Meet a NYFA Artist: Sidney Grant
Artistic Director Sidney Grant, pictured here with professional partner Gayle Madeira after winning the 2011 USA Tango Championships in July. Sid and Gayle donated their winnings to BALLROOM BASIX.
NYFA speaks with Sidney Grant, the Artistic Director of Fiscally Sponsored Organization BALLROOM BASIX.
NYFA: Hello Sidney, please tell us about how BALLROOM BASIX began, when and how did you found the organization?
SG: BALLROOM BASIX began four years ago in the 6th grade classrooms at PS 180 in the Morningside Heights section of Harlem . A few years prior, I had been hired to help train the cast to dance for Julia Roberts’ film Mona Lisa Smile, in which I danced with Tony and Academy Award-winning actress Marcia Gay Harden — who, as it turns out, lives in a townhouse a stone’s throw from the school! We reunited by chance outside the school one day when she was walking her dog, Ranger, in the snow. She knew I was committed to launching a non-competitive arts-in-education initiative that focuses on “fun, fitness and fancy footwork,” and agreed to serve as Chairperson of my Advisory Committee. Her letter to NYFA when we applied for fiscal sponsorship was arguably the most passionate of our recommendations, as she was the keynote speaker at PS 180’s graduation ceremony last year , where the children performed all their ballroom and latin dances for the family and friends in attendance to tumultuous applause. This past spring was our first “official” season as a not-for-profit arts entity, serving over 400 children in Harlem, the Bronx and Queens. Students learn merengue, rumba, foxtrot, swing, tango, waltz, and a country-western dance unique to our program, The Barn Dance. We had a filmmaking team, under the direction of Project Manager Waldo Tejada, interview educators, parents and students in every participating school, and are presently preparing the testimonials for promotional distribution.
NYFA: Can you tell us a little bit about your current activities, recent achievements, and what’s coming up for you and the for the organization?
SG: We had our very first gala this past April at the Edison Ballroom near Times Square. I’m fortunate to have the support of many longtime students who recognize the merits of my innovative methodology, A lovely couple who I’ve taught for over 5 years (including their wedding dance!), Dr. Mike Siegal and Nomi Ghez, co-chaired this sold-out event, which featured a professional ballroom show and a presentation by the Harlem kids.
This same performance troupe appeared live on Spanish TV (Univision) as part of the Junta Hispana Festival this summer in Flushing Meadow Corona Park, and at the opening ceremony of the USA Tango Festival in Manhattan. We continue to participate in community events in Harlem and elsewhere, including The Children’s Aid Society.
We just completed our biggest event ever: a flash bash presentation in honor of the 10 year anniversary of 9/11, which was performed in Union Square on the evening of Sunday, September 11th with Grammy-nominated vocalist Karina Pasian, the only Dominican-American ever to sing at the White House. We went into the recording studio just two weeks before prepare an original rendition of “America, the Beautiful.” Proceeds from the download will benefit both BALLROOM BASIX and Tuesday’s Children, a 9/11 charity.
I will be honored by The Dominican Ministry of Culture and the Dominican Commissioner of Culture during the 5th annual Dominican Book Fair in the United States at Boricua College, on Saturday and Sunday October 1st and 2nd. This fair is a true celebration of the richness and diversity of this community in the U.S.
BALLROOM BASIX will be recognized with a printed certificate for its outstanding contribution to the promotion of the merengue and Dominican cultural heritage in the New York City public schools.
Mid-October, we will begin our fall residencies. We are proud of our dedication to non-competitive partner dancing, and our growth throughout the city.
We’ve also been approached by some supporters to launch regional pilot programming, which we will most likely roll out in the 2012-13 school year.
NYFA: Can you tell us about your background as a dancer?
