The Kansas City Ballet’s Community Engagement and Education Manager is Finding New Ways to Make Ballet Cool

“Dance came from the people and should always be brought back to the people.”

[block pos=”right”] Berry began her performing career as a ballerina in Switzerland and was principal dance artist with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for 11 years. [/block]

This quote, attributed to Alvin Ailey, is one that Community Engagement and Education Manager for the Kansas City Ballet, April Berry, takes to heart.

Berry began her performing career as a ballerina in Switzerland and was principal dance artist with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for 11 years. But since retiring from the stage in 1991, Berry has turned her focus on the art of dance toward audience engagement.

“Dancing with the Ailey Company was an educational and transformative experience that ignited a new passion — community education and outreach,” Berry says.

“Community Engagement” is a buzzword phrase these days, something funders look to arts organizations to do well, even though the specific mission of engagement can be difficult to define.

“For me, community engagement involves moving communities toward some kind of change,” Berry says. “As community engagement and education manager, I am charged with creating avenues for diverse communities and individuals in and around Kansas City to engage in different ways with the art form dance and build a relationship with Kansas City Ballet.”

That relationship can take many forms. It can be a dance class for five-year-olds, a pre-concert lecture attended by retirees, in-school dance programming, studio tours, master classes, or even something as simple as offering a specially-priced matinee performance. The Kansas City Ballet website states that more than 20,000 people, of all ages, will benefit from their community programs each year.

Thematic education programs such as Reach Out and Dance, an in-school residency and outreach dance scholarship program for children; Dance Speaks, pre-performance interactive panels between dancers, choreographers and audience members; and Dance-A-Story, a workshop for young children that brings stories to life through creative movement, music, and a costume show and tell, have all been under Berry’s purview since she became the community engagement and education manager for the Kansas City Ballet over a year ago.

But one of Berry’s favorite moments from last season was when a youth group from a local community organization came to see a dress rehearsal of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Kauffman Center.

“None of them had seen a full-length ballet in a theater before,” Berry says. “These kids, ranging in ages from 7 to 17, sat there with eyes wide as saucers, mesmerized, not making a sound, enthralled with the dancers on the stage, with the sets, and the grandeur of the theater. Watching them experience this was awesome. They left the theater that evening truly changed, dancing and imitating steps they saw on stage, asking when they could come back and wanting to take ballet classes.”

That story is engagement gold — kids from the YouTube generation falling in love with an art form that fights against a reputation of being stuffy and old-fashioned. Community engagement programs at the Kansas City Ballet strive to make just that connection.

“I think ballet is cool,” Berry says. “I want to create programs that inspire, expose and educate individuals and communities and cultivate a whole new generation that will think ballet is cool, too.”

photo by Jim Barcus

Krista Lang Blackwood

Krista Lang Blackwood is an award-winning educator, performer and freelance writer. When she's not teaching or performing, she combs the greater Kansas City region for off-the-beaten-path arts and culture offerings, usually in the company of her husband and precocious, French-speaking son. 

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