Engaging Atlanta: Nena Gilreath and Waverly T. Lucas, II of Ballethnic

Photo Credit: Denise Gray
Ballethnic Dance Company’s signature production, The Leopard Tale. Choreographed by Co-Founder, Waverly T. Lucas, II, this ballet eloquently fuses classical ballet and African Dance into a high energy, action-filled, and powerful performance. Amongst set pieces evoking the jungle, with five drummers dressed in white outfits and hats in the background, two of Ballethnic’s dancers perform in the foreground wearing ornate African-inspired costumes and face paint. One dancer in a deep second position grand plié holds a staff vertically, while the other soars high off the ground in a split leap, holding their staff horizontally straight out from their shoulders.

November 15, 2022
Volume 4 Issue 1

DanceATL continues to conduct brief interviews with dance organizations around Atlanta to listen and learn about their desires and challenges. In an effort to maintain full transparency, these interviews will be published via our digital publication Promenade. This will ensure accountability on DanceATL’s behalf, and inform readers about the needs of dance organizations in Atlanta.

Our goal in conducting and publicizing these interviews is to gain a better understanding of how we can support all members of the dance community in Atlanta, build a connected network of dance organizations and artists, and institute changes that can act as an example for artistic communities nationwide.  We welcome all feedback about this process, please email info@danceatl.org with any questions or input. Below is a transcript of our interview from May 2022 with Nena Gilreath and Waverly T. Lucas, II, Co-Artistic Directors of Ballethnic.

Jacque Pritz, DanceATL: As an internal initiative for DanceATL, we are trying to get an assessment of community needs through interviews and better understanding of dance organizations around Atlanta. We strive to learn how DanceATL can serve your organization and ensure vital and important members of the community as we continue to grow. The main goal is to gain a better understanding of how we can support you and your dance organization, as we mentioned, to build a connected network of dance organizations and artists, and institute changes that can act as an example for artistic communities Nationwide. Some of the questions we’ll be asking you relate to whether or not you currently use any of the DanceATL services, some of your challenges right now, especially moving forward post Covid, and your vision for the community and others. So I will just invite you if you can both introduce yourselves, the organization, affiliations, interest, etc.

Nena: I can start. We’re both big talkers. There’s a lot to say, especially since we were 3 years old in the Atlanta region. We’re now 32 with our organization, so there’s a lot to say. I am one of the co-founders. I’m Nena. Waverly and I are married. We moved here to dance with the Atlanta Ballet. We moved from New York. We were dancing with the Dance Theatre of Harlem and wanted to create greater access for people of color in ballet so there would be more opportunity beyond when Alvin Ailey came to town. And for people to have a professional space that they could perform in regularly and contractually – so that’s our big purpose. Also to provide excellent education for dancers that wanted to dance in the classical realm, that could see a pathway to be in a company, or to access our networks.

Waverly: I’m Waverly T. Lucas II and I’m also a co-founder, core artistic director, and resident choreographer for Ballethnic Dance Company, Incorporated which includes the professional Ballethnic Dance Company, the Ballethnic Youth Ensemble, the Ballethnic Academy of Dance, and the Danseur Development Project as well as our outreach: Ballethnic to Youth. Basically, we pretty much began in Detroit, Michigan, and I actually attended Marygrove college. In later years, I went back to complete my degree there, and after getting all the credits and everything and attending other colleges and running up a bill, I found out they said “you have to pay for the degree” and pretty much decided “No, I’m not going to pay for a dance degree and I’ve already proven myself in dance.” So what I ended up doing was I attended the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance of the University of Limerick in Ireland as Class of 2020 and completed my Master’s in Ethnochoreology. The reason I did it was because I didn’t want a degree in dance. My life has been studying dance—I don’t want a degree in performing or dance. That sent what my degree I wanted to be is in something else. Fortunately, with ethnochoreology, it’s more of a research degree. It focuses on the study of people, their movements, society’s movements, what does it imply, their music, their culture. These were the things that interested me most as I did choreography for Ballethnic Dance Company. I really engaged in a lot of research and wanted to tell stories. Not just my stories, but other people’s stories, society’s stories.

Jacque: That’s awesome. Thank you for sharing that with us, and thank you for defining ethnochoreology for me. I have not heard that before. That’s amazing and congrats on your Masters! So can you share further how would you describe your perspective as an artist and where are you coming from?

