Last June, five exceptional young dancers from the New Orleans Ballet Association’s Center For Dance got the chance of a lifetime—to perform at the world-renowned Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, MA. And that’s not all! Their debut at The Pillow was the high point of a three-week, four-city tour that had them performing, taking classes, visiting universities and attending performances. They explored the many dance offerings in each place, while discovering what it’s really like to tour as a professional. Three NOBA instructors (who are also professional dancers) and two musicians also performed and traveled with the group.
“Dance is a source of refuge for these dancers,” says Suzanne Hirsch, director of education for the New Orleans Recreation Department and the New Orleans Ballet Association. “This experience created a sense of community among them”—no small feat considering that all five girls were displaced for about a year after Hurricane Katrina destroyed their homes in 2005.
Thanks to individuals and dance groups who reached out to NOBA after Katrina— and lots of hard work and fundraising on NOBA’s part—the five students were able to perform at the National Dance Education Organization conference in Mobile, AL, with MNR Dance Factory in L.A. and at The Pillow.
“So much of what’s in the news about New Orleans today is negative,” says Hirsch. “It’s about the crime that’s happening here. We wanted to show the world that there’s actually a lot of good in New Orleans as well. There is extraordinary talent in the arts and positive young people who are doing great things.”
Gavanne Jasmine Davis, Zuzanna Mrozek, Courtney Ross, Jonesha Spears and Jasmin Simmons (as well as their teachers, Meredith Early, Maritza Mercado-Narcisse and Lisa Keskitalo) exemplify all that is good about the Big Easy. They’re articulate, smart and talented, and served as wonderful ambassadors for their city while out on the road. They also continued to be the recipients of extraordinary kindness. One 13-year-old MNR Dance Factory student, Katie Meyers, even asked that her fellow dancers donate to NOBA in lieu of giving her gifts for her bat mitzvah.
For 15 years, the partnership between the New Orleans Recreation Department and NOBA has provided 6,000 kids ages 6-18 with year-round comprehensive dance programs for free. In addition, it provides employment, professional development and artistic experiences to local artists.
“Because of NOBA, I know what I want to do and what it will take me to get there,” says Davis. “I know that I have to put my best foot forward all the time to achieve my goals.”