SG: I began dancing tap in the 2nd grade with my twin brother. We also did quite a bit of song and dance together, including a rendition of “Me and My Shadow” which we continue to perform to this day! Our father was a director and professor of theater so we were reared on the stage from a very young age. I’ve done everything from Shakespeare to Sondheim. My parents, however, believed in artistry and academia in equal measure, so I was just as studious in the classroom as I was on the stage. After graduating valedictorian in the School of Journalism and Communication at Rutgers College, I went to work at AT&T Headquarters in Basking Ridge, NJ. Despite this wonderful corporate opportunity, I felt that I needed a performance outlet to satisfy my creativity. As it turned out, a friend I’d done summer stock with was working for a ballroom dancing studio, and they were looking for a part-time instructor to work evenings and weekends. I’m a Pisces, and I remember her joking, “You’ll take to this like a fish to water.” Well, from the moment I stepped foot in the studio, I did just that!…hook, line and sinker! I’ve been dancing professionally now for over 20 years.
NYFA: How did you move from competitive dance into education?
SG: To tell you the truth, my entire professional career has celebrated partner dancing as a social — not competitive — art form. I began ballroom and latin dancing in the late ‘80s, and quickly realized that — after winning a novice professional title in Atlantic City in 1990 — the politics of the competitive circuit did not appeal to me. Furthermore, if you take a look at dancing from a societal and historical perspective, partner dancing was (and still is) about ritual celebration, a community of people (whether tribal or urban) coming together to share a connection for a celebratory occasion. The phenomenon of competition is a relatively recent ritual, if you will. Obviously, mass media perpetuates the popularity of this sort of thing with programs like Dancing With The Stars and So You Think You Can Dance. However, what the ballroom industry has largely lost sight of is that partner dancing is and always has been about social graces, propriety and etiquette. To give every child — regardless of shape, size, ability or popularity — the chance to experience this is incredibly transformational, especially for inner-city youth. And it doesn’t mean having to put a number on your back to prove you’re the best. In fact, on the back of all our BALLROOM BASIX T-shirts, we have the number 10, because EVERY student is “a perfect 10” just for participating!
NYFA: What do you feel are the most important things for participants in BALLROOM BASIX programs to learn?
SG: Children have so much academic and athletic competition in their lives, that they both need and deserve a totally non-competitive activity like this, that engenders respect among all classmates. One of the most important lessons I try to instill in these students is the realization that in life, we are not always in the company of people we like, but need to behave graciously in spite of it. So if they’re dancing with someone who isn’t necessarily their friend, even if only for a minute, it is important to treat that person politely, with respect. It’s a great anti-bullying message.
NYFA: When and why did you move to Harlem? How has Harlem been as a home base for BALLROOM BASIX?
SG: I relocated to Harlem a year-and-a-half ago, specifically to launch the program. I felt it was important to live in the neighborhood I serve. I’m happy to say I’ve met with a variety of community educators and politicians who understand how important our motto is: “making manners matter … one step at a time.” This is the most creative way I know to teach “gentlemanly” and “lady-like” qualities to schoolchildren, and what better place to have a headquarters than Harlem, the birthplace of swing. I actually reside in Spanish Harlem, which is equally famous for salsa and merengue. Recording sensation Mark Anthony was born here.
I had the good fortune of studying abroad in both high school and college. where I minored in Spanish. Consequently, I speak the language fluently — and incorporate a lot of Spanish in the latin dance instructional component of BALLROOM BASIX. Some of my students’ parents don’t even speak English, so it comes in handy. Others don’t even have two parents, and its very heartwarming when a Harlem mother tells me that I’m her son’s “dance daddy.” One single mom credited me for turning her son into a gentleman. You can’t put a price tag on that!
NYFA: What are your goals for Ballroom Basix in the next five years?
SG: I would like to see BALLROOM BASIX become a standard arts component in the first year of every middle school in the tri-state area. This is the time when the education and etiquette of partner dance can really make the most significant impact on schoolchildren. Understanding that there is a way to be physically appropriate and respectful of the opposite sex is a vital life lesson. Also, my unique rotational syllabus ensures that all students dance with one another, so some children that wouldn’t otherwise have anything to do with one another have a chance to connect, albeit briefly, through partner dancing.
We are excited about the possibility of expanding to after-school programming as well, while we incrementally expand our regional development to other cities. Both locally and nationally, I’m adamant about steadfastly maintaining quality control.
NYFA: Thank you, Sidney.
BALLROOM BASIX’s recording of “America the Beautiful download is now available on iTunes: One hundred percent of the post-production proceeds benefit the organization — and Tuesday’s Children, a charity that supports the kids of 9/11 victims.