Dionne Figgins Artistic Director-Moving Dance Forward With Impressive Ballet Tech(nique)-New York

Posted By: Eric Smith In: Dance On: Thursday, February 29, 2024

Dionne redefines versatility and meaning to ballet by laying the groundwork for this art form to stand the test of time.

You were part of an interesting event with Works & Process presents Dance Theatre of Harlem Diaspora with Robert Garland, Alicia Graf Mack, Tai Jimenez, and Melanie Person at The Guggenheim MuseumYou have this incredible background in dance. And you are making lasting contributions to the art form as Artistic Director with Ballet Tech.  This is impressive and must require much effort and hard work.

You know, I don’t take myself too seriously.  I am still a hometown girl.

Importantly in your role with Ballet Tech, is this part of the New York Public School System?

Yes.  And it’s funny that you ask because people aren’t aware of the relationship that the Ballet Tech Foundation, which runs the dance program here, has with the New York Department of Education.  So we are in fact, a public school.  The official name is the New York Public School for Dance.  We are the only school that is solely dedicated to dance in the public school system.  We work with students in the 4th through 8th grade.  And how this relationship works is we send teams of teaching artists into the public schools throughout the city.

When I first got the job, the process was solely audition-based.  Ballet Tech would go into the public schools and hold auditions for eligible 3rd and 4th graders-which was for essentially everyone at that level.  Those auditions would identify students who would likely thrive in the dance studio and who we thought could benefit from more training.

I wanted to further evolve that program into a full-fledged enrichment program.  So during the time that I have been here, that audition program has essentially morphed into a dance enrichment program where all of the students we encounter from the area schools receive a 45-50 minute dance enrichment class.  So regardless of whether the students will thrive in dance or not they are all being exposed to dance by teaching artists who are essentially teachers here at the school.  So we now go visit students in their home schools where we set up dance classrooms for them, then bring our teaching artists to provide instruction.  

And still, within this process, we then look to identify students we think would do well in our full-time program here at Ballet Tech.  We invite those students who we think may thrive, to a six-week program which is the longest-standing program at Ballet Tech called-The Introduction to Ballet Program, offered through the Ballet Tech Across New York.  This is essentially a program where students are bused here once a week for six weeks to take classes on location in our studios.  So for those students we identified as potential dance makers, we invite them here to our schools to receive training on-site.  We provide the uniforms for free and they come for six weeks.  Within that process, we begin to further identify students who we’d like to join our full-time program at the 4th-grade level.  Then we have our auditions.  So the audition process doesn’t start until the students have this intro. 

Once they are here over six weeks, for those who we see fully engaged and thriving we ask these students if they’d like to audition and come be a part of our school.  And it’s at that time, that we start to prepare and develop these new students for entry in our upcoming 4th-grade class starting each Fall.

I’ve been a part of this new process since starting and now going into my third year.  But this is the first year that the Ballet Tech Across New York Enrichment Program is available for all students throughout the public school system in their area home schools.  So public school students across New York all are receiving dance programming as part of their curriculum.


So does the six-week intro run parallel to their local home school enrollment?

The initial six-week intro is on-site once a week.  It’s a field trip essentially.  It’s a field trip program where the students come here once a week in the morning, and we hold this twice a week to invite as many students as possible.   So every Monday and Wednesday, we have between 90 and 150 third graders coming to our school to take class.  And they love it.

During this intro is when we start to identify students who we’d like to invite for the full-time program and join our school.

With these 3rd Graders…now that’s a lot of energy in the building.

Oh, and you know it!  Because third graders can bring it.  And I love it. 

I feel the space I’m most comfortable in is the space with the children.  Like last night, we had a multicultural dinner at the school and I sat down at a table and was the first person sitting, then next thing I know-the whole table was filled with children.   And I thought to myself, "Girl you know you are too big to be sitting down at this table".  But I feel really at home with the kids, because I appreciate their honesty.  Their ability to be honest is refreshing, they don’t mince words they don’t hold back and I thrive in that environment.  

I feel sometimes when you get into the adult space, you have to start playing politics and saying things the right way to make sure nobody’s feelings get hurt.  But I find that with the kids, even when I have to deliver harsh truth-they are more resilient to it than the adults.  I thrive in that space because I have a hard time mincing words, and saying things the right way all the time as well, so the kids provide a space to build, bond, and to be honest with each other and they are very receptive to that.  They like it when I keep real with them.

And I truly enjoy these early graders.  They haven’t been weighed down with life’s experiences and are eager to learn.  They are also a lot more receptive to information.  And I find these young children know how to challenge in the right way at their age.  They understand how to challenge systems in ways that don’t get too aggressive, and I can appreciate that.