Waverly: My perspective as an artist, it comes from an intercore of authenticity. I think often dancers say they want to be authentic, but their desire for success or what they deem as success drives them to actually come to what’s popular, what is the it thing, what is the thing that validates them. One of the things that I decided a long time ago was I had no desire to fit in necessarily. You don’t have to validate yourself through what the general public and industry think. Authenticity comes from that stubborn desire to do what you really truly believe in and what you feel is yourself. If you’re if you’re constantly trying so hard to be successful, to that I say, “have at it.” But for us, here at Ballethnic, we embellished and we flourished in our troop and our authenticity. I think this is what distinguishes us. That’s what we do and so we’re not in a hurry to make it happen. But what we want to do is to be intentional with what we do and explore – and be innovative in our perspective of innovation.

Nena: I would say that Atlanta is a difficult climate and it’s only gotten more difficult. My perspective is: how do we create opportunity and access using dance? We’ve been the Pied Pipers in dance for many years. When it started out with the two of us, solely dancing around every crack and cranny in Atlanta. But with marley and proper tools, we always try to have the proper things to represent where we wanted to go. It was important for us to show representation. We believe in the nobility of the work so it’s not fast or easy, like Waverly said. It’s always been that we’ve dug down into working together. Working hard is noble. Those have been our values. 

We have some core values that we’ve always lived by. Coming here and not having a community of our own and building a community from scratch, we know that those values matter to many generations of people and that’s how we attracted people, especially from a lot of naysayers when we started. The perspective is to gather people, to bring people together, to share the knowledge that you have. We’ve always had big shares of knowledge. Also to know that everybody is not part of your tribe and some people come in to access your assets and then try to change what your tribe is. So we’re always very careful. To me, particularly, about energy and who enters the room, what you are trying to do. For me, my work has always been very spiritual and it’s about reaching a higher purpose through dance. I think that’s important. I like to work with people who have that same kind of go-to-it, do-it perspective; people that just jump in and help – and not the people with their hands folded, “just-tell-me-what-to-do” kind of people. The perspective is just making the world better through dance and that we are more than dance. We’re not the sum of just dance; dance is a way in which we move your life.

Nisha Srinivas, DanceATL: Thank you. How do you define community? 

Waverly: Well, I feel that we live in a place, in a space, in an environment that is bigger than ourselves and if we look at that space then that is our community. Often people try to minimize their community  either by family or by associations, but your community  pretty much is the space, the people, the chair, your space, and your environment. It can be as wide– as miles on end–or it could be smaller communities such as s distance. But I think the key word is people “sharing” particular resources that enhance and support a way of life. That is what I would define as “community”. 

Nena: Yeah, I would elaborate on that and say the collection of peoples, people moving together and doing things collectively. Because our community in the past five to six years has greatly expanded. It has always been a large community because we have people like our students who train with us going in and out and coming back and forth. Our location in East Point has been the tourist center, especially when people have graduated or matriculated on. Even now, because we both work in Athens, we work all over, regularly throughout the week. Our community is a mobile community – and I think your community are the people in the spaces that you impact for the better. That’s been really exciting for me. It’s exhausting, but I think you carry community with you, and that goes back with what I said previously about values.  Community is especially something valuable when you have every age group. Our community is from the very young to recently – as people saw us express on the stage of the Alliance Theater for The Leopard Tale – some people would call it very old, but we would call it the “seasoned.” And the fact that we had drummers that have been with us for most of our 32 years, and they were 30 or 40 when they started with us, and they’re up on that stage. So community is your lifeline.

Jacque: Thank you for sharing that. To further the conversation about community, can you share a little bit more. Define what it means when you say you’re carrying that community with you and can you give a specific example of how you do that with yourselves or Ballethnic? 

Nena: I like to share knowledge. It’s really funny about me sometimes—I have to shut myself down. When I come into a space and I feel like I can help improve it or help make it better, it’s sometimes hard for me to keep my mouth shut. I think community is just really sharing if you have something significant or some way that you’d add value. When you travel, you bring that with you and not be afraid to say “Hey, I think we can do this better and if you don’t want my information, I’m good with that too.” But I think just really wanting to enhance or what you perceive as enhancement; wanting things to go smoothly in the community so you can do the business at hand. Because sometimes people are so busy doing, doing, doing, you can’t get to the business at hand because maybe it is not organized at the moment. So that’s what I say. As we travel, as we move along, especially going from here to Athens regularly all the time, just bringing what you feel is important always and working at a high-level.  

