Harlem dance group enthralls Philadelphia kids

April 22, 2011

Tuesday, 12 April 2011
Kimberly C. Roberts Tribune Entertainment Reporter

Last week, amid the controlled chaos of the 27th annual Philadelphia International Children’s Festival, The Dance Theatre of Harlem Ensemble (DTHE) presented a wonderful program, designed to educate, entertain, motivate and inspire the young audience that filled the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Center.

Founded in 1969 by Arthur Mitchell and Karen Shock, Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) “has grown into a multi-cultural dance institution with an extraordinary legacy of providing opportunities for creative expression and artistic excellence that continues to set standards in the performing arts.”

Dance Theatre of Harlem Ensemble, the second company of DTH, features16 young dancers, ages 18-25, and ensemble director Keith Saunders, formerly a dancer with the company, hosted a lively program that featured a variety of short ballet performances and excerpts, giving the audience a behind-the-scenes look at the making of an artist, from the barre to the stage, and exposing them to the company’s “unique yet classic” brand of dance and amazing 42-year history.

The audience, comprised mainly of students from schools throughout Philadelphia, watched with rapt attention as Saunders, accompanied by a competent pianist named “Melody,” basically taught a ballet class on stage, working at the barre with six talented dancers — three male and three female.

Emphasizing the importance of “strength and stretch” in a dancer’s body, Saunders explained how each exercise has a specific objective and benefit to the body, and also shared the origin of ballet dancing, including why the terminology is in French.

Stepping away from the ballet barre, the ensemble was joined by four additional dancers, and Saunders had the ladies show the fascinated spectators the basics of dancing in “toe shoes,” or en pointe. Interestingly, the children seemed most impressed by the strength, swagger and competitive nature of the men, who demonstrated spectacular turns and lifts, tossing the ladies about with ease and abandon.

After explaining the importance of lighting, costumes and “how everything comes together to make a ballet,” Saunders had his disciplined, well-trained dancers perform excerpts from works such as “Le Corsaire” and “The Joplin Dances,” with each incorporating some of the movements that the children learned in the earlier “ballet class.”

For me, the highlight of the captivating program came when Saunders asked for volunteers from the audience to come up on stage and show him some of today’s dances. Dozens of kids immediately rushed onto the stage and soon were gyrating joyously to “I Got a Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas. Before they realized what was happening, the clever Saunders had them all standing in First, then Second “position,” declaring that they’d just had their first ballet lesson with the Dance Theatre of Harlem!

The program ended with a fun finale set to James Brown’s “Mother Popcorn,” which incorporated popular dances such as the “Bump,” the “Butterfly” and the “Robot,” and had even the most timid students dancing in their seats.

Judging by the way the four very young kids in front of me bounced wildly to the beat, I would say that a number of children were forever influenced by what they saw at Annenberg Center that day — which is the whole point of the Children’s Festival. I feel safe in saying that this DTHE experience will absolutely produce some of the top dancers of tomorrow.