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(Originally appeared in Chicago Magazine, February, 2001)



On a Saturday morning two years ago, Homer Bryant’s Multi-Cultural Dance Center was packed with tiny ballerinas softly gliding from pique turns to pirouettes. So the sight of one adolescent boy dripping with sweat in a far corner as he struggled to pump out 20 push-ups made one wonder if this was a new way of combining athletics and dance. About 15 minutes later, a few more students scurried into the studio.

"Drop me 20," ordered a smiling Bryant – a tone of inevitability in his melodious voice. The latecomers joined the other boy in their strenuous penalty. All around the dance studio they were encouraged by gigantic signs with the words "Practice," "Study" and "Fun" scrawled in red-and-black ink.

"That’s my idea of tough love," said Bryant at the time. "We’re teaching these kids to be responsible."
At his South Loop dance studio, housed in a refurbished railway station, Bryant continues to provide underprivileged youth with a ticket to a more fulfilling life. Close to 500 students, starting at age 3, are enrolled in the Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center, which the former Dance Theatre of Harlem dancer established 10 years ago.

"We’re diversity at its best," says Bryant "These are all Chicago’s children and, when our students perform, our diverse audiences see themselves up there."
His goals extend well beyond plies and arabesques. "There are a lot of schools out there that concentrate only on making good dancers," he points out. "I’m trying to make better human beings."

Bryant’s year-round "Dancing Off the Streets" program is aimed at reaching children from underserved Chicago communities, like South Chicago and Pilsen. They are chosen based on passion and a willingness to learn. In return, the school provides transportation, dance attire and full scholarships.

Students must bring in their report cards, which the school keeps on file. Bryant encourages them to do their homework – and stretch while they’re at it. His office is wall-papered with "thank you" notes from former students who have gone on to college and professional dance companies, from Joffrey Ballet of Chicago to Houston Ballet.

One of the most successful tools Bryant has created for attracting students is his own five-part "Alphabet Rap Ballet: A Musical Message About Dance, Discipline and Determination," in which he dances and sings his promotion of self-esteem for kids who visit his school on field trips.

Bryant, a native of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, attributes his all-inclusive philosophies to the communal way he was raised. "I want to extend the idea of a village to my studio," he adds.

He envisions transforming his studio into an arts education center with library and computer facilities so his kids can have more room to exercise their bodies and their minds.

On a recent visit, students quietly filed in early and began stretching. One young man showed off his flashy new yellow warm-up shorts. But those "tough love" push-ups seemed to have made a quick exit.

"The discipline has been so effective," beams Bryant, "they don’t have to drop me 20 anymore." •

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