Wearing a bright red unitard, Homer Bryant strides through the studio, clapping his hands and snapping instructions. His students stand at the bar gracefully, without apparent effort, watching him seriously. One young girl extends an arm a little further; another turns out a foot as far as it will go. "I'm wearing red," Bryant says. "You know what that means." What it means is a tough class.
Bryant's students have gone on to dance professionally with major companies: Ballet Chicago, New York City Ballet, and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Two former students, T.C. Carson and Victoria Dillard, switched from dance to acting and are now appearing in feature films. For the nonprofessional student, Bryant promises a good workout, discipline, and a sense of accomplishment. "There are certain bodies that make good dancers," he says. "For those who don't have those bodies, I'm out to improve and enhance qualities that will help them in whatever they do in life."
Bryant tries to impart to his students what he has learned himself in his 20-some years in the dance world. Although he has a background in modern and jazz dance as well, his arabesque is classical enough to have warranted an invitation to teach at the Bolshoi Ballet in Russia. He decided to stay in Chicago, however, to concentrate on his newly opened Bryant Ballet School of Dance, where he teaches six days a week, with classes for all ages at all levels.
Bryant found dance by accident. As a youth in his native Saint Thomas, in the Virgin Islands, he was initially more interested in spying on the girls than in dancing himself. When the dance instructor threatened to have him arrested, he figured dance lessons beat jail and began taking jazz and tap. "I pictured myself as a black Fred Astaire," Bryant says. "I loved it from the start." His instructor urged him to take ballet, which at first felt strange. "It required a lot of discipline," he says. "Standing still, holding my arm just so." In 1967, through a grant arranged by the arts council of the Virgin Islands, Bryant attended the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts.
From Jacob's Pillow, where he worked with Ted Shawn, Bryant moved to Brooklyn to continue his studies. "It felt like I was being carried along," he says. "I was taking classes, doing some performing, sweeping stages for work--dancing all of the time." During another summer at Jacob's Pillow Bryant met Arthur Mitchell, founder of the Dance Theatre of Harlem: "In sailed Mitchell with his beautiful dancers, and I thought--I want to dance with them." Bryant swept stages in return for dance classes with Mitchell, and eventually he became a principal dancer in the company and Mitchell's assistant.
During the 1970s, Bryant danced under the instruction of George Balanchine in a collaborative performance by New York City Ballet and the Dance Theatre of Harlem. He danced in Jerome Robbins's one-act ballet, Fancy Free. Offered a chance to perform in the 1978 movie The Wiz, he left Mitchell's company. After the movie, Bryant says, "I had dreams of being an actor, but I knew that wasn't realistic. I decided to specialize in teaching ballet--I knew I was good at it."
After a series of teaching posts with Alvin Ailey and the Dance Theatre of Harlem, among others, Bryant came to Chicago, where he's lived for five years. In 1990 he opened his own school, at 1780 N. Marcey Place. "I was tired of teaching for other people," he comments. "I wanted to concentrate on and develop my own teaching techniques.
"My aim is to help shape each student into the best he or she can be without forcing the impossible," Bryant says. He does not believe that pain is a necessary by-product of ballet. "I believe in harmony between body and mind. As a dancer, I know how much tension is held in the body, so I teach breathing, relaxation, and mental awareness. You can tax your body without hurting it. I hear these horror stories coming from the dance world--anorexia, drug abuse, smoking cigarettes. There's something skewed about kids trying to perfect their bodies and then committing self-destructive acts. I don't want that inflicted on my students."
Bryant emphasizes positive reinforcement. "I like to concentrate on the good," he says. "A lot of ballet teachers focus on faults rather than assets." But discipline, Bryant maintains, is not punishment: "I have a no-nonsense philosophy. I expect the same strict attention from my students that I give. When I ask for a movement or exercise, I want them to put as much work into it as possible."
Bryant is currently developing a new teaching tactic: rap ballet. "People often perceive ballet as boring," he says. "I want to bring it into the 21st century." Bryant sets classical ballet movements to rap music. "When people ask how the two can be combined, my answer is: a beat is a beat, whether it's ballet, jazz, rock and roll, or rap."
Bryant's one commitment outside of dance is his nine-year-old daughter, Alexandra, who has cerebral palsy. "Dealing with my daughter has taught me patience in working with my students," he says. He has occasionally taken students to visit Alexandra, and "they help me work with her." He says his daughter is an inspiration. "I'm not just teaching dance. I'm trying to teach about life."
Bryant Ballet School of Dance is located at 1780 N. Marcey; call 642-2295 for information on classes.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.