JUST BEYOND A side door at the Landmark Theater, there's mild pandemonium. Small children dressed in pink ballet skirts and Germanic costumes file past — hair pulled back, stage makeup on — shadowed by parents loaded with bags, shoes, snacks and hair ribbons. At the stage door, a slender, pink-clad girl of perhaps 6 or 7 shrieks and clutches at her mother. “You have to go back there,” she tells the child, “and I'm going around front to watch you.” She tries unsuccessfully to pry her daughter's hands from her arm.
Through another door across the hall, the velvety darkness of the theater gives way to the sparkle of stage lights, where three teenage girls in old-fashioned blue dresses stand, holding muffs, before a backdrop of a snowy European village. Parents and more young children murmur in their seats, scattered throughout the dark orchestra section. On this early evening in late June, it's dress rehearsal for the annual recital of the Richmond Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities dance program, presenting “The Stories of Hans Christian Andersen.”
Recorded music swells from the speakers, and the three girls dance a sprightly trio during which a vigorous woman seated just below the edge of the stage, her head silhouetted against the lights, admonishes, encourages and praises.
“Smile girls,” she calls out in a softened British accent.
“Look up! We want to see your faces!”
Annette Holt, the founder and co-director of Richmond's award-winning City Dance Program, started off teaching dance in local housing projects more than 30 years ago. Now her unique municipal program is housed in Pine Camp Arts and Community Center and enjoys three state-of-the-art dance studios. “I used to have people come in and say, ‘You can't tell my children what to do.' But I'm their teacher. That's what teachers do. We tell children what to do.” Photo by Scott Elmquist.This is Annette Holt, or Ms. Holt as she's known to the hundreds of children in the City Dance Program, and to the thousands who have gone through it since 1980. Though Holt's perhaps more widely known as the soft-spoken British woman who teaches yoga and calisthenics on public access television, she possesses a high-caliber performing arts rAcsumAc and an indomitable spirit. For more than 30 years, this tiny dynamo has devoted her life to bringing dance — particularly ballet — to underserved, mostly black youth of Richmond through the City Dance Program.
Unique among municipal programs around the country, the program offers the opportunity to study classical ballet, as well as modern, jazz, tap, hip-hop, and a range of other movement styles, in an environment simultaneously friendly, demanding and rigorous. Many youth come to the program, housed at Pine Camp Arts and Community Center, purely for recreation, but a fair number of students grow to take their dance training seriously — auditioning for one of the program's three performing companies, performing across the region, attending dance competitions, earning degrees in dance, even pursuing professional dance careers. The Richmond Ballet boasts an alumnus in Thomas Ragland.
William Eldridge, a professional composer who founded and presides over Friends of City Dance, encountered Holt and her program in 2007. “I went into the Landmark Theater one day to run sound for some dance thing,” he recalls. “Two weeks previously, I'd done a private school with a lot of sequined 7-year-olds shaking their booties to very thumpy, sexy music, and I was unimpressed. I was expecting more of the same, and what I got was classical ballet by primarily African-American children, and there were a lot of them. And they were pretty darn good. ... I knew what I was seeing. I knew it was remarkable and profound — and unique.”
Affordability and accessibility enhance the high-quality, progressive training available at Pine Camp. “I felt my son at a very early age showed some dance talent,” says Lenore Andrews, whose 12-year-old son studies with City Dance. “However, after checking out many dance studios in the City of Richmond, I found that as a single parent, I could not afford to send him. I found Pine Camp, and all of the sudden, the world opened up to him.”
As Andrews' son, Nathanial, says of Holt: “She's very hands-on. She does her best to help us, and she wants us to succeed in dancing.” The lessons also seem to extend beyond dance, he says, to “do your best, and be confident in what you do.”
That any of this happens is primarily because of Holt's vision and tenacity. The child of an American father and British mother who met during World War II, she studied ballet with such famous names as Leon Fokine, Frederic Franklin and Marie Rambert. She performed in Britain with Ballet Rambert until the company broke up, and did a stint in London's equivalent of Broadway, the West End.
During City Dance's annual recital at the Landmark, students rehearse a number based on Hans Christian Andersen's “Thumbelina.” “We try to give them the overall experience of what it would be like to be a professional dancer,” Holt says. Photo by Ash Daniel.Early on, Holt says she felt connected to the idea that ballet can belong to all children. Living in Washington she'd taken classes at the Jones Haywood School, which focused on minority youth and had a performing company called Capitol Ballet. “I used to sneak over to Capitol Ballet, in reverse,” she says. “They'd smuggle me up the back stairs to take part in their classes.” In the summer she'd study with Arthur Mitchell of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, the most prestigious black ballet company in the United States.