For the students who come in for the full-time program-is this only for ballet?

This is a ballet school and I am a ballet dancer.  I grew up in Washington, D.C., and as a student, my teacher was Doris Jones founder of the Jones Haywood Dance School.  Jones Haywood has trained some of the most notable artists in the field including Chita Rivera, Louis Johnson, Hinton Battle (who was also my mentor), Sandra Fortune-Green who is now the Artistic Director there, Renee Robinson-who danced with Alvin Ailey, and Virginia Johnson who went through Jones Haywood as well.

So I grew up doing classical ballet-it’s my foremost language in dance.  Now, I’ve had experiences outside of the ballet studio, but what’s unique about my training is that I grew up with classical ballet in a predominately black space.  I was fortunate to be able to experience other styles of dance, living alongside of ballet in a way that doesn’t happen in a typical classical ballet training experience.  I learned Jazz and African dance, and I learned tap dance-where all of these other forms of dance were offered to me as a student.  Even though ballet is my primary language, I am well versed in all of the other dance languages as a result of my training in a space that was open to other styles of movement being in the same space, which is not common in ballet learning environments.

For the students who are accepted full-time, what’s the process?

For me, it’s about building bridges.  Because most of the students we encounter in the public school system, a lot of them don’t have experience with ballet.  However, everybody has experience with some form of dance.  And what I like to say about ballet is-ballet belongs to dance, dance doesn’t belong to ballet.  Ballet is one of the many ways we can move, but it’s not the only way.  It’s not the best way-it’s just one of the ways.  What I’m trying to do when working with the students is find out what they do know about dance already, and then build a bridge from what they know to what we are going to eventually teach them. 

Because the movement that exists in other forms also exists in ballet you just have to find it and excavate it out.  Rhythms that exist in African dance also exist in petit allegro in ballet.  It's the same with tap.  Polyrhythms that you find in tap and African, are present in the ballet language, you just have to find out where and it’s typically in petit allegro.

It’s important to recognize that the students have families that dance in their culturally traditional styles which makes our school extremely diverse.  We have students who are also Chinese, Japanese, French and are coming from all over the world.  So it's trying to discover what they already know in dance and then connect it to what they will learn and experience in ballet, building a bridge.

As the full-time program begins, starting in the 4th grade, students only take three dance classes per week.  They will take two in ballet and then a creative movement class.  And that’s when we really start to introduce them to the ballet studio, and the rules that come along with it.  For those who haven’t grown up in this art form, it can feel really rigid.  

The ballet classes require students to be quiet and to hold their bodies in position, where with the creative movement class this allows them to just be kids, and discover movement in a more creative fashion that is not so codified.  In the hopes that as they develop, and we continue to throw more ballet at them, they will remember dance.  Because ballet is a technique, and a very good technique, but it’s more science before layering in the art.  Ballet is a science.  It’s a very strict way in which we do everything, and in name it’s very codified.  But then there is dance and dancing is the art.  It is hard for the art and technique to live side by side while the body is learning new muscle memory-while learning the science of ballet.

So once the student learns to understand the science, you have to remind them that there’s still the art, the imagination, and the creation of stories.  Ballet is all about telling stories with our bodies.  That’s the part that the kids like, they want to tell the stories, that’s what they love.  And we are just trying to teach them how to do so in an effective way so they have more access and can tell more stories with the expanded knowledge and control of their bodies through the training.

Yes, we are teaching them ballet, but my vision for ballet is that we never forget the joy as we’re training them.  And we are constantly dragging them back to the creative side, as they learn the scientific side.


How important is prior academic performance when being selected to join Ballet Tech?

You know what’s interesting?  We do not screen the students for academics at all.  This selection is entirely based on dance talent alone.  However, our school is one of the top-performing schools academically in the city.  And what I know, and what one of my other mentors, Arthur Mitchell, who taught me how to teach and understood, is that the arts activate the mind.  It’s the catchphrase that we carry going into different schools, the arts ignite the mind.  So through these artistic pursuits, we open up another layer for the student to begin to learn.  The dance studio has so many other learning modalities-which are not just focused on the body.  When you start thinking about the music, music is mathematics when you’re counting in 8 count bars of music you are dealing with the mathematics using the body.  The shapes we’re making with our body can be found in geometry.  The patterns on the stage when we’re dancing is all based in mathematics-in geometric shapes.

We’re also dealing with stories like Don Quixote and Swan Lake, this is literature.  So now we’re dealing with language arts.  When we’re talking about what we should eat for optimal performance, we’re talking about food science.  So all of these subjects students are introduced to are done so through dance.  This is why I believe dancers are quite intelligent and do very well academically, because we have to be in order to learn and master so much material!