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Ballet East brings world of dance to Austin's east side

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Those who love to dance will tell you the art form allows them to open up and be as creative as they want to be. That’s part of the reason Ballet East was created more than 30 years ago.

The classes offered to students with Ballet East are free of charge, helping them provide a platform for young choreographers and dancers, especially those who are at risk.

Dancing is a form of expression that takes years and years of practice to master. Charis Campbell has been dancing on and off since she was 5 years old. “I get to be myself, yet a different character and I love playing characters. I’m all about this, the face, and I don't know, my soul just reaches out,” says Campbell.

Charis is part of the Ballet East Dance Company. This is her second season and without them, she couldn't afford dancing. “I was working at Red Lobster as a server and I ran into a dancer that danced at Ballet Austin and I tried there first and…then I found Ballet East just looking online and I found out it was free,” says Campbell.

The group was started in 1978 by Rodolfo Mendez. As a trained dancer, he developed dancing programs through his work in the Peace Corp. He wanted to do the same at home and Ballet East was a way to give the youth of East Austin a place to become real dancers and choreographers. One of their missions is to reach out to the Hispanic and Black communities.

Through that outreach, he met Melissa Villarreal. She was only 14 at the time, but was soon able to work with prestigious dancing companies. She is now the Associate Director of Ballet East Dance Company and tells me she's seen dance save lives. “It's directed my life in so many different avenues. I hung out with people that either dropped out of school or they got pregnant and ended up in jail. And unfortunately some of them ended up dead because they got mixed up in drugs and alcohol,” says Villarreal.

Right now Ballet East has 10 adults in their company. Their Ballet East 2 teaches dancers 12 and up and also offer free after school ballet folklorico at Martin Junior High School.  Since they are a non-profit they run off grants, donors and sponsors. “My hope is to open it up to younger students. I would love to see kids in East Austin taking ballet, and taking tap, or jazz and getting exposed to that world at a much younger age than the ages we are impacting now,” says Villarreal.   

Another thing offered through the company is mentorships. The adult dancers help train the younger ones and expose them to the world of dance. “I like this company because I can learn how my expressions in the choreography. I love when I can show my feelings,” says Alejandro Flores, one of the company’s dancers.

Charis says she couldn't imagine a better experience. “Individual critique is very important to me and I think Melissa is very nurturing to each dancer and I think she communicates with all of our learning abilities.”

There is always a need for more funding. If you'd like to help, go to their website and look at their wish list. They also have some shows coming up, starting Thursday at the Dougherty Arts Center. Thursday through Saturday the show starts at 8 p.m. Sunday at 2 pm. Tickets are $15  for adults and $10 for children.

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