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Virginia dance studio finds success in diversity

One mom started a successful dance studio after finding schools in the area lacked diversity.
Virginia dance studio finds success in diversity
Posted at 12:21 PM, Aug 14, 2023

In this Virginia studio, there's ballet and contemporary, a little bit of breaking and a lot of encouragement.

The dancers are as diverse as the styles.

Founder Khalia Harris started the Umbiance Center for the Performing Arts after finding little diversity in area schools for her daughter Nya Harris.

"She started it so that I could see myself and have a place in the arts that was like, all my own," Nya explained.

"When I was visiting places, they were saying, well, you know, people of color just don't put their children into extracurricular activities and things. I was thinking, I just don't think that's true," said Khalia.

Ten years later, enrollment is up to 200 students — mostly through word of mouth. The studio even survived COVID-19, which took a toll on many businesses.

"This is a place where students of all different shapes and sizes and colors and genders can come and just be accepted and be safe," Khalia said.

"It's one of those dance studios where it's not competitive at all. It's just you do your dancing, I'll do mine," explained break dancer Aiden Zanella.

Misty Copeland, the first Black principal ballerina in the history of the American Ballet Theatre, has lamented the lack of diversity, telling TIME, "It weighs on you and it wears on you after a while. Something I fought so hard in the beginning of my career. I didn't want to pancake my skin a lighter color to fit into the court of ballet."

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It's not just the lack of representation; it's the standards that some in the dance world say aren't inclusive, like the requirement for pink tights.

"Each of our dancers, no matter what their skin tone is, will find tights that will match their skin tone, which was not a thing because obviously when ballet was formed, it was not formed with us in mind, people of color, so you get pink tights," explained Khalia.

And while every style is welcomed, fundamentals are still a requirement.

"Tap (was) a little struggle, but I got into it. But ballet and contemporary … oh no ma'am," said David Steward, who started as a hip-hop dancer but has learned to embrace other styles.

Khalia said she wants her students to love themselves but also be able to succeed on any stage in the world — and they have, with some going on to perform at the Kennedy Center and for legendary choreographer Debbie Alan.

She also gives away dozens of scholarships to area kids yearly through her LEAP program.

"After COVID, I have personally seen more than ever that our children are hurting, and arts programs used to be in our schools, and now they're not. And so in my heart, it's to give back to the community," Khalia said.

She said at the end of the day, it's about giving every child a sense of belonging.

"I want them to know that boys can dance too," said Steward.

"I know that I'm just a dancer and I'm not carrying the responsibility of being the only black dancer in the room," said Nya.

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