ORLANDO, Fla. – A handful of tiny dancers continue to learn at ballet class at the Bradley-Otis Boys and Girls Club in the West Lakes neighborhood of Orlando.
For most of these girls, this is their introduction to ballet or any kind of formal dance.
Some of them have never seen a ballet before much less a ballerina. Their teacher is Heidi Yancey, the students call her Miss Heidi.
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She is the Performing Arts Director at the West Lakes Boys and Girls Club. Yancey lets her students know right away that she expects a lot from them.
There’s a reason she sets the bar so high. She started dancing when she was 5.
She was Delaware’s first black ballerina at the age of 19.
Her years of hard work paid off. She was a soloist in the ballet “Cinderella.” She has performed on Broadway as well as with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, and the Russian Ballet Company to name a few.
She really gets the attention of her young dancers when she tells them about one of her star-studded encounters.
“If the kids want to know, I’ve also choreographed on the set with Beyonce,” she said.
Name-dropping Beyonce isn’t what gives Miss Heidi her dance credibility. Her years of perseverance through the tough times landed her on some of the world’s largest stages.
Her road to success was not easy.
She was often the only Black student and says her teachers didn’t treat her like the other girls. She was often pinched, left bruised and called names. Yancey recalls the cruel tactics of one of her teachers.
“She would put her nails into my skin and grab me, and I would just remember her throwing me across the room and ‘get over here’ and using some very bad words (racial slurs) and things like that. It was pretty tough on me but for some reason, I don’t know, it didn’t faze me at that time.”
From that cruelty, Yancey choreographed a career helping young girls and boys find their rhythm.
As she guides her student through the movements, she is also making sure her words reflect the kindness these young girls deserve. The kindness she was not afforded as a young dancer.
“Beautiful dancers, you look fabulous today” she is quick to tell them with each new move.
Her students said they have never met anyone like her.
Aryanna,8, said her first day in ballet class Heidi gave her a role in the Black History Month show.
“Nobody ever put me in the spotlight like that. Just automatically she put me in the show,” Aryanna said.
Yancey also did something else remarkable.
“She put me in the front too, I’ve learned when you are in the front it is the chance to show what you’ve got,” she said.
Heidi said each student gets a chance in her class. They must do the work and learn the moves.
She said keeping them on their toes now will help them develop skills for a lifetime. Whether they decide to become dancers or doctors.
Another student, Myla, said she understands why Yancey is tough at times.
“If she is tough, she’s making sure you know how to do the stuff, that you are perfect, make sure that you are okay.”
Under Yancey’s leadership, these young ladies are more than OK. They begin to blossom when they see themselves in such a positive way.
Heidi’s words make them feel special.
“She is very kind, very nice, not disrespectful. She has a beautiful name and she is beautiful. I like the way, how she is.”
Au’londra,8, said she’s enjoying the process.
“I like ballet because I have never done ballet before. I think it’s a great thing to do” she said.
Yancey knows speaking positive affirmations to her students now will position them for success on the only stage that counts.
At the end of each class, Heidi tells her students to repeat three powerful words.
“I am fabulous,” they all say in unison.
They applaud and take a bow.
As they leave the West Lakes Boys & Girls Club they have new tools in their backpacks, confidence, pride, joy and a sense of belonging. These are the tools they can access for the rest of their lives even if they never take the stage again.