5 Star Story: Collage Dance Collective

Published: Mar. 7, 2023 at 10:54 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - In this salute to the people, places and things that make us proud to call the Mid-South home, we’re showcasing one of the South’s largest Black-led performing arts organizations located right here in Memphis.

The Collage Dance Collective is one of only a few professional ballet companies in the world with a roster of dancers who are Black, Indigenous or People of Color. And in honor Women’s History Month, we want to introduce you to some of the women there who are on the forefront of inspiring the growth and diversity of ballet and dance.

Lenore Morales is one of them and knows all too well the difficulties for people of color in the professional world of dance.

“I was always the Spanish dancer in Nutcracker. It was always that, but it’s been challenging for dancers of color to get the lead roles or even get into companies, especially the ballet companies,” Morales explained.

The Julliard School graduate and Brooklyn, New York, native moved to Memphis and joined the Collage Dance Collective in 2021. The company’s Artistic Director, whom she’d also danced with in the Harlem Theater of Dance, called on her to fill the role of Rehearsal Director and she accepted.

“(I) Felt that his vision for ballet for the future and for dancers of color were something that I felt was really important,” she said.

Collage Dance, a professional dance company, actually began in New York City in 2006 in response to the ballet industry’s lack of racial diversity on stage. The professional dance company moved to Memphis about a year later to fulfill it’s mission of extending the reach of outstanding classical ballet training, and in the process, changed the landscape of dance in the American South.

Collage Dance Collective
Collage Dance Collective(Collage Dance Collective)

“It’s an organization that’s giving dancers of color the opportunity to be seen in a different light,” Morales said. “So ballet dancers of all shades, not just fair-skinned.”

The more than 22,000-square foot, state-of-the-art studio on the corner of Tillman and Sam Cooper opened in December of 2020. Its sun-lit studios now filled with dancers practicing a range of classical and contemporary choreography.

“I feel safe and I feel like I can express myself when I’m dancing,” expressed Lauren Philson, a company artist.

We caught up with her as she practiced for a future performance. Dancing since the age of two, Lauren moved to Memphis from Denver in 2020 to begin her professional career, which at Collage means three seasons of performances every year as well as touring.

“We’ve been to the Kennedy Center, we’ve been to multiple cities throughout the U.S.,” Philson described.

At Collage, Lauren has found not only a place to dance but a home where her natural hair is accepted and the tights and shoes are not the standard pink.

“So that’s one thing that’s different here from anywhere else is you get to wear tights that are your skin color. So we get to pancake our shoes to match our skin tone,” she said. “It’s amazing to be able to see people around me who look like me and have the same skin color and I feel very...I don’t feel alone whenever it comes to the way that I look in this art form.”

Reygan Myers, a senior in high school, has also been dancing since she was little girl.

“(It) gives me freedom to express myself without even speaking. It gives me a space to relax and release energy, good or bad, throughout the day. School can be hard and dance really is that outlet for me,” Myers said.

She joined the Collage in 2015 and is now a member of the Youth Ensemble, which is a select number of Collage students who plan to take dance to the professional or college level. Myers plans to study dance in college and one day own her own studio using what she’s learned from Collage.

“We get to first-hand experience what it’s like being a director. We see Mr. Kevin (the Artistic Director) in action and we kind of take ideas and bounce ideas off of them, and we really got that first-hand experience about how to create a show, how to create and manage performances. I think it’s good for people of my age and younger upcoming dancers to see what success looks like with people that look like us. And I think building this studio was a really important part in building the confidence of future Black dancers,” Myers said.

“I hope that they see someone who looks like them and they see that this is a career that’s attainable, Philson said. “This can be a profession.”

The Collage Dance Collective is bringing the art of dance to all. “It’s life, it’s living, I think it’s a way of communication. I think all cultures have dance and music and when people just kind of let themselves be free and move. There’s a joy that comes up inside of you and this feeling that you can share with one another. You don’t even have to say a word,” Morales expressed.

The Collage Dance Collective offers a number of different programs, including a professional track for students considering dance in the future and community classes for children and adults interested in jazz, tap, ballet or even flamenco!

There’s even a community outreach program that goes into area public schools. For more information about the Collage Dance Collective, click here.

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