NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — An East Nashville ballet school is adding satellite campuses in an effort to expand ballet accessibility to under-served neighborhoods and increase inclusion in an art that has historically been exclusive.
Rejoice School of Ballet serves nearly 100 students from diverse backgrounds. Each family pays on a sliding scale, which ensures access to quality ballet training.
The ballet school said its school is 78% from low-income families, as defined by federal poverty standards. With that mission driving enrollment, the school is 52% Black, 40% Caucasian, 4% biracial, and 4% Latino.
"I think dance has inherently been an activity for–it has a Eurocentric history, and it's been an activity for wealthier families. There's something so important about taking away the 'I can't do that' for children and giving them the, 'you can do this. You belong at this table,'" explained Sharyn Mahoney, executive director of Rejoice School of Ballet.
Mahoney joined the school in January after a career at the Nashville School of Ballet.
"I've always had a really deep passion for children and families and engaging with children and families and there's nothing better when you find something you love. You automatically want to share it with everyone," Mahoney explained. "So I've had the unique opportunity in my career to be able to share that passion of dance and movement and see that joy on others' faces... At Nashville Ballet, I was able to do that occasionally in my role, but now I get to do it every day."
While working in her prior position in 2015, Mahoney connected the two ballet schools by offering scholarships to students at Rejoice to attend Nashville Ballet's summer intensive camp.
"We had this whole test we did. And some of us got scholarships to go to Nashville Ballet for two weeks summer intensive program. And there was just a bunch of genres like they have a technique class, and then a character class. And it was just like, a bigger learning experience. The studios were like amazing," explained 14-year-old Rejoice School of Ballet student Alexis Woods. "I'm like, 'wow, a lot of people had to pay a lot of money to be here but I got a scholarship' and it made me feel like I have the ability to just dance my heart out and I can get good things from it."
Those two weeks kick-started the relationship that Mahoney said she plans to expand now inside Rejoice into the thread work of what Rejoice does on a weekly basis.
"We are really looking to expand and create more opportunities right in different pockets of Nashville where the need is and families would have an easy access to get to our classes," Mahoney explained. "I want any child or family that wants their child to have access to this art form to have it. And we can do that through Rejoice because of our sliding-scale tuition, uniforms and everything are free. So we were really removing all the barriers that anyone would have to the access to this art form."
Some of the satellite campuses will be at Hadley Park Community Center in North Nashville and Smith Springs Community Center in Antioch. The nonprofit is also vowing to expand into schools and day cares.
"I’ve been training here for 10 years now," said Woods. "It’s a good extra-curricular for me but also, I enjoy it a lot and my friends are here. The teachers here and also how hard they pushed me. And like the end result of just dancing and learning the choreography and putting on a recital. It feels like a sense of satisfaction when it’s all over."
Many of the school's faculty are dancers at the Nashville School of Ballet. There is one teacher in particular Woods said she connected with.
"She’s just like, a really big role model. And I've seen her dancing and she's really amazing. And so her being around me and telling me what it's like and telling me, ‘you can do this,’" recounted Woods. "And like just looking at her and seeing her being up on stage on point. Doing pataga is just so amazing seeing someone like me, looking like me can do these things."
Rejoice is going the extra mile to make all its students feel welcome.
"It is been a very long time coming in the ballet world that dancers of color would be allowed to wear tights and shoes that match their skin tone. Their original access to this art form was still in pink tights and pink shoes and not only was Rejoice on the cutting edge of doing that, but we do it all the way down to the 4-year-olds," explained Mahoney. "So there's not a point in time where you become more serious and then you're allowed for us. It's a celebration of who you are from the moment you walk in the door."
For the team at Rejoice, the mission goes far beyond ballet.
"Rejoice is working at the youth level to create the community that we want here in Nashville," stated Mahoney. "It is about that youth development and youth empowerment. If you can give that to a child young they can go forward and make the changes we need."
To donate to the school's mission, take part in its July fundraiser.