Pittsburgh dance academy enriches students with Black traditions, professional mentoring

Denise LaRosa
HDAT Creative Movement Pre-Ballet Class. Photo by Eric A. Smith

HDAT Creative Movement Pre-Ballet Class.
Photo by Eric A. Smith

Young dancers bring Pittsburgh’s Hill Dance Academy Theatre’s studio rooms alive with a flurry of pirouettes and jetès. Surrounded by images of African-American leaders such as President Obama, dancers at the Hill Academy pay homage to their history while firmly looking to the future.

Here, there’s a “level of respect they have for each and every one of us,” said student dancer Erika Durden, 10, who was recently invited to dance at the prestigious Joffrey Ballet summer program. “They teach us how to be leaders.”

Hill Dance Academy is a non-profit dance school in Pittsburgh’s Hill District that uniquely focuses on educating and training dancers Black dance traditions to enrich the Black community. Hill Academy’s founder Ayisha Morgan-Lee saw an opportunity to open up a studio that would nurture and support young, Black dancers in Pittsburgh.

Like many of her students, Morgan-Lee was often the only Black girl in her dance classes. And it wasn’t until she attended The International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference that she realized: “There are other people doing this, dancing professionally, who look like me!” From there, the dream to open her own studio was planted in her heart.

Morgan-Lee opened the Hill Dance Academy Theatre in 2005 while finishing her undergraduate and graduate studies at Howard University and Carnegie Mellon University. “I want HDAT to be the next Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater,” one of the most highly recognized — and predominantly Black — dance companies in the country, Morgan-Lee said.

But, “it’s more than just dance,” current student Ayan Michie said of the academy. “We do other classes that help you as a person.”

Students are exposed to all aspects of the arts with broad range of classes such as costuming, acting and dance history. In addition, there are fitness and nutrition classes to motivate students to live a healthy lifestyle.

Dancers keep weekly journals to chronicle their journeys and compose dance reports after every trip to a performance, conference or festival. Instead of recitals, students hold in showcases at the end of the summer to demonstrate what they have learned and accomplished over the year.

Hill Dance Academy Theatre dancers got a taste of what it was like to perform in a professional venue during school’s First Annual Spring Concert titled “4, 2, 1: 7 Male Choreographers Creating Expression of Black History, Culture and Traditions through Movement.” The Hill Academy’s First Annual Spring Concert in March served as a next step for the young dancers, who got to experience the stages of professional-level preparation when gearing up for a performance.

The choreographers and dancers took audiences through the African American journey – from Africa, to enslavement, to the formation of Black fraternities and sororities and more — closing with an ode to Hip-Hop dance and culture.

In the nine years since it opened, Hill Dance Academy Theatre has already accomplished so much in the lives of all young dancers who have become a part of the HDAT family. “I see a difference in the way my daughter looks at the world around her. She chose to dance with HDAT because it gives her a greater sense of self, and I see that in the way she approaches school,” said dance mom, Muriel Fox Alim.

For more information on Hill Dance Academy Theatre and to see how you can contribute to their cause, visit www.5678hdat.org, call 412-586-7903 or e-mail dance@5678hdat.org

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