Erica Lynette Edwards exudes poise, confidence and determination — all traits that contributed to her success as a leading dancer with the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago. Now, these attributes equip her for her new role as the organization’s community engagement director.
“I’m not performing anymore,” said Edwards, 35. “But I still have a lot of audiences — students, school administrators, donors, staff. I have to be ready for anything.”
Edwards oversees the company’s free dance classes for ages 5 to 18 at public schools in Chicago and throughout the community.
“We target 50 to 60 schools in low-income neighborhoods,” Edwards said. “Most of our students’ parents cannot afford lessons and can’t take their kids to lessons. We bring the lessons to them. And, we keep a supply of donated leotards and dance shoes for them to use.”
The program is partially funded by Chicago Public Schools, as well as nonprofits that partner with individual schools. (The Resurrection Project in Chicago, for example, foots the bill for classes at Orozco Community Academy.) The Joffrey, with donations from foundations, individuals and corporations, covers the remainder.
Behind the scenes Erica Lynette Edwards, the Joffrey Ballet’s community engagement director, has no regrets about hanging up her pointe shoes for a behind-the-scenes role. “I’m not performing anymore,” said Edwards, 35. “But I still have a lot of audiences — students, school administrators, donors, staff. I have to be ready for anything.” (Ting Shen / Chicago Tribune)
A native of Downers Grove, Edwards considers herself fortunate that her parents gave her dance lessons from age 4. In high school and college, she received merit scholarships from the San Francisco Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. Edwards has an associate degree from Butler University. She joined the Joffrey as an apprentice in 2000, then danced her way up the ladder to become a company dancer.
A resident of Chicago’s Ranch Triangle neighborhood, Edwards is Joffrey’s optimist. Reads the sign on her office wall: “Today will be awesome.”
Q: As a black dancer, you’re an exception in the world of ballet. Is this changing?
A: We’re seeing some diversity. Joffrey has dancers who are Asian, black and Hispanic. It’s more about socioeconomics than race, though. To compete, you have to start early with lessons. Not every family can afford this, plus the clothing and shoes.
Q: What is the influence of Misty Copeland, who was recently named the first black principal dancer for American Ballet Theatre?
A: She’s given ballet international attention. People who don’t know anything about ballet have heard her story. But very few people could catch up like she did, after starting ballet so late, at age 13.
Erica Lynette Edwards in the Joffrey Ballet production of “La Bayadere” in 2013. She has been with the Joffrey since 2000. (Cheryl Mann Productions)
Q: Tell us about the Joffrey’s engagement program.
A: We teach about 50 kindergarten to second-grade kids basic ballet. About 10 earn scholarships to study the following year at Joffrey. For the third- to fifth-graders, we teach a year of hip-hop, jazz, modern, African and Latin dance. This is when more boys are interested. They may not like ballet but will try hip-hop. For sixth- to eighth-graders, we add choreography lessons and a theme. In 2014-15, it was Motown. High schoolers take a year of different dance styles. Some get honors credits for dancing in our advanced program.
Q: Do all the students perform at the end of school year?
A: Yes, at Joffrey, schools or public places. It’s good for the community because (the performances are) free and good for the students to show off what they’ve learned.
Q: What are the greatest obstacles kids in the program face?
A: Individual problems, which we help resolve. If a student can’t find a ride, I organize a car pool. I help them with their homework. For kids who are really stressed out, I ask them to just put aside their problems for an hour and dance.
Q: What’s the greatest misconception about ballet?
A: People don’t believe that being a ballerina is a job. They ask, “But what else do you do?”
Q: How do you keep informed about what’s new in the dance world?
A: I go to performances by other dance companies. I attend out-of-town conferences. I go to workshops hosted by Ingenuity, a Chicago nonprofit for arts education.
Q: What do you mean when you say you’re very first-bornish?
A: I’m the careful and responsible Edwards sister. I make lists. I’m bossy, which is to my advantage because I have to juggle a lot of people.
Q: For people new to your world, which ballet makes the best introduction?
A: If you like big costumes and scenery, “Nutcracker” or “Cinderella,” because you already know the story. If you like modern dance, with minimal costumes, see one of our mixed-repertoire shows. Or, take an adult ballet class.
Q: What do students learn in addition to dance?
A: Self-discipline. Pride. Appreciation of the art. Ten years from now, when your sig other wants to attend a ballet, you’ll be familiar with it.
Q: What are your favorite success stories?
A: Two of our students became Joffrey teachers. One became a choreographer. Many are successful in other fields but dance for fun. We’ve only had the high school program for 10 years, though, so ask me again in a few years.
Q: What do you do for fun?
A: I meet friends for dinner at the Gilt Bar or The Betty. I choreograph the dance group at my church and for Dance for Life Chicago, a nonprofit that raises money for AIDS and other illnesses. I record lots of TV shows. I read. Now, it’s “I Am Radar” by Reif Larsen, about a black baby born to a white couple.
Q: As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A: Singer, teacher, dancer and performer. I can’t sing, but three out of four isn’t so bad.
The Joffrey Ballet presents “The Nutcracker” Dec. 4-27 at the Auditorium Theatre. Go to the company’s website for performance and ticket information.
|Written By:||Leslie Mann|
|Written Source:||Chicago Tribune|