Behind the scenes of Butler University’s annual production of classic Christmas ballet “The Nutcracker,” professor Derek Reid was hard at work choreographing dance numbers for students to perform. Reid fell in love with dance and theater at the age of 10 after his mother took him to a production of “The Wiz” in New York. Soon after, he started studying ballet at the Jones-Haywood School of Ballet in Washington, D.C., a school founded in 1941 with a focus on teaching young dancers of color. As a professor, he desires to be a barrier-breaker for students who do not fit the mold of the stereotypical ballet dancer.
“While I was growing up, (my dance school) was training young Black and Latino children. I had more exposure to that than the traditional ballet environment. So now, what I’m trying to do here, is to make sure that when we are recruiting, we are recruiting in areas where that environment is normal,” Reid explained. “The first thought in ballet is small white women, but we are finding there is interest away from that norm. We are looking for kids who have an interest from those underserved communities to try to change the culture a little bit.”
But the stage isn’t the only area where Reid seeks change. Education is equally important, and Reid believes a large part of understanding dance is understanding its history.
“I teach a class called African-American Dance in American Culture, where we look at different points in American history to see how dance that has come out of the African diaspora has affected the culture that we live in,” Reid said. “We talk about the ring shout — a predecessor to gospel music with its call-and-response — and we work our way up to modern day hip-hop, which has become almost synonymous with American culture at this point.”
At the end the day, he wants his students to understand the power that music and dance have to share a message, move a community or provide joy.
“When we do ‘Nutcracker,’ we have people who have been coming for 30 years and they come every year, bringing their kids and their grandkids. In that case, the show is really designed to allow families to experience a tradition,” said Reid. “One of my colleagues, her husband has battled cancer, and she has found that he has enjoyed learning how to make bicycles. She made a ballet about that. Sometimes we dance for the sake of dance, but sometimes we use dance to share a more pointed message, and we want to celebrate that.”