By Ben Joravsky
The future of Chicago dance is being shaped in a converted railroad station on the south edge of the Loop.
That's where Homer Bryant puts his charges, ages 3 through 16, through hour after hour of complicated ballet routines. What makes his school rare is not the talent of his students, though one or two have enormous potential, or his status as a great danseur. It's his larger mission. In his own way, Bryant's trying to smash walls of self-segregation. There are many dance schools where bright little girls and boys learn ballet fundamentals. But the Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center is the rare school where kids of all races learn them together.
"Where's it written that black kids can't learn ballet? Why must we conform to such stereotypes?" says Bryant, who makes a point of recruiting dance students from the public schools. "Ballet's a discipline for all kids. There are potentially great ballet dancers all over this city. We have to find them."
Like many of these students, Bryant began his dance career despising ballet. Growing up on Saint Thomas in the Virgin Islands, he watched ballet classes at a local dance school and sneered at the dancers. "I was like many of the students I see every day, very stubborn. I didn't think ballet was for me. It takes a lot of discipline. There's a rigidness to ballet that we don't have in tap or jazz. I didn't like it. I made fun of it, I didn't understand it. What did I know? I knew nothing."
But Bryant wanted to sign up for jazz and tap dance, and the owner of the school made him take ballet as well. At age 14 he showed enough potential to win a scholarship to spend the summer studying ballet at Jacob's Pillow, the famous dance festival in Massachusetts. Afterward he moved in with a cousin's family in Brooklyn. "I went to Erasmus Hall High School, the same school as Barbra Streisand. I wanted to be a great dancer, and I knew I had to stay in the States to make it. It was scary. I was used to being a big fish in a little pond. But everyone in New York could do really amazing things. I was in denial. Ballet was hard--ballet requires mind-body discipline, it requires you to do things that don't come naturally. I kept saying, 'I don't need this. I'll do tap and jazz.' That was just the easy way out. But I was long and lean and strong and flexible, and my body was saying, 'No, stick at it, work--ballet's for you.'"
In the summer of 1971, after he'd graduated from high school, he had what he calls "a major revelation" about his future. "I was sweeping the stage at Jacob's Pillow, where I was studying for the summer, when Arthur Mitchell brought in his Dance Theatre of Harlem to rehearse. They were 17 or so African-American male dancers and ballerinas. They looked so good, so confident, so elegant, so strong. I watched them walk across the stage and said to myself, 'I have to be part of this.'"
He became a $75-a-week apprentice with Mitchell's company. "I swept the floors, I cleaned the mirrors, I set down the dance floors, I worked the lights. I did that for four months before I got my break. They were about to go on their first tour of the islands, but two male dancers couldn't make it. I was onstage sweeping again when Mitchell said, 'I need two guys to show me the pas de trios'--a dance for three. My arm went into the air. He started laughing, but he didn't know I had been having some of the girls show me the different ballets. When I finished, Mitchell said, 'Homer, pack your bags--you're going to Jamaica tomorrow.' That's how I got into the Dance Theatre of Harlem."
For the next 12 years he toured with Mitchell's company. "I clicked with Arthur. We're both left-handed, our birthdays are two days apart, we're both Aries. I look exactly like him when he was my age. When we toured Spain, people would embrace me and say, 'Arthur, it's a miracle, you haven't changed in 20 years.'
"I traveled all over the world with Arthur's company. I started at the bottom and rose to principal dancer. It was hard work and determination. That's what we teach our kids. You can be what you want, but you're going to have to work hard."
Bryant became known for his charisma. "He's a beautiful dancer with a wonderful stage personality," says Sherry Moray, who danced with him when both were members of Maria Tallchief's Chicago City Ballet. "He's a real natural onstage."
By the mid-1980s Bryant was branching out. "I did commercials. I was in the movie The Wiz. I toured in Timbuktu with Eartha Kitt. We were performing at the old Water Tower theater, and I started taking classes with Maria Tallchief. After Timbuktu folded, I joined her company. After a few years I wanted a change. I don't say I was getting too old, but dancers need a change. I needed to settle down. Chicago was more open than New York. I decided I'd stay here."
