“We want to include everyone and make everyone feel important and special,” said Iona Calhoun-Battiste, founder of the Iona Calhoun School of Ballet at the South Shore Cultural Center. Wearing a fitted black tee, her carmel highlights caught the sun in her dark, wavy hair as we sat at Starbucks in Hyde Park. “But we recognize that not everyone is at the same level, so how do you support the girls who are really good and want to dance as a career, and how do you support those that dance recreationally, but it’s still important to them?”
It’s this type of supportive mentality that has built the foundation for her school and sets it apart from others in the field. “Other schools will say, ‘If you can’t do it, then you can’t stay,'” Calhoun-Battiste said. Having gone through that myself, we want to be the opposite of that.”
And they certainly are. Since founding the school in 2000, Calhoun-Battiste has worked with dancers of ranging talents and challenges. “We had one student who was deaf, so she would put her hand on the radio to feel the beat. She did incredibly well,” Calhoun-Battiste said. “And I had one student who started with me when she was four and continued until she graduated college.” She began going through the pictures on her phone, showing me photo after photo of her students–recent grads to her very first class.
“We started from really humble beginnings but then just kinda took off year after year and the classes got larger and larger,” she said, as she fondly looked on her memories.
After returning from graduate school at Columbia University in New York with a degree in Developmental Psychology, Calhoun-Battiste knew she wanted to combine her love of dance and therapy but wasn’t quite sure which direction to take. “My cousin was teaching drama at South Shore Cultural Center and she said they needed someone to teach dance,” Calhoun-Battiste said, her eyes shining, “And that’s exactly what I did.”
Her volunteer experience in college created the perfect skill set. Calhoun-Battiste taught dance and mentored high school girls as a student at Howard University. “I danced on campus at Howard and started a program with a local high school where I taught young girls how to dance.” Dancing quickly turned into mentorship, as Calhoun-Battiste would spend much of the time after class talking with the girls about what was going on in their lives. “I realized that this was pretty cool because I was mixing both mental wellness and dance together,” she said.
And such is the successful combination of her school today–getting to the core, personal meaning of dance for each, individual student. “If a student is having a problem, it’s not just that they can’t pick it up, but maybe there’s something else going on in their life that is preventing them from being able to do something like Russian turns. So let’s take a minute, let’s figure this out.”
This type of individual attention is exactly what drove one of her instructors, Chaniece Holmes to create a dance project called Searching. “They [the students] brought inspirational quotes to class that related to their feelings towards dance and what it means to them. It was just about being honest and finding their truths,” Holmes said. “Then I gathered their quotes and got a projector and had the quotes playing in a slideshow off the back wall so they could see them as they were dancing and hopefully have more of a connection to their work.” Um, that sounds way better than my dilapidated vision board.
Calhoun-Battiste knows what it’s like to have dreams of dancing professionally. At seventeen, she accepted a dance scholarship at the Dance Theatre of Harlem and was asked to stay and train with the company. But her mom had other plans. “My mom was like, ‘You’re finishing school,'” Calhoun said, laughing, “which made sense since she was paying tuition for Lab School [University of Chicago Laboratory School].”
There was a realism that Calhoun-Battiste understood at a young age, too. “I had a knee injury from fifteen on. My knee pops in and out of joint when I land. And dancers have a shelf life to dance professionally from around fifteen to twenty-two years old. With knowing all that, I thought, ‘I can run a dance school. I can create something very similar to what they have in New York and do something like that here in Chicago.'”
But that doesn’t mean Calhoun-Battiste can’t still walk the walk. Er, dance the dance. “I don’t dance as often, but I can still put on my point shoes and show them [her students] how it’s done.”
When she’s not shaping the lives of young people at her school, Calhoun-Battiste is creating positive change in Chicago in other ways. As the Anti-Violence Program Director for Quad Communities Development Corporation, Calhoun focuses on creating violence prevention programs. This summer she curated a program for young people that involved writing, research, and–of course–dance. “There’s a traditional dance called African gumboot dance, which is like stepping and it originates back to South African miners–that’s the way they communicated–and these kids translated the meaning for their presentation incorporated a really amazing dance.”
“Dance creeps into everywhere I go,” Calhoun-Battiste said. And we’re so grateful it does.
Check out the Iona Calhoun School of Ballet dance company, which performs all over the city of Chicago. Their next performance is this Sunday, September 22 at the Children’s Book Fair in Hyde Park.