NEA Arts Magazine

Dancing to Success

The Honors Program at COCA in St. Louis

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Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Antonio Douthit in Alvin Ailey's Revelations. Photo by Gert Krautbauer

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Antonio Douthit in Alvin Ailey's Revelations. Photo by Gert Krautbauer

Achieving success in the arts can be a matter of grit, determination, patience, and talent. Unfortunately, it can also be a matter of money. To become a professional dancer, for instance, requires years of dance lessons, shoes, tights, and leotards, all of which come with a price tag. Students will also need to get themselves to and from dance class, which can be problematic if a family lacks a car or lives beyond the reach of public transportation. For children living in low-income communities, these obstacles often prove to be insurmountable.

But in St. Louis, Missouri, the Center of Creative Arts (COCA) aims to level the playing field for children who wish to pursue the arts. Founded in 1986, COCA offers classes and in-school workshops across all artistic disciplines, from visual arts and theater to voice and writing. Although sliding-scale financial aid is available for recreational art classes, the center's dance programs in particular are designed to ensure that all students have access to professional pathways, regardless of their background.

COCA alumnus Antonio Douthit, now with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, works with COCA student company members. Douthit returns to COCA annually to teach COCA students during a two-week residency. Photo courtesy of COCA

COCA alumnus Antonio Douthit, now with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, works with COCA student company members. Douthit returns to COCA annually to teach COCA students during a two-week residency. Photo courtesy of COCA

"Many students that we're working with don't have the opportunity to go beyond a ten-block radius within their neighborhoods," said Kelly Pollock, executive director of COCA. "To bring them into a community of intentional learners who are passionate and have respect and a sense of discipline opens their eyes that they can be successful, that there are more possibilities than they thought imaginable, and that if they work hard and commit themselves, they really can achieve whatever it is they want in life."

When it comes to dance, this commitment begins at an early age. The Talent Identified Program (TIP) offers a rigorous trajectory for 9-11 year olds who have shown promise in dance during COCA's outreach work with underserved St. Louis public schools. Throughout the three-year program, TIP students receive all classes free-of-charge, and are also provided with dancewear and door-to-door van transportation.

Lee Nolting teaches a summer workshop at COCA. Photo courtesy of COCA

Lee Nolting teaches a summer workshop at COCA. Photo courtesy of COCA

At the age of 12, TIP participants are invited to audition for COCA's Honors Program, which offers training at a pre-professional level to roughly 50 students an academic year. Throughout the years, the Honors Program has received numerous NEA grants, as well as a 2003 Coming Up Taller Award (now called the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards) presented by then-First Lady Laura Bush. Although the Honors Program is open to all income levels, COCA provides scholarships, transportation, and dancewear as needed, in addition to academic tutoring, ACT preparation, and assistance with college applications and auditions. As a result, 100 percent of Honors students have gone on to post-secondary study. Working with the organization College Bound, the center has extended its support throughout students' college careers to make sure they stay the course.

The Honors Program is directed by the endlessly enthusiastic Lee Nolting, who has taught dance at COCA for 25 years and leads one of the center's three student dance companies. Nolting's work with high-risk youth began in the 1980s, when she lived and taught dance in East St. Louis, one of the region's rougher areas. "I got a chance to see what those kids' lives were like: the single parents, the parents who didn't come to pick up their kids because they were in the crack house, the kids who didn't have lunch," she remembered. She also saw how transformational dance could be, which inspired her to help launch the Honors Program a few years after she arrived at COCA. As she said, "This is a program that is run by passion: [students'] passion to want opportunity, and our passion to try and make sure that they have accessibility and the opportunities that every child should have."

Rodney Hamilton leads a master class at COCA. Hamilton was the first scholarship student accepted into COCA's Honors Program. Photo courtesy of COCA

Rodney Hamilton leads a master class at COCA. Hamilton was the first scholarship student accepted into COCA's Honors Program. Photo courtesy of COCA

For Honors students like Antonio Douthit, these opportunities can prove life-changing. Douthit grew up in what he described as "not the best neighborhoods," and as a young boy spent time living in transitional housing and a church. But when he was 16, he serendipitously discovered his talent for dance. One afternoon, when he and a few friends heard music coming from a community center, they went to investigate. There they discovered a dance class in session, and perhaps as is typical for teenage boys, decided to interrupt it.

"[The teacher] asked us to leave several times," Douthit remembered. But they didn't, instead convincing the instructor to let them follow along from the back of the room. By the end of class, the teacher had sensed a spark, and invited them to return despite their horseplay. While the others laughed the suggestion off, Douthit did come back, although this time on his own.

Within a month, he was guided to COCA, where it took Nolting a total of one class to realize Douthit's potential. She marched him to the office of Stephanie Riven, then COCA's executive director, and explained that the teen needed a scholarship so he could participate in the Honors Program. Although Riven had never seen him dance, Douthit was offered free tuition on the spot. He went on to graduate from high school -- the first in his family to do so -- and attended the North Carolina School of the Arts before leaving to join the Dance Theatre of Harlem. In 2004, he became a member of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, one of the world's premiere modern dance companies.

"I am what I am today because of that scholarship," said Douthit, who doubts he would have achieved his current level of professional success without free tuition. He also credits dance with motivating him to graduate high school, since most dance companies require a high school diploma in order to audition. "Arts give kids a sense of purpose, and for me COCA gave me that sense of purpose," he said.

Despite his touring schedule, Douthit returns to COCA every January to choreograph and teach, and remains in touch with many staff members and alumni. When COCA students find themselves in New York for auditions or summer workshops, Douthit has also been known to open his home and let them crash.

"I feel like [because COCA] gave me the opportunity without really knowing what was going to happen with me, I should give back to other kids," said Douthit of his continued involvement with the program. "You never know what that's going to do for someone."

Other alumni have become equally accomplished, and have gone on to dance with the the Houston Ballet, on Broadway, and with hip-hop artists such as Usher and Ne-Yo. Like Douthit, many of them also return to COCA. Christopher Page, now a member of the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble, annually choreographs COCA students in a piece honoring Black History Month, and Rodney Hamilton, the center's first scholarship student, has used time off from Ballet Hispanico to lead master classes.

But even for students who do not pursue dance professionally, the Honors Program has proven beneficial. "The true purpose of arts education is not necessarily to create more professional dancers or artists," said Pollock. "[It's] to create more complete human beings who are critical thinkers, who have curious minds, who can lead productive lives." She cited the discipline needed to attend daily training, the confidence and poise needed to perform onstage, the motivation to practice until you land the leading role, and the humility and good sportsmanship to accept it when you don't.

Nolting echoed Pollock's belief that these secondary skills are as important, if not more so, than proper form and technique. "Even if they don't become professional dancers, they become so successful as individuals in whatever they're doing," she said of her former students, some of whom have gone on to achieve success at Princeton (graduating with a degree in physics), Columbia University Medical School, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. "It's an incredible feeling to know that you helped someone be the best that they could be."