For 45 Christmas seasons, aspiring dancers at the Thomas Armour Youth Ballet have presented “The Nutcracker,” but this year, they’ll be doing it under a new name, the Armour Dance Theatre.
The dance school’s official name is now the Armour Dance Theatre: Miami’s Community Dance Conservatory,” and with that name change has also come a leadership change and an expanded mission; to serve a population as diverse as Miami has become.
“Armour Dance Theater is a social justice organization whose goal is to address accessibility and inequity in the community,” says Ruth Wiesen, who formerly was both the executive director and artistic director of the dance school, which has served Miami 70 years, remarkable when you consider that Miami itself is only 125 years old.
With the June announcement of the name change, Weisen also handed the executive directorship over to Camila Gil, a former scholarship student, who has worked at the school for 10 years, and was Chief of Arts Education before assuming her new post.
According to Weisen, the reason for the name change is to both exemplify it’s broader mission and to attract young people who aren’t interested in ballet, but are intrigued by other forms of dance.
“Ninety percent of the dancers on ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ are classically trained, but the kids don’t know it. They aren’t attracted to ballet, their attracted to other styles of dance, like contemporary, tap and hip hop,” she notes.
But Armour isn’t abandoning its classical dance legacy at all, which is why the school is continuing its tradition of publicly performing "The Nutcracker," and this year’s performance promises to be in that spectacular tradition, she says.
"The Nutcracker" will be performed by Armour in conjunction with New World School of the Arts. Feature of cast of more than 140 students, it will include dancers from the school in the beginner roles, along with more advanced New World student, and guest performers. The ballet will be performed twice as field trips for public school students and twice to public audiences.
“Our ‘Nutcracker’ will be the most diverse production in Miami because our students come from all the areas we serve, so any child in the audience will be able to see someone who looks like them,” says Weisen.
Indeed, despite the reputation of ballet as a province of the elite, serving the community has always been uppermost at Armour, which was founded in 1949, and today serves 850 students annually, regardless of income level. This translates to having nearly 600 scholarship students drawn from five sites throughout the city, four of those in lower income neighborhoods, and the flagship school, which is in South Miami.
“Armour Dance Theatre is a social justice organization whose goal is to address accessibility and inequity in the community,” says Wiesen. “We have dance students who do go into professional companies, but that’s not our goal. All of our kids go to college or get into a company.”
The school’s founder, Thomas Armour, was born in Tarpon Springs, and went on to fame as a ballet dancer in Paris until World War II came, and he returned to Miami.
He founded the school in 1949 as a school of classical ballet, and, since then, the school has expanded its reach to add four sites in lower income areas, and, in 2014, it was sanctioned by the State of Florida to provide after school programs in those four locations, offering academic instruction, social emotional learning, parent engagement, and nutrition. It is also the only community dance school in Florida accredited by The Accrediting Commission for Community and Precollegiate Arts Schools (ACCPAS).
“We started our scholarship program to help kids get into New World, which was new at the time, but, along the way, we learned that we could use dance to teach students vital life lessons, like practice, patience, and showing up every day and putting in the grind even if you don’t want to. A disproportionate number of our kids go on to medical school, I think it’s the discipline they learn here at an early age.
The students work hard, especially when fall comes, and rehearsals for the Nutcracker get underway, says Gil, who recalls those days well.
Gil, who was born in Bogotá, Colombia, was a scholarship student when she enrolled in Armour, began working in the office, initially as a volunteer, then stayed on, even after she went to the University of Miami, graduating with a master’s degree.
She started at Armour in high school, so she wasn’t part of the Nutcracker’s junior class, she recalls. “I started as a Chinese twirler, which was a humbling and great experience, and I loved going to rehearsals. Even though you’re a kid, this is a professional production, so it teaches you to take your craft seriously. The second year, I got to a flower in the flower scene, which was incredible because it teaches you team work. But I dreamed of being a dew drop, and my senior year, I got to be snow, and that was amazing, to see the snow as it falls down,” she recalls.
Performing in "The Nutcracker" comes at a very special time in the life of a young ballet dancer, Gil adds. “You’re at a stage where you’ve invested so much time and energy, and you’re performing so many pieces, you think to yourself, that’s what I’m going to do. You’re in this dreamy world, and you’re just dreaming about being a prima ballerina, and dancing for the joy of it all.”
Amour Dance Theatre and the New World School for the Arts presents "The Nutcracker," Friday, Dec. 3 and Saturday, Dec. 4, at the Miami Dade County Auditorium, 2901 W Flagler St, Miami, FL 33135. Social distancing and other Miami Dade COVID-19 provisions for indoor venues will be in effect. Tickets can be purchased at https://armourdance.org.