A Chance to Dance

Anna Boatwright gives a group of budding ballerinas the opportunity to take center stage.

By Lene Dahl
Seventeen magazine, January 2003

"Keep your arms up," encourages Anna Boatwright with a smile, watching the eight giggly girls in pink leotards and ballet slippers bending and swaying in front of her. "Good. Very good."

Almost every little girl dreams of being a ballerina. And for these girls, who can't afford lessons, 17-year-old Anna is helping make that dream come true. Two years ago the South Carolina native realized she had a talent she could use to help her community. Since then, Anna has devoted her Friday afternoons to giving free dance lessons to underprivileged children. "Without this program, these girls wouldn't have the chance to take ballet," says Anna. "Being able to share that opportunity-—and see the joy it brings them—is so great."

Like the girls she teaches, Anna's interest in ballet started early. She began lessons at age six, mainly because her older sister and friends were doing it. But she soon grew to love it. By the time she was 13, Anna was spending 10 hours a week in class and getting the lead role in recitals. "I was so passionate about it," she says. "When I was dancing, I'd really feel the music and the expression of myself through the motions."

At age 15, Anna reached the point where she had to decide whether she wanted to become a professional ballerina (and dedicate herself to practicing all day, traveling with a company—even being homeschooled). "There were other things I wanted to do, like focus on school and play tennis," she says about her decision to put dance on hold. "But it wasn't an easy choice."

Less than a year later, Anna was seriously missing ballet. "I wanted to find a way to be involved in it without it being the only thing I did," she says. That's when she thought of giving lessons. Now that she had time—and nine years of ballet behind her—Anna thought teaching might be a fun way to keep dance in her life. Plus, the longtime babysitter loved being with kids.

"Teaching free classes seemed like the obvious move," Anna says. Growing up in a mixed-income community, Anna knew she was fortunate. Her family had been able to afford lessons for her; she wanted to share her knowledge with kids who couldn't afford them. "The rewards would be quadrupled because I'd give these kids a new opportunity," she says. In January 2001, she started teaching at an after-school center for children from low-income families.

Since she'd never started a program like this before, Anna needed guidance on how to make it successful. When she heard about a leadership program called Take the Lead, based at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts (the school her sister attends), she immediately applied. That fall Anna was one of 40 high school juniors nationwide selected to spend a weekend at Mount Holyoke. There she was matched with a mentor who helped her focus and set goals.

Anna went back home and made some big changes, like planning an end-of-year recital and moving the classes to the local YWCA. And the Y was—and is—happy to have her. "Anna has an amazing ability to empower the children through dance," says Christine O. Jackson, executive director of the YWCA. "I'm very impressed with her."

Anna has made quite an impression on her students, too. Though the classes aren't held in a traditional studio (it's actually an auditorium, where the girls use tables as a barre), a dozen 6- to 10-year-olds eagerly come every week nonetheless. "They're so enthusiastic," Anna says proudly. "When they learn a new step, they can't wait to show me. And they're learning more than just dance—they're gaining confidence." That really came through in last year's recital. "At the beginning of the year, I'd shown them some combinations they said they'd never be able to do," Anna says. "And I don't know if they even realized how much they'd grown, but they did the same combinations in the recital."

The show was modeled after a typical class, beginning with stretches and warm-ups, then barre work. Next, the girls demonstrated the five positions. Then the real performance began: They did pliés, pas de bourées and soutenus to music from The Nutcracker—and an audience of parents and siblings gave them a standing ovation. "So many parents thanked me after and said their kids talk about ballet all the time," she recalls. "It was wonderful." This past fall Anna started her second year of teaching; she has plans for a May recital.

When Anna goes to college in September, she won't be able to continue at the Y. But she'd like to see the program live on, so she's creating a packet that explains how to maintain a dance curriculum—a goal she originated at Mount Holyoke. She's also making time to take lessons herself this year. "When I'm choreographing for class, I realize how much I miss dancing," she says. "Now I've learned to appreciate not just the goal of performing but the joy of dancing itself." But for Anna, the best part is having an impact on her students. "Even if none of them become professional dancers, I hope one or two will continue and find fulfillment from it," she says. "Better yet, maybe they'll teach one day, too."

Want to have an impact on a kid's life?

"Classes like mine keep children occupied with something constructive and positive," says Anna. "It doesn't have to be ballet; it can be karate, writing, a musical instrument—share whatever talent you have." If you're interested in starting a program like Anna's, call local clubs or YWCAs in your area and volunteer to start a class. L.D.