The ChiArts Dance Conservatory’s “Journey of the Brown Tights” is an Artistic History Lesson

After the recession of 2008, due to budget cuts and more emphasis on Math and Science, the Arts were taken out of the public school system stifling the creative expression of students who may become our future actors, musicians, dancers, writers, and so much more.

ChiArts is Chicago’s first and only public high school offering tuition-free pre-professional arts training for novice-level students, removing tuition barriers to create a culturally diverse space for Chicago youth.

ChiArts Dance Conservatory Head, Greer Reed spoke to me on the way ChiArts prepares students.

Greer Reed: “I can honestly say from the very first time that I walked in the doors of ChiArts, I knew that there was a special energy, and the kids get to do what they love every single day, and that’s really special. And not all of us get to do that when we’re young. The next thing is our dance conservatory, I’m going to speak a little bit about our scope and sequence that I think is extremely important. So in their curriculum, when a child comes to ChiArts from the time that they’re freshman, all the way up until they’re a senior, we make sure that they are exposed to all forms of dance, because where I’m concerned is I think that is so important to create the whole dancer, meaning that not only do they get their ballet classes and their modern classes, but I think it’s just as important that they get their hip-hop classes and their jazz classes and their African classes and their Spanish classes and any other classes that you can name right now. I think that’s so important because there’s so many opportunities for young artists, young dancers today, and I want to make sure when they get out there that they are ready for any moment of opportunity. That means if there is an audition for a ballet company, they are prepared to go do that at the same time. Let’s say they don’t get into that ballet company, but they read about Beyonce is having an audition for backup dancers. They need to be able to do that as well. And so that’s why I think it’s so important that they get a really, really well-rounded dance education, where they are learning to respect and honor all the techniques equally and appreciate and look back and know that tradition is part of their future.”

Recently ChiArts presented a production for invited guests and parents called Journey of the Brown Tights, that included the all the departments of the conservatory.  ChiArts Dance Instructor Dereque Whiturs was one of the creators of the piece and explained thought behind the piece.

Dereque Withers: “The story of the Journey of The Brown Tights, is about being able to accept who you are personally in your own skin and being comfortable with that enough, to where you can be the best that you can be at all times during that process or in life in general. I was told once that I was too dark. I was too this, I was too that that I wouldn’t be able to be a ballet dancer. I wouldn’t be able to be in the Ailey Company because I didn’t have stretch and everything, but I had to define some way to present myself and do the work and do the classes to be able to be comfortable with myself.

And so the journey is giving an opportunity to young people today, to be okay with who they are and to love their skin. And my skin is brown and a lot of brown skin people or dark-skinned people have been, I don’t know how to put it, but have been told that they can’t do certain things when it comes to dance. And so the Journey of The Brown Tights lets you see the legacy of those people who went through certain things like a Janet Collins and a Raven Wilkinson who during the ’50s were not able to perform with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo because of their skin and the Ku Klux Klan, but today we’re at a different time where kids can be okay with who they are or love who they are and enjoy the work that they love to do or the art that they love to do, which is dance.”

I was privileged to witness this artistic experience and I was completely blown away.  The students paid tribute to six notable Black Dancers: Janet Collins, Raven Wilkinson, Carmen de Lavallade, Arthur Mitchell, Geoffrey Lamont Holder, and Alvin Ailey.  They were amazing and so talented. The students who are singers, dancers, musicians, and artist all contributed to bring life to Journey of the Brown Tights.

Because of COVID, it was a small enthusiastic audience, but I am hoping that some day soon this production will be able to be seen by so many more people via a live performance, or virtually.  I also want to give applause to the parents, guardians, teachers, and caretakers of these students.  It takes a lot to support a child who is dedicated to the arts.

To know more about the ChiArts Dance Conservatory please visit www.chiarts.org

Until next time, keep your EYE to the sky!

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