It takes a ballet company: Thomas Armour Youth Ballet teaches life skills along with dance

The Thomas Armour Youth Ballet (TAYB) was established over 60 years ago in 1951 by renowned classical ballet dancer, Thomas Armour. Originally called the Miami Ballet, the for-profit school and nonprofit performing company changed its name in 1996 to honor the founder and reduce the confusion between their organization and the much newer Miami City Ballet.

In 1988 Ruth Wiesen, now director of TAYB, founded the Thomas Armour Youth Ballet Scholarship Program to help talented children from low-income neighborhoods access placement in one of the Miami-Dade County Public Schools dance magnets. Though she had no way of knowing this at the time, this was really a watershed moment for the work of TAYB.

Ruth Wiesen“The reason [we started that was] that the New World School of the Arts had been such a wonderful public magnet high school and college and Miami-Dade County has a unique arts magnet program that starts at elementary level where others start at junior or high school,” she explains. “In a perfect world the best of the kids in elementary school would get into the middle school programs, and the best of those would get into New World. But in the real world it’s kids from families with enough money for them to take ballet class after school [who go on]. It came down to economics.”

She approached the president of TAYB at the time and asked if she could fill in some of the available spots in the classroom with her scholarship idea. “These kids were good dancers, they just needed a few extra classes,” she says. “Suddenly they got into New World, which changed the diversity of New World, and it just grew and grew from there.”

Then they realized they needed to reach the kids earlier, which meant that parents needed to have a vehicle and the time to drive them to class. This wasn’t always possible so, in 1996, TAYB added to its mission an emphasis on community outreach to increase ballet accessibility to underprivileged youth.

“We went to them,” Wiesen says simply. They started outreach efforts at a satellite site at Morningside K-8 Academy in Little Haiti and offered classes for free with support from organizations like the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs and the Women’s Fund of Miami-Dade. There are now five such satellite sites in underserved neighborhoods, which previously included a migrant campsite (though they recently had to relocate after outgrowing that location). These satellite sites collectively serve over 500 kids.

“It just exploded,” she says. “We’re really kind of at a tipping point because there’s requests for us to do this in other neighborhoods, but in terms of human resources we just can’t take on anymore right now.”

Between the main site and the five satellites, TAYB serves 1,100 kids. And yes, they teach them all how to be great dancers, and the organization has former students performing in prestigious dance companies all over the world. In fact, one of their core programs, an intensive summer program with professional dance companies in New York City for which TAYB covers all living expenses, has helped many students get (and stay) on their radar.

“In the end, when the kids go on to audition somewhere like Alvin Ailey, the auditioner might see 20 incredible dancers but think, ‘I remember you, you’ve been here the last few summers. You work hard, you’re not a complainer, and you show up on time.’ Sometimes something as simple as that gets them the job.”

During this summer program the kids will spend four to eight weeks living with sometimes up to 12 other students in a New York apartment, where they are responsible for cooking and cleaning, utilizing a budget, and navigating the trains and subways (with a chaperone to help).

In fact, as far as Wiesen is concerned, the life skills that are taught to all of the TAYB students are just as valuable to them as the arts education.

“Yes, they get a great arts education and some go on to be professional dancers, but there’s really just a handful of dance positions out there so we really don’t try to set that as the end goal,” she states. “We’re giving them the life skills of discipline, focus, working as team, paying attention to the smallest detail, and delayed gratification.”

While Malcolm Gladwell’s now-infamous “10,000 hour rule” may have, to some extent, been debunked, Wiesen says that there is still a real value in understanding that “it really doesn’t matter how talented you are, if you don’t put in the hours it doesn’t happen.” TAYB students learn to be willing to put in the time to achieve their goals. “When they leave here and go to college they are really undaunted by post-graduate work,” says Wiesen. “We have a disproportionate number of students in med school. They do well on college applications because colleges know that not only do these kids have good GPA but they’re also juggling an insane workload and hours of practice.”

The Thomas Armour Youth Ballet strives to set their kids up for success. But sometimes it isn’t just a matter of providing them with the enviable instruction and instilling in them the tireless work ethic. Sometimes different kinds of life resources are needed for success.

“It’s not enough to offer classes,” says Wiesen. “If they’re going to succeed, we have to be protective. If a child stops coming to class, we can’t assume the child has lost interest. What if they lost a ballet shoe and are embarrassed to call because they can’t afford another pair? Or sometimes the family car breaks down and they can’t afford to tow it or fix it, and all of a sudden the entire family is forced to ride the bus. We don’t assume anything.”

This is what Wiesen refers to as the “obstacle-removal component”: providing support to the children and their families in ways that go far beyond classroom education. This can mean any number of things – giving a family free Metro passes, getting contact lenses for a child who wears glasses, finding a dentist to fix a child’s teeth. They helped a female student with two autistic brothers and a mom who only spoke Cantonese by connecting her mother to a variety of services in Miami-Dade County to help her with her sons and help her navigate and overcome the language barrier. “We have an extensive network of ‘wraparound services.’ We can find help for sexual identity issues, homelessness, foster care, immigration issues. These are all things we have to be prepared to deal with if we’re going to do what we say we’re going to do.”

Another story Wiesen tells is that of Ebony, a certifiable math genius with a gift for dance who was hand-selected by the Young Women’s Preparatory Academy for TAYB. Her verbal and written communication skills were not what they should be as a result of environmental factors, so TAYB connected her with a mentor who coached her on her communication skills and helped her write 50 college essays. Ebony was accepted to Dartmouth on a full scholarship, but it doesn’t stop there: Ebony has never experienced winter and doesn’t have appropriate winter clothes, and her family doesn’t have the money to bring her home for Thanksgiving and Christmas. TAYB will help will all of that too. “It doesn’t stop,” says Wiesen. “We have this incredible array of people and organizations and services that are willing to help. It was a lucky day when she walked into our office.”

Wiesen jokes, “I wish I could say I had this grand vision 25 years ago, but I didn’t. We learned things along the way – ‘this is valuable; this could work; this will help kids get to med school and post-grad.'”

It might take a village to raise a child, but in Miami-Dade County, it also takes a ballet company.