Tori Bradford grew up dancing at her mothers studios in Brooklyn and Atlanta. But she didn’t start out wanting to be a ballerina.
“I grew up doing jazz and modern,” Bradford said. “I wasn’t focused on ballet at all. I really wanted to do musical theater.”
Even when she started out at Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre, she wasn’t all that excited at the prospect of dancing ballet. But as she continued on, she began to realize that ballet could be just as expressive as jazz, or modern dance, and started taking more of an active interest in the art form. Not only that, but she was really good at it. So, when she was around 12 years old, John Welker and Angela Harris approached her and her mother about joining the Catalyst Program.
The Catalyst Program’s mission is to support Black dance students, and members of Catalyst are instructed in the art of ballet on full scholarship. Black dancers have long been underrepresented in the world of ballet, with some sources putting the number as low as 4% of ballerinas in the United States. The program arose out of a partnership between Terminus and Dance Canvas, a nonprofit that aims to increase awareness of professional dance and help diversify the voices in the medium.
Welker, who is the director of Terminus, said the idea for Catalyst started growing in 2020 just after the murder of George Floyd.
“There was an opportunity to take a step back and say, ‘Okay, this is not business as usual,’” Welker said. “What are we doing to help bring representation to our field that we love so much? Are we doing enough?’”
He called up Angela Harris, the executive artistic director at Dance Canvas, and the two began having ongoing conversations several times a month.
“What I appreciated was, it wasn’t a, ‘What are we going to do superficially for this’ [conversation],” Harris said. “The program evolved out of conversations and out of our desire to actually make an authentic impact on the lives of the students that are within Terminus’ program.”
At this point in her career, Harris knew the lack of diversity in ballet well. As a Black professional ballerina, she danced with The Georgia Ballet, Columbia City Ballet, and the Urban Ballet Theater in New York City. When she transitioned to teaching, she began to notice that the types of faces she saw in the classroom hadn’t changed all that much since she was coming up.
“Twenty years later, it’s still kind of the same difficult path for Black students,” Harris said. “In a city like Atlanta, it shouldn’t be.”
The Catalyst Program offers rigorous ballet training for students at Terminus paired with career planning and professional and personal mentorship through Dance Canvas. Each student is partnered with a professional Black dancer in the field who is able to understand on a personal level what that student is going through. For Bradford, those mentors have been dancers Summer McNeill, now with Collage Dance Collective, and Kye Cooley with Ballet West.
“One of the things that we kind of put at the core of this program was the support system of a network of artists that have been there before,” Harris said. “The ballet world is small. The network of professional Black ballet dancers is smaller, and it’s really interconnected. It just made sense that we would provide some of those pathways for our students to be connected with people who could identify with the journey.”
Welker said that in the future, he hopes to see more success stories like Bradford’s. Bradford, now 15, recently received a full scholarship to The Rock School of Dance Education in Philadelphia. She said the Catalyst Program helped her grow her confidence.
“You don’t see many Black or brown ballet dancers,” she said. “The Catalyst Program really helped me see that there are other dancers out there like me, and they helped mold me to see what company that I might want to go to, how to go through the world of ballet. I think Catalyst was a really big help in even just coming here.”
Welker said while the program hasn’t grown to the size he would have hoped when they started, the process has been a rewarding one.
“What’s really important is that this is ongoing work,” he said. “This is not something that needs to be perfect, but this is something that needs to be done in order to make long term change.”
Harris said what’s been rewarding for her is to see how all the students at Terminus have been affected, even outside of the Catalyst Program.
“I taught within the summer program, and when I walked in the studio, half of the students – and I have a picture – half of the students in the studio were BIPOC students,” Harris said. “[It’s] going to be a small number of students that are part of the Catalyst Program, but what it does is it demonstrates to the community that diversity is a major value system for Terminus.”