Those experiences resonate through the rich years of her post-performance career. After retiring from the stage, Holt decided to return to the United States. “Something drew me here,” she says. She took a job in Baltimore with the Cultural Arts Project, a federally funded remnant of Lyndon Johnson's Model Cities program, and became an ambassador for ballet in the inner city. When she began, the program's dance offerings focused on modern and African dance. Holt introduced ballet, basing her approach on her experiences as a student at Jones Haywood. “Because why shouldn't these kids be exposed to [ballet]?” she says. “Why should they just get exposed to everything that they know in their culture, and nothing different? Then they can decide if they want it. If they don't, that's fine. If you're never exposed to something, you never know.”
But federal money was running out. So on a tip from a friend in Richmond, Holt took a job with the City of Richmond's Central Activities Division in 1979. At first she was disappointed. The job “was largely being in charge of a lot of folk dance clubs,” she says. No hands-on teaching. No regular class offerings or cohesive dance program. “It was just a seasonal thing and it wasn't ongoing,” she says, “and it wasn't what I thought should be done. And the more I looked at the demographics of Richmond, I said, we have 1,400 dancers in this program, but they are all Caucasian, and they're all adults, and that's not what I'm seeing in Richmond.”
When she approached her supervisor about teaching, and offering ballet in housing project community centers, Holt was rebuffed. “This was sort of a brick wall I had come up against, and it was very disappointing.” Based on her Baltimore experience, she says, “I knew that ballet was something that all children could enjoy and should have the opportunity to do.”
She concocted a somewhat devious plan. “I arranged for pictures from my Baltimore days to be visible when the director of parks and rec came up for a meeting. I actually had a scrapbook, and managed to knock it off the desk. He picked it up and said, ‘What's this?' And I said, ‘Oh, I'm so clumsy! That was what I used to do in Baltimore.' And he said, ‘Well, why aren't we doing it here?' And I said, ‘I'm sure I don't know but I'd love to try!' So needless to say, I wasn't very popular with my [immediate] supervisor, but I actually got a group going at Whitcomb Court in 1980.” Eventually she expanded to teach in all 10 housing projects.
Holt got what she wanted, but the schedule was grueling. “I was going to a different center and teaching every evening,” she says. “And I was teaching sometimes two centers in an evening — an hour here, and then rush over to the next one.” Her classes were in addition to the regular daytime, hands-off part of her job.
The rehearsals for the annual City Dance recital can be tense and grueling, but Holt finds time for a moment of laughter with Pam Smith, recital coordinator and a member of the Parents'
Advisory Board. Photo by Ash Daniel.
“She said, ‘You can't put me out,' and I said, ‘Oh yes I can.' And I gently took her by the shoulders and walked her to the door, and said, ‘Now you're out!' And I closed the door and locked it from the inside. She went home and told her mother that I'd locked her out of the class.” The mother returned, enraged. “She said, ‘I'm going to go home and get my gun and blow your m-f brains out,'” Holt continues. “And I said, ‘Well, while you run that errand, I'm going to go on teaching these girls.'”
Holt eventually decided that this scattershot approach to teaching was unproductive. Although she taught hundreds of children throughout the city with great success, she couldn't sustain their training by offering advanced classes to those who wanted to continue. Teaching in community centers also presented unique challenges. “We were performing in rooms where the football team came through to get to the soda machine, and we were hanging on chairs and pool tables.”
Undeterred, by the mid-1980s Holt had convinced her bosses to allow her to set up shop in a former tuberculosis hospital at Pine Camp, which was re-opening as a community center. At first, she says, “I was only able to have it three times a week, but we did include Saturdays, and that meant I was able to include an awful lot of children at an upper level.” Inevitably the program grew. As more teachers were brought in, dance offerings expanded to include jazz, tap and modern.
In 1992, Rodney Williams, a dance instructor at Longwood University, was hired to teach modern and now co-directs the center's performing arm, City Dance Theatre, with Holt. She credits Williams, through his cheerful perfectionism, with giving student performers “the emotion and the feeling and intensity of it — the inspiration” behind the technique. She says his influence stands behind the striking performance quality of the City Dance Theatre dancers at venues such as Dogwood Dell and Grace Street Theater. “They dance their hearts out,” she says. “It's not so much the technique, but they give very much of themselves.”
Holt started the program's performing company, originally called City Dance Troupe, as a way to encourage students to stay in the program. “We took the most advanced dancers we had and we started performing for neighborhoods,” she says. “We kept our teenagers … they didn't leave. They enjoyed performing.”