In 1991 he opened his school on the north side, using mirrors and a floor that Tallchief gave him. In 1992 he moved to his current space at 806 S. Plymouth Court. From the outset he was intent on reaching a wider range of students. "I began to tour the public schools through Urban Gateways [a not-for-profit arts group]. I'd see black and Hispanic kids with marvelous dance bodies. But they weren't getting it. They didn't think ballet was for them. I'd say, 'Look at me, I was like you.' But so many don't listen--they don't want to hear. I wrote a rap, the Rap Ballet--'Ballet puts your body in touch with your mind, and the rap beat keeps you steppin' on time. When you study ballet it's like taking a test, it involves a whole lot of mentalness.' The point is to reach them where they are and take them to a place where they would never otherwise go."
He now employs nine teachers, oversees the Bryant Ballet Company, and has over 300 children taking classes in creative movement, tap, teen jazz, and ballet. On Saturday, his busiest day, the classrooms and hallways are filled with young kids in leotards and ballet shoes, a diverse bunch black and white. Bryant's clearly in charge, rigid in his rules and unrelenting in his demands.
"Homer's no different than me or Maria [Tallchief] or any other ballet teacher--we're sergeants with kid gloves," says Moray, who teaches in the suburbs. "Maria could be as tough as they come, and there was a side of her that's very mothering. You have to let your students see both sides."
Bryant is the most commanding presence in the classroom, a tall man with a shaved head pounding time on his drum and demanding that latecomers, gum chewers, and other rule breakers "pop down and give me ten." His walls are lined with signs bearing upbeat messages--"high expectations," "self-confidence," "brain stimulation," "creativity," "respect," "balance." When a six-year-old walked in a half hour after the start of one recent class, Bryant demanded to know who had brought her so late.
"My dad," said the girl.
"Where's dad?" said Bryant.
The girl called into the hallway, and a husky man sheepishly appeared. "He's got to pop me ten," Bryant commanded. And while the girls and boys giggled, the father huffed and puffed his way through ten clumsy push-ups.
Bryant makes no apologies for his gruffness. "I don't mind if they think I'm tough. Kids need discipline every once in a while. I'm not mean. I won't mock them, I don't make fun of them. I encourage them, I sing their praise. But I work them. I have high expectations for them. I expect them to practice. If they don't practice, what am I supposed to do? Should I say, 'That's OK, don't practice'?
"I know many of these kids will never be great ballet dancers, but so what? It's the self-confidence that we inspire. Ballet teaches you discipline, concentration, determination. It creates harmony between your body and your mind. I'll tell you a story. Two summers ago we had 15 little guys from Cabrini-Green come in here--their fees were paid by a foundation. They came three times a week and they were rude and they didn't listen and they chewed gum and they were fighting. What am I supposed to say? 'Oh, you're poor, you live in the projects, I will have no expectations'? No, I have rules, I have demands. I have all sorts of kids in my classes--black, white, rich, poor--and no one knows who's who because I treat them all the same. So I told these boys from Cabrini what I tell all my students, 'This is my house. You have to respect the house you're in. You have to put that gum in the trash.' If they continued to be rude, if they didn't listen, I'd say, 'You can't come back unless you write a letter of apology.' And they wrote those letters--'Oh, Homer, I'm so sorry, please let me come back in your class.'"
More and more, he says, it's a strain to reach out to poor kids. The school's run on a shoestring budget (Bryant and general manager Florence Martin make costumes for the children's shows), and Bryant's seeking foundation grants to pay for scholarships.
"I am determined to bring ballet to every corner of the city. I don't want to give up on anyone. I don't want us to confine ourselves. I think of all those little boys--all those little Homers--who allow themselves to think that ballet's not for them. They don't know they have it in them." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Robert Drea.