Waverly: I have an example. For me, it’s one of the virtual interviews or sharing we did with Wayne State University out of Detroit, Michigan with the dance department there. Dr. Courtney, who sponsored me to go to the University of Limerick, he has a doctorate in Ethnochoreology and he wanted us to speak to the graduating class. What he was trying to get them to understand are the different options within the industry. 

Often what I think is that colleges tend to teach the glamorous part of dance. They don’t teach the grunt work, the real heart that sustains you as an artist because they like to share the major success stories. But there are many success stories that I think would be more useful to these young people because I think the majority of them will fall into that category, not in the category of these big ballet companies with the top choreographers who don’t have to write grants. The grants are coming to them.

These are the things that we point out to them. We showed them our path and how it was unconventional. We explained to them that it was difficult and it was hard because we started with a couple credit cards and basically an idea. From there what we had to realize is that the credit cards have limits and so you can only do so much with the credit card. So the ideas and the ingenuity had to come in there. We had to learn the bartering system until that became an important part of the whole idea for us to realize the importance of real estate. We got into real estate development so that we can have our own facility – because after a while we were frustrated with moving around, people wanting you there in this space for a while, but then once you draw people in, now they want to charge you, they want to expand the amount of money that you’re paying. 

It’s like one step forward two steps back and so now you are starting all over moving somewhere else. Having our own space was paramount in our development, in our ability to go 32 years, whereas many people say “it’s not a state-of-the-art facility.” But guess what? We are part of a 1% of organizations that own their property. So you have to look at it in different ways; we have a community garden; we have an outdoor stage. so we were able to dance through the pandemic, because we could dance and perform and rehearse outdoors. We also have a Ballethnic Artist Residence, where we subsidize the housing for our dancers. So it’s like, you look at these things, and that’s why we say Ballethnic is more than dance. We focused on the Ballethnic way and recognized that there is no dance without finance. In some ways you have to have that element.

Nena: He had some key points. 

Jacque: Yeah, my mind is like oh my gosh—yes! Thank you for saying all those things and sharing that. Wow.

Nena: I think what he keeps saying about the younger generation – what’s important is sharing, like you have that pipe line between both, because the younger generation have things and efficiencies, but we also know how to do everything manually even after the power goes out. 

When I see the younger generations, they are totally freaked out when something goes wrong. If you can’t get to your Google Drive, they are freaked out. But for me, I have something written in my notebook somewhere. 

So, I think it’s the “both and” that’s what we’ve been really keen about. I think with dance, people forget. That they try to throw out everything and be fast and furious. But as we said earlier, coming from being founders of something, we’ve gone through all the different iterations of when you’re building, when you are the thing that everybody wants and wants to jump on your bandwagon, when you’re in a place where people go “oh that’s old fashioned, we don’t want to do that.” But we kept going. So there’s many many iterations if you desire to run something long-term. So you can’t get discouraged because in many ways year 32 is harder than year 1 through 3. And people don’t see that; they just think “oh, you accumulated all these things.” And as [Waverly] said, with the building comes tremendous responsibility. With longevity, there comes tremendous expectation, and as you bring more people on board, it is just more and more to do and to follow up on. The simplicity in your younger stages is kind of great, so I would say you better enjoy it.

Jacque: Even through the first three years of DanceATL, it quickly got more complicated and complex and dynamic with how the organization was structured in our offerings to the community. I definitely have a lot to learn. I feel like Ballethnic is a great leader and example of that longevity and you remind me that it’s a long game. Awesome, thank you for sharing that. Can you share perhaps a little bit more about, besides Ballethnic, about you traveling to Athens a lot? What dance organizations and services do you also participate in or work with?

Nena: The University of Georgia, East Athens Educational Dance Center in Athens, International Association of Blacks and Dance – we’re part of their cohort for the second go-round, which has a lot of resources and teachings and gathering with companies nationally. Dance/USA – now we’re part of their archival project; one of six organizations selected to participate in the Dance/USA Archiving Fellowship. Tri-Cities High School, which is not an organization but dance. We also work with a lot of local schools in our area. Those are immediate things in my mind because those are the things that I’m closing out right now and ramping up for the next thing. And some things are just on hiatus because of the pandemic; we have not been involved or either they’re going through an organizational shift. We often talk to Angela [Harris] with Dance Canvas and support when we can and vice versa. Atlanta Dance Connection, we’ve collaborated with…

Waverly: Manga African Dance. Giwayen Mata, and they actually rehearse here. 