In 2000 the Pine Camp facility was renovated and provided with three state-of-the-art dance studios. The program serves anywhere between 400 and 600 children and maintains, in addition to City Dance Theatre, two performing companies for younger children: Agape and KidsCo. The groups have won more than 100 awards at Dance America and other competitions, and normally are the only competing public dance program. As the program grew, it remained a family affair. For the first 20 years Holt's mother, Rita Holt, volunteered — sewing thousands of costumes for performances. She died last year.
The child of an American father and British mother who met during World War II, Holt studied ballet with the illustrious Marie Rambert at the Ballet Rambert company. This 1974 publicity photo was taken following Holt's stint in “Hello Dolly” on London's West End. Photo courtsey of Annette Holt.Along the way Holt has worked within a municipal bureaucracy, which can magnify or complicate the usual problems faced by any arts organization — money, in particular. Budget cuts in recent years have created shifts in funding, and the city can no longer pay for any teachers other than the salaries of Holt and Williams. Tuition payments from parents must completely cover the cost of additional instructors. This has resulted in a slight tuition increase. Both the City of Richmond and the Friends of City Dance offer scholarships to students who could not otherwise afford to attend, but Holt takes it hard that the tuition is no longer as affordable as it used to be.
“It's still cheap,” she says, “but it's not cheap enough. So we're now costing more than the children the program was intended for [can afford]. The program was intended for any child who wants to dance whose parents cannot afford to take them to a dance school or to the Richmond Ballet.” [Six-month classes start at $120.]
Where an independent nonprofit could apply for grants or corporate sponsorship to help offset some operating costs, she says: “We're a city agency. We get paid through city taxes. The corporations pay their taxes to the city.” So, she says, “They don't feel inclined” to offer additional support to city agencies.
In addition to endless funding struggles, changes in city leadership can throw established programs and practices into question. Holt has often been called upon to justify, and rejustify, the value of what she does. Keeping her numbers high is critical. “We added a lot of other things,” she says, “… the gymnastics, the kung fu, the karate. We try to have something for everybody to encourage people to at least come to the center and be part of something positive. It's got to the point now where [the city] would have a hard time doing away with it. I think about four or five years ago I got scared because there were discussions of downsizing — it could be two or three days a week, and there could be less teachers, and I said, ‘Absolutely not. It's taken me 25 years to get it to this point, and I'm not going back to what we had 20 years ago.'”
“It's a stressful job,” she says, “it really is. I would like to be in the classroom more, and have less of the administrative part of it. Unfortunately you have reports to write and budgets to do. And every time there's a complaint, you have to answer that complaint, no matter how ridiculous.”
Holt has tussled perhaps most fiercely with the chain of command over the matter of complaints from parents. “With all directors of programs or companies or dance schools, the buck stops with the director,” she says. “And when there's a problem, the person has to go to them. And the resolution of that is, if you don't like the way we do things, you need to take your child and go somewhere else.”
But, as Eldridge at Friends of City Dance puts it, Holt “can't kick people out of a public dance program.”
“We had one parent that called the mayor's office because her little girl wet the floor in someone's class,” Holt says. “We didn't have a bathroom policy printed on the wall. The kid hadn't raised her hand to go, so the teacher didn't know. And so now we have a big policy written up on the wall so we can point to it and say, ‘Well, you needed to read it!' Come on, the mayor's office?”
“They dance their hearts out,” Holt says of the students that she and her City Dance staff teach at Pine Camp, such as dancers Chayla Simpson, 14, and Clare Cruz, 10. Photo by Scott Elmquist.Holt's supervisor is Brian Little, program director for cultural arts in the parks and recreation for nine years. He stands at the intersection of the clash between artistic and bureaucratic values. “I value her persistence the most, her tenacity,” he says of Holt. “She does not take no for an answer, regardless of what the rules say. ... It can be difficult, because there are several guidelines and ordinances that the city has, that we continuously have to look at, and figure out what the exception is to the rule. Within the city we have such a unique program that oftentimes it is difficult to govern.”
As an added challenge, the world of dance, particularly ballet, has its own set of rules — about dress, posture and behavior — which can seem foreign and old-fashioned to newcomers. “A lot of the parents really don't understand what it is we're trying to do,” Holt says. “When they do realize, they come onboard. And once their kids get to the stage of being in the company, then those are parents who bless the program and are grateful for it. But … I used to have people come in and say, ‘You can't tell my child what to do.' But I'm their teacher. That's what teachers do. We tell children what to do.”
