. The first classes took place in partnership with the D.A.S.H. Center, where MLK used the space and taught their students alongside kids from the center, but soon they had too many of their own pupils — around 45, Ms. Monthy estimates.
In need of her own space, Ms. Monthy found what she thought was the ideal studio: an old, unused Hilltop theater with a wood floor and balconies all around.
“It was built for operas or something… The owners were just like: You can basically squat here,” she says.
But the space turned out to be far from ideal. Students began complaining of nausea and headaches, but Ms. Monthy told them buck up, until she realized her own lips were going numb during classes. It seemed the kids weren’t just whining about nothing. They soon learned that a downstairs neighbor wasn’t paying his utility bill, instead running a generator in the hallway leading up to the studio, which filled it with carbon monoxide fumes. They had the generator removed and made it through the first year of classes, but more problems arose when it came time for the end of the year recital.
Ms. Monthy showed up at the studio the day of the recital to find a fallen balcony splintered all over the dance floor.
MLKBallet instead held a very safe and successful emergency recital at SOTA that year, and the following year moved to the monolithic solidity of Urban Grace, on 9th and Market. Ever since, the group has been operating here at this studio where Mr. Burgess is now staring skeptically at his high-waters.
“It’s a good studio,” Ms. Monthy says, pointing out that almost everything — floor, paint, mirrors, bars and speakers that don’t work (those were from her dad) — was donated. The disco ball, she remarks, was already here.
But despite eight years in business and seven years of continuity in this comfortable, centrally-located space, MLK Ballet isn’t enjoying its best moment.
With the help of private donors, the group has funded itself over the years, earning money from charity dance shows put on by people within the organization. Proceeds from the biannual Ten Tiny Dances and Move! shows, where MLK Ballet students dance next to professionals, provide a big part of the budget. But things got thin when Ms. Monthy took a full-time job with Seattle’s Spectrum Dance Theater in 2010. Classes ebbed in frequency, attendance dropped, and revenue from shows began to trail off.
Monthy also added that MLK enjoyed an initial wave of exposure, with newspaper and magazine articles and community interest, but that buzz has since died down.
Mrs. Stevens, who took over as the artistic director in 2011, is working to breathe new life into the organization, but it hasn’t been easy. This year, she had to cancel the Ballet II class — for 9-12 year olds — because of low enrollment, and for the first time MLKBallet did a publicity campaign in three local public schools to get kids to go to classes.
Happily, Ballet II will begin again this winter, Mondays from 6-7:15 pm, so send your kids, or consider attending the adult class. The adult class accommodates beginners or people with experience and costs just $3-10 on a sliding income scale. Mr. Burgess and his friends in Ballet I will remain in their time slot, Tuesday from 6-7 pm, and welcome newcomers.
After the recent class to prepare for Mistletoes, and the young dancers rush out to meet their parents in the foyer, Mr. Burgess ducks into the bathroom and comes out wearing a black silk hat and a yellow tie hastily tied over his little red western shirt. His wardrobe concerns, it seems, were related to his missing accessories.
Looking confident and dapper, when asked if he’s excited for the Christmas show, which is Tuesday, December 17, at 6:30 at Urban Grace, he says, “Yep.” You should be too.
Mark your calendar for Mistletoes on December 17, and learn more about MLKBallet on their site: