Under ordinary circumstances, the 40 students from North and Southwest high schools would never have met. Ten miles of Minneapolis and a world of differences divide them.
But there they were, twisting and leaping over one another at the Guthrie Theater last week in a performance that celebrated teen spirit, dance legacy and the bridge-building power of the arts.
“There’s something incredibly unique about sharing a stage with people,” said Sophia Meza, a Southwest senior.
For the past month, they’d been carpooling and busing across the city to rehearsals, learning how to move together, work together, to give and take time in the spotlight.
In practice, shy underclassmen leapt out of their shells. Veterans took front-row spots, imagining their futures on stage. They started out as strangers, but in the end hooted for one another and hugged, bound by the power of performance.
The March matchup started as a question from the Minneapolis School District, backed by a grant from the Martha Gould Fund at the Minneapolis Foundation: What if kids across the city danced together?
Cultural divisions are clear. North dance teacher Tamiko French doesn’t think many kids from North go to the south part of the city, except for trips to the Mall of America. More people from south Minneapolis have traveled to Europe than have driven into the North Side, Southwest dance teacher Colleen Callahan-Russell remembered hearing.
“There’s no occasion for them, or there wasn’t, to go across town,” she said.
But once the dance project started, a common interest became clear. The dancers from Southwest were “actually as committed as me,” said North High junior Ricquel Williams.
‘1, 2, 3, family’
African drumbeats pulsed over studio speakers at each joint rehearsal, like a clock ticking closer to performance time.
In early March, with less than a month to go before the final performance, the Southwest dancers piled into North High’s studio for rehearsal, some late because of navigation mishaps. As they practiced their steps, guest choreographer Toni Pierce-Sands of St. Paul-based TU Dance Company drilled and staged, sewing together pieces of the dance they’d learned.
With free time scarce, the Southwest kids were out the door soon after they arrived, leaving North to practice their group number alone.
Two weeks until showtime and the kids were in a studio at the University of Minnesota’s Barbara Barker Center for Dance. Despite the time constraints, kids were bonding. A group of girls went again and again through a line dance with tricky counts that demanded spins at precise moments.
All the kids who packed rehearsals in leggings and T-shirts are advanced dancers. About 30 of them were from Southwest and a group of eight were from North, including a stage manager. Southwest’s enrollment is more than four times the size of North’s, which holds nearly 400 students this year.
Malik Marcus was the sole male dancer from North High. Just a freshman, he choreographed the boys’ combination, a center-stage explosion of jumps over each other’s heads and log rolls on the dance floor.
Marcus used to be shy, but French saw the choreographic potential in his freestyle hip-hop and drew him in. Marcus called the Southwest kids “some of the coolest people” he’s ever met.
Being with the North crew felt natural for Iman and Khadijah Siferllah-Griffin, Southwest seniors and twin sisters.
“I saw family in them,” Khadijah said.
As if to spell that out, one long rehearsal ended in a giant group hug among the boys with a chant — “1, 2, 3, family!”
Then, ready or not, it was performance day. A quick run-through of their set onstage and cleanup rehearsal. Homework and naps in the Guthrie hallways. Their five-minute dance in the 8:40 p.m. slot loomed.
The theater building had the buzz of a performing arts school as around 900 Minneapolis students readied to perform in annual district arts showcase Viva City, held at the Guthrie for the first time.
With minutes left before their performance, French and Callahan-Russell motioned through the piece’s finale, their short dance duet, in an offstage corner. After years of working together, this was a farewell: Callahan-Russell will retire at the end of the school year.
In her 35-year tenure teaching dance in the district, Callahan-Russell remembers North’s arts heyday. She taught dance there when it was an arts magnet. French, a 1997 North alumnae, was one of her students. Resources were plentiful. The program was rich.
When Callahan-Russell moved to Southwest in the late 1990s, a dance program didn’t exist there, she said. Now, kids like the Siferllah-Griffin twins pick Southwest because of its dance focus. Ten of the district’s schools offer dance during the daytime curriculum, including five high schools.
“It balances their life,” Callahan-Russell said. She’ll miss watching the kids — her kids — grow.
The kids loved Pierce-Sands, a sweet but direct choreographer who was Callahan-Russell’s first guest artist at North. It was fitting that she round out the last dance.
The Southwest seniors will move on, Meza to the University of Minnesota for a major in dance and political science, the twins deciding between dance opportunities and school — or maybe both. French will keep building dance at North, training underclassmen like Marcus.
Callahan-Russell said her kids are aching for future collaborations, and next time, with chances to get to know one another better.
Seconds left now. Teachers and students clad in full white glowed against the red velvet of the Guthrie’s McGuire Proscenium Stage, school allegiances indistinguishable as they shifted in their seats, waiting their turn.
Then it was places onstage, and lights. The familiar African drumbeats began to pound. And together in their bare feet, they danced.