Kavi Zuniga stares intently in the mirror, hands resting gently on the barre, feet clad in soft shoes, coltish legs ready to execute the next plie or position.
“The overall point of our classes has been to teach you to move your legs independently of your upper body, correct? Everybody’s heard that correction a whole bunch of times. Remember that today. That’s what we want to go for today, and I’ll see just how much of the class over the past few weeks that you’ve retained,” says dance teacher and Oklahoma City Ballet company artist Gerald Pines as he leads Kavi and about 10 other children at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Oklahoma County Memorial Park location.
Reviewing exercises ranging from frappe and rond de jambe to releve and spotting turns was the focus of the final class of the school year for Project Plie, a program launched last fall by American Ballet Theatre to boost ethnic diversity in ballet dancers and support children who are interested in dance but might not have access to training.
“I’d done ballet when I was littler, but I stopped because it was too expensive,” said Kavi, 11. “I mainly like the turns and the kicks because they’re my favorite. ‘Cause they have the most work, and I think I like the challenge.”
Turning to dance
Oklahoma City Ballet is among seven companies in the country who have joined Project Plie, an initiative largely inspired by American Ballet Theatre soloist Misty Copeland, who is of African, Italian and German descent. The emerging ballet star, 31, was discovered at age 13 by a local dance teacher who came into a Boys and Girls Club to offer free classes.
The mission of Boys and Girls Clubs of America is to enable all young people, especially those who need help most, to reach their full potential as productive, caring, responsible citizens.
“Kids that want to be involved in Project Plie, they don’t pay any extra fees. And our fee is $5 a school year to be a member at the club,” said LaRissa Conn, volunteer coordinator at the Memorial Park site.
“A lot of our kids, they’re not used to seeing somebody that looks like them as a ballerina.”
OKC Ballet started offering classes every other Monday at the Memorial Park site in January. Along with the sessions, participants got to sit in on two of the company’s rehearsals and attend for free OKC Ballet’s productions of “The Nutcracker” and “Beauty and the Beast.”
“We saw Mr. Jerry, and we were like screaming his name,” Jaedan Jones, 9, recalled with a laugh. “I like how they put it all together ... and Jerry’s fun and he’s a good teacher.”
Teaching the steps
Pines wanted to give the youngsters a genuine dance class experience and teach them the fundamentals of ballet.
“The kids did really well as far as remembering my corrections ... and I definitely saw them improve. They learned, and that was the important part,” Pines said.
“You know, some of the boys wanted to take the class, and their parents wouldn’t let them. So I had quite a few boys that they were in there, but they weren’t really a part of the class but they wanted to learn. Every single class, they were like outside the door, ‘Can we watch? Can we come in? Can we hear what you have to say?’ So that was really awesome.”
For Conn, have a male teacher for the classes and giving the children the chance to see men dance at rehearsals and on stage broke down even more barriers.
“There’s a lot of stigma that goes with male artists of lots of different sorts ... and I think it was really eye-opening for some of our young men,” she said. “Oklahoma City Ballet has bent over backwards for our kids. They have helped our kids fall in love with dance. We’ve got kids who light up like Christmas morning.”
Dalvin McMindes, 8, said it was fun taking the class with a bunch of cute girls.
“It’s a lot of jumping,” he said. “This is probably going to be my career.”
Encouraging future dancers
That’s the kind of endorsement OKC Ballet Executive Director Shane Jewell likes to hear. Project Plie classes will continue at Boys and Girls club in the fall and follow the school calendar.
At the end of every spring semester, Pines will select five children who will receive full scholarships to attend OKC Ballet’s school.
“That’s a cost of about $3,000 per kid, so it’s about $15,000 in scholarships that we’re giving out. As we continue to fundraise for the program, we hope to not only add to the number of students we put on scholarship but the number of classes we can teach at the Boys and Girls Club as well as the number of age groups we can teach,” Jewell said.
OKC Ballet has three days left on its Allied Arts power2give fundraising campaign for Project Plie. Continental Resources is matching donations during the campaign, he said.
“We’ve always felt very strongly that everyone should be able have the experience of ballet, regardless of their socioeconomic status. Especially when you’re talking about children. The arts in general are such an important part of the growth of a child that it shouldn’t be determined by what their parents make on an annual basis,” Jewell said.
For Kavi, she is eager to get back at the barre and continue with Project Plie after summer is over.
“It was awesome with a capital everything,” she said.
To learn more
Oklahoma City Ballet’s Project Plie
•For more information on Oklahoma City Ballet’s Project Plie, go to www.okcballet.com.
•To donate to the project through Allied Arts’ power2give, go to http://power2give.org/centraloklahoma/projects and select “Project Plie.”