Nena: Inman Park Dance Festival, we’ve been involved with for many many years.

Waverly: Fusion Chamber Ensemble. It’s a lot. 

Nena: True Colors Dance… 

Waverly: Auburn Research Library… 

Ballethnic Dance Company photo by Kris Roberts
Photo Credit: Kris Roberts
Ballethnic Dance Company performing on stage. Two dancing couples with hands linked dramatically backbend away from each other, heads thrown back. The dancers on the left are en pointe with one leg lifted in attitude towards their partner. In the background there are stage dressings including a table and chairs on a platform, stone resembling a fireplace and chimney, and a projection on the backdrop of dramatic eyes peering out.

Jacque: Wow! You’re definitely in the dance community with various other organizations and artists. Can you perhaps share some resources that you don’t currently have access to to help grow or sustain your organization or the other organizations you are affiliated with?

Nena: That’s a hard one. I think with the level of the work we do, we’re working on building our administrative structure. Sometimes, day to day, we do big things and we don’t have enough hands. Even with getting information to you all, we have one person that does a myriad of things, and if she misses deadlines or misses the mark, then we get mad at her honestly. Yeah, multitasking is hard. 

Waverly: But multitasking creates that type of situation. That’s why I think one of the things we need is marketing. That’s something I’ve been saying for the longest that there needs to be something that really can market organizations beyond having a lack of resources to do the marketing. That would be a great service organization. But of course, marketing is money. So that’s very difficult to have. I just think our government agencies should invest more in that aspect of funding as well for the organizations. If these local organizations are supported in that sense, then they’re able to expand the reach. I think the metropolitan Atlanta area misses great opportunities because we’re in the spotlight in so many other ways and so there’s an expectation. Like the dance and arts organizations should be thriving, and unfortunately only a couple are, or one.

Nena: Marketing and administrative support are big. Because then people don’t really know what’s happening. And there’s other complications in terms of traffic, everything’s produced at the same time. Over the years people have talked about a unified or a big calendar so people would see what’s going on, but that’s difficult for people to even get all the dates out there.

Jacque: I will say DanceATL created a conflict calendar based on that same feedback because there were so many overlapping shows. This is pre-pandemic. It definitely got some momentum, and then at some point like people just stopped utilizing it. Then there was a pandemic, of course. I have to acknowledge that as well. But getting those dates out ahead of time and having it booked and remembering to put the information on a third-party service, in addition to submitting to our Monday Moves definitely is a lot of multitasking.

Waverly: Smaller organizations are going to have a bigger challenge with that, because they don’t have the resources often financially to reserve the spaces in advance. So they have to pretty much wait to see what is available, especially if they are self producers. That becomes a major issue. It’s like, this is the first year that we were able to really have a season, knowing where the things were. And that says a lot. 

Nena: Yeah, there’s limited theatrical spaces, too, if you don’t have your own performance venues. Those kinds of resources are definitely necessary because most performing arts entities get caught up getting the product done and then not having the extra capacity to make sure people beyond your own group or tribe know. You can’t continue to build your community or family if you don’t have that time to look for people outside of your own world. 

Jacque: Right. Can you share what you know about DanceATL, like what we do?

Nena: I will say I don’t know it, like I know some other things. So I would like to know more. I know that Suzanne [Gordan}, like quickly shares opportunities from DanceATL. 

Waverly: I’m actually forced to do most of the social media. So that’s where I know mainly about DanceATL through social media. It allows me to keep up with everything others are doing in the dance community and the dance industry. So that’s what I constantly use it for. 

Jacque: I’m happy to share more about DanceATL. 

Nena: Yeah, let’s hear it! 

Jacque: Sure. [DanceATL is] a dance service organization. Monday Moves is our constant weekly offering to the community. We want to be resource-sharing and information-sharing to the Atlanta Dance Communities. So, sharing when those performances and events are happening, workshops and classes, grant opportunities calls for proposals, auditions, we’ve shared Ballethnic’s auditions, job opportunities in Arts Administration, dance teacher, etc. We are trying to have people remember to share that with us so then we can share it with the community. 

