East Knoxville's Austin-East Dance Company Choreographs Important Lessons

Scene & Heard: Slices of Life From Knoxville's Neighborhoods

Part of a Series

Scene & Heard: Dance

Slices of life from Knoxville's neighborhoods: north, south, east, and west.

In this fourth edition of our ongoing series, we visited different forms of dance in Knoxville to simply record what we saw, profiling the scenes and lives that help define our city.

Even in our post-post-modern flash-graphics corporatized age of high-gloss digital madness, public schools in the United States still have the dead grey institutional look and feel of asylums, circa 1950. Which is why the kaleidoscopic hall in the performance wing of Austin-East Magnet High School is such a welcome respite, the obligatory cement walls somehow taking on a brighter sheen, the hall itself filled with arrangements of student art, photo montages, and African mask replicas and huge 3-D tubes suspended with ballet shoes and pieces of musical instruments.

At the end of the hall is the school's state-of-the-art performance auditorium, which tonight is hosting the Austin-East Dance Company's fall recital, "Voices 2010." And by night's end, any lingering feelings of institutional stuffiness or repression are mostly dispelled, by a night of modish ballet—ballet inflected with hip-hop, West African dance, and plenty of individuality by these 19 students who have choreographed, produced, and danced in 11 song-length numbers, a process that began with the first day of the school year.

"It's called ‘Voices' because the idea is it represents the kids' voices, as dancers and choreographers; there's not any single rhyme or reason behind the different numbers," explains Sara Cohen, co-director of the dance company. Having danced with the Tennessee Children's Dance Ensemble when she was young, Cohen went on to major in dance at the Ohio State University, then danced and taught dance in New York before coming to Knoxville to take the A-E position about three years ago. Membership in Austin-East Dance Company is by audition, and members take dance company as a regular high school course.

"It's a difficult process, because you're dancing, working on choreography all at the same time, trying to get the most out of a 90-minute class period with 11 different dance pieces," Cohen continues. "We help them along, but the kids who are choreographing are getting a real experience of what it's like to choreograph. For all of the dancers, it's a lot of choreography to be learning. When I was in high school, I never had to learn constant new choreography every semester."

When the auditorium lights fall away shortly after 7 p.m., the curtain rises on a stage neon-lit in purple and red. The first production, Seduction, is a sort of whimsical ballet-within-a-ballet fantasia; nine girls in their leotards, lined up on the rails for dance class watching their stern instructor with weary eyes, minds wandering, perhaps… and then the lights fade again. The music kicks in: "Fever" by Beyoncé, a sultry, jazzy number held aloft on the backbone of a swinging standup bassline.

The girls reappear, sans instructor, this time dressed in orange sequined dance outfits instead of ho-hum leotards, their steps bold and high-stepping—maybe not what teacher taught them. And then the Boys appear, three young dudes in all-black duds, black fedoras and canes, cooler than iced tea as they court the Girls through the dance, sometimes one-on-one and sometimes in bunches. It's All That Jazz meets the hip-hop generation, until the music stops, that is.

And then the lights dim again. And when they return, everything is as it was. The Boys are gone, as are the sequined orange dance suits. And the Girls are on the rails again, trying to hold those painful stretches long enough so as not to incur the heat of teacher's penetrating eyes…

And so it goes. Not every number is as thematically clever as Seduction, but every one has something to offer, whether in concept or choreography—the best ones score on both counts.

The auditorium is close to full. It's a neat crowd; mixed-race, enthusiastic but attentive, well-behaved. And generally well-dressed, even hip.

The last row of the auditorium is occupied by a phalanx of A-E teachers, apparently keeping a watchful eye for potential troublemakers. But their job is pretty easy tonight. "Y'all cool it," one of the instructors admonishes a noisy trio a couple rows in front of them at one point in the evening, and that's about the extent of the discipline meted out.

Even then, the "troublemakers" in question are more of the mischievous variety, bespectacled young fellows with benignly impish grins on their faces.

The whole show lasts about 90 minutes, counting the 10-minute intermission. Most of the show is set to hip-hop and modern R&B, though there are some nice change-ups that keep the music from seeming too like-themed—such as the jazzy Beyoncé number, or a DJ collapse mix of a Katy Perry/Snoop Dogg tune, songs by Citizen Cope and Roberta Flack and Blue Mountain. The dance numbers themselves are diversely themed, from a pair of brief, ballet-oriented romantic sketches, both performed by the duo of Lyndeidra Rice and A.J. Swain, to three full-fledged production numbers that incorporate the entire 19-member troupe, encompassing all of the styles in the students' growing repertoire.

At the end, the full troupe presents itself for final bows, and a standing ovation for a job well done. Says Cohen, the well-earned cheers are an important capstone for a process that most school-age kids don't get to experience. "It's an incredibly important lesson you don't usually get to learn in high school," she says.

"You start something, and go through a long process of discipline and hard work. You feel what it's like to have someone demand excellence from you. But in this case, you actually feel what it's like to deliver on that excellence, and then reap the benefits. The kids get to play to the full house, perform to an appreciative audience. They actually get to see that hard work and discipline come to fruition."