New Ballet Ensemble & School and Dancing With Pride

New Ballet Ensemble & School Mentoring Programs are fostering our youth with dance

This story was featured in our print and virtual May/June PRIDE issue.

“Dance is like the homeostasis of the arts,” said Florien Alexander, a 22-year-old dancer and protégé at New Ballet Ensemble & School. 

It’s an empowering thought that all dancers might share that special understanding of homeostasis, or a true state of balance between all parts of their bodies. Perhaps just as remarkable is how Memphis-based New Ballet Ensemble & School helps bring about that balance.

New Ballet, located in Cooper-Young, is a nonprofit offering kids, teens, and young adults professional dance lessons, even if they can’t pay for them.

Interior of New Ballet Ensemble & School by Michael Walker
Interior of New Ballet Ensemble & School by Michael Walker

New Ballet’s mentorship program spans beyond dance, guiding students to growth and development in and out of the classroom. In partnership with the Memphis Grizzlies Foundation, the nonprofit allows students from all backgrounds to lead in their own journeys, giving them the liberty to choose between one-on-one, peer, and group mentoring. 

Mentorship programs like New Connective Mentoring at New Ballet, are no small feat. Mentor National recently reported that youth with mentors are 37% less likely to skip a class, 75% more likely to hold leadership roles, and 92% more likely to volunteer on a regular basis.

Possibly the most wonderful effect New Ballet has, though, is its ability to help young people find power and pride within themselves, regardless of gender, sexuality, religion, or race.

“It has helped me to further boost my confidence in my abilities and how far dance can take you in life. I’m also learning the beauty of vulnerability and allowance,” said Charlye Murrell, 25-year-old teaching artist and protégé with New Ballet.

Charlye Murrell and Florien Alexander perform on stage together
Charlye Murrell and Florien Alexander perform on stage together, courtesy NBES

“There’s never a dull moment”, shared Jacqueline Gladness, Youth Program Coordinator of the nonprofit’s mentorship program, as we explored the New Ballet building on York Avenue. Jacqueline, who also grew up with mentors in her childhood, expressed how important it is to always be present.

“We can get caught up in the rhythm of work, but in this program we have to remember emotional health is just as important as everything else,” said Jacqueline.

A Memphis native, Jacqueline shared her distinct path into mentorship from a young age, “My life is full of people welcoming me into their lives and taking me under their wings. So I knew this was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.” said Jacqueline.

Jacqueline describes her job, in part, as “mentoring the mentors,” like Charlye, who recently became a mentor to a 2nd grader in the program after showing great enthusiasm to get more involved. 

“The young people that I get to interact with are probably the most enjoyable to me. I love being able to give them an experience that will potentially impact how they view the world and dance for years to come,” said Charlye.

Charlye Murrell with her mentor, NBES Creative Director, Maxx Reed
Charlye Murrell with her mentor, NBES Creative Director, Maxx Reed (maxx.reed)

Charlye, who grew up in Memphis, finds freedom in not getting too attached to labels about her many identities, including her queerness.

“When it comes to my queer identity, I don’t necessarily label myself as a lesbian or gay. I tend to express myself as being an androgynous woman that is attracted to women. These days my clothing and movement choices reflect the type of energy I’m in for the day, not my sexual choices,” said Charlye. 

For Charlye, her queerness and relationship with dance cannot be separated from her Memphis upbringing, quite specifically with Memphis Jookin, a dance style born out of Gangsta Walkin and the late 80s Memphis club scene.

“I grew up as a tomboy and for the most part I dressed as such, so I got bullied for several years. When I got to the point in college where I was able to begin training and learning Memphis Jookin, it was right up my alley. Not only did it give me a positive outlet of expression but it also gave me a place where I can display both masculine and feminine traits that I process within my art form almost seamlessly,” said Charlye.

