The Kansas City Ballet recently earned national recognition — backed up with significant financial support — when the Hearst Foundations awarded $100,000 to a program that introduces third and fourth-grade students to dance fundamentals.
"You know, children are movers naturally," says April Berry, the Ballet's director of community engagement and education, who administers Hearst-recognized Reach Out and Dance (or R.O.A.D.) and other school programs. "They sit in a classroom all day, and they don't really get to express themselves through movement. So when we come in with the residency in our schools, they are ready to move."
Starting each September, the 12- to 24-week in-school classes teach dance basics, from space to self-discipline to timing, in the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools, the Shawnee Mission School District, the Turner Unified School District and in the Kansas City Public Schools in Missouri.
R.O.A.D. also offers scholarships to 86 selected third-grade students to continue their dance training on-site at the Ballet's Todd Bolender Center for Dance and Creativity.
"I think the students have to have personality," says Berry. "We look for them to have potential in certain technical abilities — turnout, rotation in the legs, how coordinated they are, their carriage, their posture."
"It's fun," said Louise Schloegel, who attends Hale Cook Elementary School and was among two dozen students from six KCPS schools who took buses to the Bolender Center on a recent afternoon. "I like how we get to move around and dance a lot."
From January through April, these R.O.A.D scholars take classes during the school day in ballet fundamentals, modern and jazz, and are then eligible for two more years of instruction at no cost.
"The kind of student that we're looking for was really somebody that could not afford to come and take dance classes here at the Kansas City Ballet, that had the potential and the talent to be trained in ballet and other dance forms as a young student," says Berry.
Berry knows first-hand what exposure to dance at an early age can encourage. When she was six years old, she says, her mother enrolled her in dance classes in her neighborhood studio in New York because she was a "hyper child" who liked to move.
"I was transformed. I could make believe, and I could act out characters," Berry remembers. "And then, when I was a teenager, I knew I wanted to pursue it as a career."
Berry went on to dance professionally with classical and modern companies including the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater from 1980 to 1992. As an Ailey dancer, she visited Kansas City when efforts were underway to create a second home for the company, Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey, which launched in 1984.
Now, she's passing on what she's learned to future generations of dancers.
One of the students in the first class of R.O.A.D. scholars, Khalil Hickman, was cast in the party scene of the Ballet's annual production of "The Nutcracker" last year. He's still in the program, and now taking evening classes.
Jenna Wurtzberger, who teaches jazz classes for the residency and scholarship programs, says it's been a "pleasure" to watch the students interact inside their schools and also at the Bolender Center.
"I've learned so much, it's made me a better teacher," says Wurtzberger. "Seeing the progression of the students, as a teacher, it fills your heart."
Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter at @lauraspencer.