Homer's Odyssey

Article excerpt

IN A 12-YEAR ARTISTIC QUEST, HOMER BRYANT HAS BEEN TRYING TO PROVIDE THE UNDERPRIVILEGED CHILDREN OF CHICAGO WITH A LOVE OF DANCE.

High Expectations. Self-Confidence. Discipline. Determination. Every time students at Homer Hans Bryant's Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center (CMCDC) stretch at the barre, perform grand allegro or execute pirouettes, they come face to face with uplifting words written on large signs in a row on the studio's walls. "You can't turn around without seeing something that will make you a better artist and a better person," says 25-year-old Kristen Ziolko, who took her first ballet class at the school eight years ago and is currently a teacher and principal dancer with Bryant's professional company, Bryant Ballet Chicago. "Homer's philosophies are all on the wall."

Since the studio's inception in 1990, Bryant, formerly a member of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, has aimed to teach more than just plies and arabesques to a diverse body of dancers. "There are a lot of schools out there that concentrate only on making good dancers," says Bryant. "I'm trying to make better human being."

Bryant's wealth of experience enables him to provide students with both solid dance training as well as humanity. A native of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, he attributes his all-inclusive philosophies to the communal way he was raised. His own teachers supported his artistic endeavors and, every day after school, he worked in his father's carpentry shop, later applying those skills to building stage sets and even designing costumes. "I was always surrounded by people who told me I could," says Bryant. "I want to extend the idea of a village to my studio."

His philosophy is working. CMCDC, which is housed in a refurbished railway station on the southern edge of downtown Chicago, attracts more than 400 students ranging from age 3 through adult. The school offers courses in ballet, jazz, tap, African and Latin as well as preparatory training for the Imperial Society of the Teachers of Dance syllabus exam. Striving to become "the most diverse classical ballet school in the city," CMCDC is known for welcoming all wanting to explore the artform-no matter what age, race, gender or religious affiliation.

Bryant has further promoted this "dance for all" mindset with his numerous outreach programs. His fun, five-part Alphabet Rap Ballet: A Musical Message About Dance, Discipline and Determination introduces schoolaged children who visit his studio on field trips to classical ballet in a rap and hip hop format. The success of this "rap ballet" led to the establishment of CMCDC's year-round Dancing Off The Streets program, which brings children from underprivileged Chicago communities, including South Chicago and Pilsen, into the studio for free classes. "When we were doing the rap ballet, so many kids said they wanted to dance but had never pursued it," explains Bryant. "That's when we came up with the Dancing Off The Streets idea. This promotes our mission that no child will be denied the opportunity to study for a career in dance as well as the reality that dance is an alternative to a violent and often destructive street youth lifestyle."

CMCDC selects students for Dancing Off The Streets from area elementary and high schools, beginning at age 7, based on passion and a willingness to learn. Through a $25,000 MacArthur Foundation Grant, students are then provided with dance attire and full scholarships to the center. To stay in the program, dancers are required to keep up their grades and bring their report cards to class. Bryant insists that they do their homework-and stretch while they're at it.

Bryant's dedication to his students has not gone unnoticed: His office is wallpapered with thank-you notes from former students of Dancing Off The Streets who have gone on to college and professional dance companies such as Joffrey Ballet of Chicago and Houston Ballet. Former student Gaynor Hall, currently enrolled at Syracuse University, writes in a letter to Bryant: "Through the discipline you have demanded from me, you have taught me lessons that will go far beyond the dance studio. …