Written by Soumia Hammi & Jessica Finol
In 1985, Toby Lerner Ansin, a Miami philanthropist, founded Miami City Ballet (MCB) together with Edward Villella, MCB’s Founding Artistic Director. Today, MCB’s mission is to produce and present the highest level of dance performances throughout Florida, in addition to developing the Miami City Ballet School into a leader of dance education. The School, founded in 1993, trains aspiring dancers for professional careers, with more than half of the MCB Company being graduates of the MCB School (MCBS). With a large number of both students and dancers from Central and South America, Miami City Ballet is one of the most renowned classical ballet companies in the country, performing throughout South Florida with annual seasons in Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, and Broward County. In addition to its performance season and School, MCB also remains active in the local community with programs that aim to make ballet more accessible for all. The Culture Shock Miami blog team was recently able to interview Monica Stephenson, Director of Community Engagement at Miami City Ballet, to learn more about her and these community engagement programs.
At the young age of four, Monica Stephenson began dancing. Knowing she wanted to pursue the life of a professional dancer, Monica attended North Carolina School of the Arts, a performing arts boarding school, and at the age of nineteen, received her first contract with a professional company. She performed with The Washington Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem Ensemble, and the Los Angeles Ballet companies. After her dance career, Monica wanted to remain active in the dance world and graduated with a degree in Dance Education from New York University. She also began working at American Ballet Theatre in Arts Administration, running a diversity, equity, and inclusion initiative called Project Plié. Monica is also very passionate about diversifying classical ballet and headed the Southeast Campus of The Washington School for Ballet, which is located in Ward 8 of Washington D.C that is approximately 90% African American. Monica’s career path eventually led her to Miami City Ballet, where she now works in administration as the Director of Community Engagement. Her work at MCB consists of overseeing ballet education in Miami-Dade County schools, planning and strategizing community engagement efforts, and advancing the organization’s diversity and inclusion work.
Within the Miami-Dade County Public School system, Miami City Ballet has two community outreach programs, Explore Dance and STEAM+. Explore Dance is an after-school program where students are able to take dance classes in their schools 1-2 times per week. With a performance at the end to show what they learned, this program introduces young students to the world of ballet and is also a precursor to future training. MCBS actively recruits talented children for scholarships to the School out of the Explore Dance program. STEAM+ uses arts integration in Miami Beach elementary schools to connect science, math, and technology curriculum to the arts through dance.
In addition, MCB is committed to eliminating barriers to the arts through their Ballet for Young People program that provides family performances without charge to include Student Matinees of The Nutcracker each year. MCB’s Company Pop-Ups began during the pandemic as a way to bring ballet to communities at smaller venues and has since continued due to their popularity among both audiences and the dancers themselves. One of Miami City Ballet’s lesser known programs is Touch Tours. Touch Tours enable members of the visually impaired community to come before the performance and touch the costumes, listen to the music, and learn the story of the ballet. Afterwards, they experience live narration of the performance through an audio listening device throughout the show. MCB strives to make ballet performance accessible to all.
What sets the Miami City Ballet apart from many of the other ballet companies Ms. Stephenson has worked for is how much effort they put into their community outreach programs. “Miami City Ballet is doing a tremendous amount of work in the community. Most ballet companies don’t have this many programs in their community engagement portfolio…It makes me want to go to work every day because we have so many programs that impact people in a positive way. I would say the volume of the work and the amount that we’re doing in the community is very significant and that it’s definitely a step ahead of most professional ballet companies…They [MCB] are making a long-term investment in these programs.” One example of this is their Ballet Bus scholarship where MCB covers the full tuition, including the transportation costs for student dancers, over ten years, the time it usually takes to become a professional dancer. Furthermore, Miami City Ballet also has opportunities not just for prospective dancers but for anyone interested in becoming more acquainted with the arts. From high schoolers in need of volunteer hours to those interested in internships, are all encouraged to reach out.
Why does Miami City Ballet put so much time into these programs? Because they know the value the arts can have for children and young adults. Ms. Stephenson believes that the arts, regardless of the medium, can help kids learn important skills that are applicable at any point in one’s life, such as creativity, perseverance, and work ethic. In addition, a career in the arts does not simply mean being an artist. “We need more arts administrators that have an arts background…I always encourage artists to think about arts administration…I always encourage people, if they want to be a performing artist or a visual artist whatever it might be, I try to encourage them to do that fully...Perform first, teach second because I know they have the rest of their lives to teach, but they only have a short window of time to be a dancer.” Entering the arts world means entering a world where one can still contribute to the future generation and well-being of the arts long after their career as an artist has ended. In fact, Ms. Stephenson finds that her work as an administrator and teacher brings her new joy and meaning that’s different but just as valuable as what she had as a dancer. “As a dancer there are so many moments you have that are really special…There are so many ballets where you can pick out a moment that you go ‘this is why I dance.’…I think that I love teaching more than I loved being a dancer frankly because I get to see other people have moments of happiness and joy in the art form. I think about all of my students that have gone on to receive scholarships for college and give back as teachers…I’ve had students that are now dancing professionally. So, I think that creating special moments for other people is really fulfilling. And I would say the same about administration. Organizing all of these community programs makes it worthwhile when you see young people in the audience attending their first ballet with Ballet for Young People…A young man did our Master Class Series at his high school and he’s now dancing as one of the Sharks in West Side Story. So, it's those moments for me, where I’m impacting a life, that mean so much.”
The Miami City Ballet’s 2023-2024 season starts in late October with their “Fall Mix 1,” including ballets such as Serenade and In the Upper Room and continues with ballets such as The Nutcracker, “Winter Mix 2” with ballets such as the Firebird and Concerto DSCH, before ending with Alexei Ratmansky’s Swan Lake in April.
Keep an eye out on cultureshockmiami.com for $5 tickets for ages 13-22 to dance performances.