Pablo Francisco Ruvalcaba and in rehearsal with New Ballet students
Guest choreographer Pablo Francisco Ruvalcaba with Creative Director Maxx Reed and New Ballet students

New Ballet offers all sorts of dance classes to its students, including Memphis Jookin. Also, the organization often welcomes guest choreographers like Pablo Francisco Ruvalcaba, a Julliard alum and Tijuana, Mexico native who specializes in the Limón Technique. 

Co-Founding Director of the Higher Ground Festival of New York City, and a founding member of the dance collective, Movement Migration, Pablo shared that he continues to be inspired by the New Ballet students’ commitment to learning.

“All movement is valued. I like to empower students in the joy of movement because all movement is authentic and comes from a place of [needing] validation.” said Pablo, who was currently visiting New Ballet for the fourth time as its “Springloaded—Tales of Light” choreographer at the time of this interview.

Like Pablo’s commitment to validation in dance, New Ballet mentees and instructors work to bring a holistic approach to all the ways students can grow. To do this, Jacqueline expressed a deliberate need to “understand an artistic mind.”

“Potential mentors don’t have to have a dance background to get involved. I’ve even learned a lot about dance since I started. But they have to have a willingness to understand their mentees, and notice the ‘small things,’” said Jacqueline.

Kathy Coburn, Patron Service Liaison at New Ballet, expressed a similar sentiment. When the mother of 6 had the opportunity to facilitate a small mentee group of 11-13-year-old girls, she listened closely to her students’ hopes for the program, from jewelry and gingerbread house-making, baking sessions, and even enlightening discussions about Misty Copeland.

“You get as much as you give,” said Kathy, who also shared how her experience with motherhood helped enrich her time with her students.

“Personal experiences will always influence who you are as a mentor,” she said.

An intentional desire to help and an openness to learning seemed to be necessary and ongoing themes in New Ballet’s mentorship programs, as they help students of all backgrounds feel not just welcome, but safe.

Florien affirmed that need when asked how he wanted to be understood by others,

“I’m just an earth creature from the south with a sprinkle of ADHD and a dash of autism just trying to live in peace,” shared Florien, who enjoys ballet, contemporary, modern, jazz, hip hop, west african, and flamenco style dance (with a preference for contemporary). 

Florien Alexander was introduced to the arts with music composition and singing at 6 with his siblings.

“I was born into a pretty religious family, was homeschooled all of my life, and didn’t see any positive examples of queer people until I was in my teens. I knew that we existed, but I only ever heard negative things. I grew up believing harmful stereotypes about the community,” he said. 

Florien later found solace in New Ballet, after a queer friend helped them discover community, “It wasn’t until a close friend of mine came out to me as bisexual that I started to realize I wasn’t going through it alone. Not long after that, I started making friends with queer kids and allies at my dance school. That’s when I learned about queer identities and accepted myself for who I was. Now, I am proud to be a queer trans man who is making history and inspiring others!”

Florien Alexander big Jump with dance troupe, courtesy NBES

Though they share different stories and upbringings, Charlye and Florien both expressed a tremendous pride in their existences as young queer artists and humans. It’s a thing older LGBTQ+ generations hope for, and programs like New Ballet help actualize. 

“I am proud to be me because I know where I used to be!” shared Florien, “I’ve learned that my worth in life isn’t based on my achievements and how much work I get done in a day. I recognize that being human means that I am going to live a human experience and be nothing less than human.”

Perhaps we can all learn something from dancers about finding a true state of balance between all parts of a body. But in the meantime, the proud students at New Ballet help us remember that wherever and however we show up in this moment, is enough. 

As Charlye so poetically stated, “I’m a star. Out of the plethora of stars in the universe, no two are identical. Out of the billions of people that are on earth, no two are exactly the same. No one can do or be me like I can. It’s one of those “it’s in you, not on you” type of deals.”

Be sure to get your tickets for New Ballet’s SummerDance on Friday, June 14th at Buckman Performing Arts Center.

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