We have [mixers], those gatherings to bring folks together. We started that pre-pandemic and it was like an annual thing. Now we’re hoping to make it a little bit more often. As we return to in person events,  it’s a time for various people to come together and network and gather and meet new folks who may not meet otherwise or because of all the conflicts in Atlanta dance of overlapping shows and classes, as we mentioned earlier. It’s a dedicated time to come together, eat some yummy foods, and offer an elevator pitch forum during that time, so everyone gathered can just pitch what they’re up to, what’s happening, what’s upcoming for them. 

We have our other programming, like A.M. Collaborative. We started that during the pandemic but a year before that we’ve been planning for it. That’s a way to match dancers with other artists. We’ve had writers, lighting designers, costume designers, and photographers join and they work together to make a new piece of art to spice up their creative process if they are in a rut, especially during the pandemic. That has definitely affected a lot of art-making. Our programming is run by six different volunteer committees. Back in the day before I was hired, on Sundays, everybody would come together and meet and talk about what they would want for a dance service organization. They would do these breakout groups in person and write sticky notes on a wall with goals and needs for the community. So those groups turned into our volunteer committees that exist today.

Nena: Yeah, I want to know, like historically, did you guys research the prior service organizations that existed in Atlanta to see what needs they were serving and how you can either piggy back or do something differently? 

Jacque: Sure. A lot of the iterations of DanceATL, before what it is called now, a lot of those same people have stuck with us and shared their insights. I think the biggest thing was in the past, it was all volunteer work and it wasn’t a paid staff position. You know, volunteer fatigue is real, especially those who are all working artists. In 2019, when I was hired there was an anonymous donor who gave us funding for two years. So, I was able to get hired on and become a part-time administrative person who dedicates 20 hours a week. I think that’s what has made a huge difference in keeping DanceATL consistent. Now, we’ve grown to myself part-time and then two other contractors. We have a marketing person and development person, and wonderful interns who are helping administratively as well. 

Nena: It’s just interesting—there was also a dancers collective which was to me the most impactful in the early beginning that helped us in terms of they were members of the national performance network. They also dealt with other national service organizations, so they were able to get some resources beyond our region and many of the choreographic fellowship and leading choreographers. They were very helpful in helping us to implement those goals. In the major festivals, like the National Black Arts Festival, there were a million performances. They helped us service-wise to get things on the stage to bring volunteers for our backstage. Those kinds of things were huge and it just does not exist anymore, but they were more like nationally. They also worked with the Southern Arts Federation. I think there’s room for all that, but again, getting enough staff is important so people don’t totally burn out from just the day-to-day operations. 

Jacque: Are there any immediate ways that DanceATL can serve y’all and Ballethnic, as artists or humans? 

Waverly: For me, social media is a really big hit that we suffer because of that. Not having someone with more experience with social media. That’s a major thing. That’s something that we’re definitely in need of and trying to locate a good match for that. 

Nena: And we have some money. We had an amazing person but they passed away, so it’s not like it’s always been like that. But right now, it is like that. We’re getting ready for the Kennedy Center. It’s exhausting. Even when Instagram takeover, as I was thinking about, that’s something that way we could share that information as we’re preparing to go to the Kennedy Center. 

Waverly: That was my point. I think Instagram takeover needs to be more intentional. I think with me, it ends up being very cut-and-dry and you really can miss the opportunity. I don’t want to miss the opportunity. As far as the Kennedy Center, that’s major. We want to be able to get that out there. We have a capital campaign that we’re starting and we want to be able to really push these things forward, instead of letting them lie dark dormant and then eventually the pocket of time is gone.

Nena: I have some of my students that I teach at UGA and some of them are interested in coming to the Atlanta region, but of course, they’re very concerned about making a living. So I’m always looking for resources and people to connect them with so that they can ask questions. 

Jacque: Maybe that’s something that DanceATL can offer as well because I’ve had one of our board members also connect us with some upcoming grads and they are interested in Atlanta. That may be a great DanceATL offering to offer some sort of like Workshop or panel for new grads. Definitely feel free to contact us. 

Nena: That would be great. I’ve been trying to help guide them, but it’s tough. I always let them know—like you just demonstrated, you got to have more than one job. 

Jacque, Waverly: Yeah. 

Jacque: Is there anything else you’d like to share as we wrap up the interview? 

Nena: No, I think I think that’s it. It just underscores what we already know and we have to do better jobs of the things we talked about. And that we’re all in this together. 

Jacque: Absolutely, for sure. And again thank you for taking the time to meet and share more about Ballethnic and all the amazing things that you do. Congrats with all the things you’ve done over 32 successful years. I’m sure many many more will come.