City Dance's annual school recital at the Landmark, for example, is structured as an evening-length performance (of a story ballet, for example), rather than as a series of unrelated dances. “We try to give them the overall experience of what it would be like to be a professional dancer,” Holt says. “I try to make it as much of a real production for them as possible. And that's how a lot of our kids want to stay in the program, because they enjoy that experience. But the parents just don't get it — ‘I had no idea that I was going to have to sit here for 45 minutes before I got to see my child,' one said. Well, that's where your child fit into that particular part of the story.”
Williams emphasizes the difficulties Holt faces: “Ninety percent of the battles are the parents. Everybody wants to see their little darling in the front doing a solo. But we can't have a thousand solos; somebody has to do the chorus part. ‘Thumbelina' cannot have 100 Thumbelinas. She needs a supporting cast.”
Angela Collier, a parent whose two girls, now grown, both came through the dance program, acknowledges the culture clash inherent in introducing inexperienced students and parents to the rarified world of ballet. “Everybody's coming from different walks of life,” Collier says. “It's an inner-city program, so it has a stigma behind it. But little do they know it's like a diamond in the rough. Because they have this lady that trained, I mean classical ballet. You're not going to get that anywhere else for the amount of money that you pay, and regardless of what you pay, she's gonna give it to you.”
Holt's strong, vibrant personality serves as both her best asset and greatest challenge at Pine Camp. “Annette is hard,” Williams says. “She's like the teacher you don't realize how much she was giving you until after, you look back and say, ‘Thank God I had her!' Because she's hard, and she believes in discipline. And through that, you achieve your best.”
City Dance Theatre is the performing arm of the CDP and features 18 dancers ranging in age from 9 to 18. Photo by Hassan Pitts.Melaney Cash first took class with Holt when she was 6 at Fairfield Court Recreation Center. Now a dancer for Starr Foster Dance Project, with a degree in dance from Virginia Commonwealth University, Cash values the fact that Holt pushed her, sometimes harder than she liked. “Ms. Holt used to, in a sense, pick on me. And my mom always told me that Ms. Holt was really hard on students that she felt had strong potential. ... At one point, she and I kind of butted heads.” Eventually, Cash realized that “dance was something I wanted to do, more than just a hobby on the side,” and that “even if she yells at me, even if she gets upset with me, she's trying to help me become better.”
“She is very demonstrative,” Friends of City Dance's Eldridge says. “This is something that it takes parents a while to get used to, although the kids love it. ‘Point your toe, damn it! I said point it!'”
“One woman yelled at [Holt] in the office for her accent and posture,” he says. “[She thought] Annette was trying to put on airs of being superior [to] make other people feel inferior. What's she going to do? She's a British ballet dancer. And she explained that. But it rubs people the wrong way sometimes. But her people are extremely devoted, past and present.”
Holt being chronically overworked can exacerbate these perceptions. “My first impression was, she's the type who seems like she's in a hurry,” parent Andrews says. “She kind of comes at you with that English accent, and trying to do about 10 things at once. And she's trying to tell you what she knows you need to do, and you don't really all the way get it.”
Problems of disorganization plague the program. Schedules change without sufficient notice. Holt has no assistant, and relies heavily on parent volunteers, Andrews says. “And they also have their own lives. They're trying to volunteer and juggle many different things. So sometimes the communication isn't as clear because of that. Everybody's trying their very best. ... She carries a lot, and she works very, very long days.”
But for these parents, as for Holt, everything comes down to the children. “It's about the kids,” Williams says. “That's what we try to remind the parents, that's what we try to remind everybody. If it's not about the kids, then what are we doing it for? And Annette is about the kids. She calls me at midnight crying about somebody else's child.”
Holt recently worked with a youngster who has severe behavioral problems. The girl came to ballet class once a week, and it was touch-and-go whether she could get through an entire class. But eventually, through Holt's patience and persistence, she had a great class one day, and Holt wanted to reward her.
“I said to the other children — I mean, they're getting a little bit fed up — I said, ‘I think today that we're all so happy for her because she had a really wonderful class, and she didn't drop out at any time, and she did everything, and she worked well with her partners, and she did such a good job, I think we ought to let her know, and say thank you to her for being such a good student today.' And those little darlings came running up, and they put their arms around her, a couple of them. One of them kissed her on the cheek, and another one gave her a hug from behind, and said, ‘We love you! We're glad that you had a good day!' And that little child, I saw her face — it just lit up. She was so happy.'”
At the Landmark recital, this little girl performed with all the others. “She came on, she did the dance, you couldn't tell her from anyone else,” Holt says. “There was this big smile on her face, and the applause. ... I looked over at her and said, ‘You did great!' And she gave a big smile, and the lights went out.”