February 6, 2014 by Nicole
Summer intensives can be a huge turning point in a dancer’s life. I remember my first intensive – it absolutely changed my dance life. It gave me opportunities and experiences I would have not received otherwise, and it’s given me memories that I still recall with much joy today.
Which is why I was incredibly excited to talk to Nia Stephens, a young dancer at The Center for Contemporary Dance (CCD). Nia is 12 years old and recently auditioned and was accepted into The Ailey School Junior Division Summer Intensive Program. The program is 5 weeks of intense training. These young dancers will be immersed in daily ballet, modern and jazz classes at The Ailey School in New York, an internationally recognized dance education school.
Nia is a bright, focused young lady. Her favorite styles of dance are contemporary and modern, especially the Horton technique. She says dancing makes her feel free.
When I asked if this was her first audition, she told me that she’d actually auditioned last year and got cut. They told her then that she needed more ballet. So that’s what she did – she got back in the studio and added more ballet classes to her schedule. She told me that not making it last year motivated her. She knew she was going to come back and try again.
Nicole: What was different about this year?
Nia: There were more people [in the audition] and they were older. But I felt different – I was better prepared this time. Ballet helped a lot, with my turnout and extension…and with memory!
Nicole: I know what you mean! SO much of ballet is all in your head! Were you nervous?
Nia: Yes. Very! I was nervous the whole time!
Nicole: How does it feel to make it?
Nia: It feels really good! Because [it lets me know] I did something right this time, for it to click in their minds to say yeah, we want her!
Nicole: That’s awesome! And so exciting for you! Are you excited to go to New York?
Nia: Yes! I’m so excited to go to New York. It’ll be my first time there. I’m really looking forward to being there and dancing with them.
Nicole: Why did you choose The Ailey School? Why did you want to audition for this program?
Nia: The first time I saw them, I really liked the choreography and how they are organized. They knew exactly what they wanted to do and the feeling they wanted to have. Really, the choreography!
Nicole: What does attending this program mean to you?
Nia: It means most of everything. Being in the company would be everything.
Nicole: Is that your dream?
Nia: Yes. To dance with Alvin Ailey [American Dance Theater]. And to go to high school in New York!
Because we were at the studio, Nia’s parents, Kiesha and Duane were sitting nearby. It’s not uncommon to run into either on any given evening. I could tell they were already so proud of her achievements. The warmth from these two is palpable – not just for Nia, but for the studio in general. And The Ailey School is a big deal! I asked what they were feeling about this huge opportunity for their daughter.
Kiesha: I’m really excited for her! She & I really want to go to New York! I really love the school, the dance theater and their performances.
Duane: This dance thing was all new to me – I grew up with brothers. But I’ve learned my fair share through her. My whole family is excited for her. My brother and his family will be traveling to see her perform [in the concert at the end of the program]. It’s pretty much all we can talk about right now.
Nicole: What does dance mean to your family?
Kiesha: It’s become our way of life. I spend the majority of my time here [at the studio].
Duane: We have an older son who’s into athletics. If I’m not involved with that, I’m still supporting. I’m cooking dinner, picking her [Nia] up, whatever it takes. I also volunteer – building props or whatever is needed. Like she said, it’s become our way of life.
Kiesha: I wasn’t into dance as a child or anything, but the reason I put her in dance was because her school suggested it. They saw her playing around one day in class and they thought she would be good at it. I was actually volunteering here before [Nia danced here] with my profession, photographing Moore Dance Project.
(Nicole’s note: Kiesha is an amazing photographer with a specialty in capturing dance & the performing arts. She’s contributed her work to this blog. Check her out at pinkafterglow.com.)
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was important to Nia and her mom from the beginning. As we were talking about the opportunity, Kiesha recalled their first time seeing the company perform: “it was really a last minute thing. Some tickets became available. So I got them, picked her up from school and we drove out to Jacksonville to see them. She was so into it, she couldn’t even sit down! She wanted to talk [to me about the performance while it was going on]. I had to tell her she couldn’t talk in the theater!”
She went on to explain that whenever the company came close, they made an effort to go see them. The last time, they were actually able to meet the dancers. Kiesha said they really encouraged Nia to keep trying.
Now that her determination and persistence has earned her a spot, what’s next? I asked Kiesha and Duane how they were preparing for the summer.
Nicole: Do you have any concerns about the program?
Kiesha: Procuring the funds. Once she’s there, she will do well. It’s just getting there. Most people don’t know that Nia’s earned a need-based scholarship at CCD. We may be here a lot, so it probably seems on the surface that we’re doing all right. But really, we’re just trying to maintain.
Kiesha shared with me that her family, like so many others, was hit hard by the recession. Though they’ve stuck together and faced the tough times as a family, they struggle with the financial obligations that dance training requires. While things are slowly recovering, they don’t want that to slow anything down for Nia.
Duane: My biggest fear is that we won’t be able to meet all the obligations [for the summer intensive program]. I know what this means to her…I’ll just kill myself [working] to make it happen.
Summer intensive programs are expensive. My own dance mom can vouch for that. And the sometimes prohibitive costs can keep promising, deserving students out of programs they’ve earned a spot in.
Nia is saving the $2,585 housing fee by making arrangements to stay with her cousin, instead of with other students in the dorms. But the family is still responsible for the $2,430 for tuition alone, plus travel and all living expenses for the duration of the 5-week program.
Nia’s mom started a website to support her on this journey and to help raise the funds needed for participation in the program. Nia herself will be posting to the site, filling in her supporters on her journey as she prepares for the program and will give updates while she’s there. Visit niasimone.com to check it out.
This family was such a joy to spend time with – they are the real dance moms, dads & daughters of our community, giving of their time and talents. Any time Kiesha is at the studio, she’s taking care of things, even if it’s the trash at the end of the night. She’s also donated her professional time and skills as one of the studio’s photographers. I’ve personally used the barre that Duane constructed for the studio. They have such big hearts for dance, CCD and their daughter and I’m so hopeful this opportunity will continue to inspire and stoke that passion.
I encourage anyone reading who feels a pull to support local artists, dance education and providing opportunities to the next generation of dancers in our community to consider making a contribution.
Tax deductible donations can be made through CCD. Visit thecenterfordance.org and click the ‘Donate Now’ button at the top of the homepage or donate directly through this web form. (Online donations through the Network for Good should be designated to “Nia Stephens” at checkout.)