Eighteen Hinds Community College students, along with two instructors and the instructors’ three children, traveled to New York City for HCC’s Montage Theatre of Dance’s performance on stage at Carnegie Hall.

A dance performance on the Carnegie Hall stage will linger long with the Hinds Community College students who recently danced there, driving that spring in their step to greater heights back home, they say.

In addition that prestigious gig, four jam-packed days in New York City for HCC’s Montage Theatre of Dance were an eye-opening, heart-thumping treat and treasure.

Willie Hunt, a freshman from Jackson, was humbled. “With us, being from a small country town, and you’re going to a big city and seeing not just the buildings and big lights — you feel opportunity. Everything’s moving so fast. It’s a bit overwhelming if you let it get you, but performing — it’s just, whew!” he grinned, his face still flush with the excitement.

Montage Theatre of Dance was one of only 14 preprofessional dance groups from across the country selected to take part in Performing Arts Educators’ 14th Anniversary Invitational at Carnegie Hall Jan. 18. The festival celebrates pure dance on a world-class stage by focusing on the art form unaided by scenery, props or set, and not distracted by competition.

“It’s so beautiful,” Ashton Reynolds, a freshman from Byram, said of his first sight of Carnegie Hall. “All the work inside, the ceiling, all this gold. You see gold and white everywhere. And you see these red velvet seats, and you see them all filled up with random people you don’t know, and all your family and friends, and they’re supporting you on that stage. And, you have all your heart out on that stage.”

In Montage’s second time to perform in the invitational (the first, in 2009), HCC dance director Tiffany Jefferson brought home the event’s prestigious Del Kieffner Award, honoring those who’ve gone above and beyond to positively shape students’ lives. “Some of us cried like a baby and had to go backstage,” Reynolds said.

“It was me,” their teacher Jefferson admitted. “I did, too,” he backed her up.

Montage performed the opening number for “The Dance of the Lion King” before a sellout crowd of about 2,800 in the venerated hall. Based on the story in the Disney animated feature, it folds many genres of dance — hip hop, African Caribbean, hiplet (a hip hop/ballet hybrid), ballet, circus work, modern, tap, jazz — into the narrative collage. They got a standing ovation.

“They did ‘Circle of Life,’ in full costume, and they brought the house down,” festival
producer/artistic director Matt Straub said. “It was the most moving set I’ve seen in my
twenty-something years doing this. It was stunning.”

“It was amazing. The crowd was awesome,” and the energy in the room was palpable, said Hannah Mackenzie, a sophomore from Ohio. “When we were taking our bows … and just seeing all the people and their smiling faces, cheering for us —that made a huge impression on me.

“Miss Tiffany has worked hard with us, and made it so that we deserved to be on that stage.”

“I never thought I’d be able to dance in New York City, on the Carnegie Hall stage,” said Camea Dixon, a freshman from Clinton. “I was nervous, but excited at the same time. I had a really good time.”

The 18 students, along with two instructors and the instructors’ three children (who also
performed) also took dance class at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Broadway Dance Center, saw “The Lion King” on Broadway and another production (“A Soldier’s Play” for some, “Frozen” for others), visited the Brooklyn Bridge and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Dance class in New York offered key inspiration. Dixon, a bit intimidated in a theater dance class, vowed to push herself harder when she got home, “so that when I go back to New York next time, I’ll be better.”

For Reynolds, class at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was one of many highlights he
brought home. “Seeing a black man up there, it gives you hope that you can do the same thing that he can do. And, you see all these other performers who are African American.”

Hunt recalled his first impression of Carnegie Hall, walking in and looking up to see images of those who’d performed there before — Leontyne Price, Lady Gaga, The Beatles and many more. “I started wondering to myself, ‘Why me?’” he said, then remembered Jefferson’s pre-performance lectures and how he should be thinking “Why not me?” “That’s what she tells us … It doesn’t matter where you come from, if you can make it to it, then you can get over it.

“We shouldn’t limit ourselves.”

“Don’t get ready, stay ready,” Jefferson tells her students — a mantra they know well enough to suggest T-shirts with the saying. That’s how they got this chance, too. “Whenever opportunities hit, is when you take them.”

It’s one more way to share an art form that sometimes get short shrift. Music, theater and
movies all find a place in people’s lives and favorite artist lists, but most folks can’t name a favorite choreographer, she said. “At the same time, we know for a fact that dancing does move a culture, in more than one way. And, no pun intended on that.

“You need to be able to connect with the community, be able to connect with the people,” she said. “The Dance of the Lion King,” perhaps the most distinctive piece in the Montage repertoire, does that in a story that resonates with emotion — loss, growth, humor and surprises — and African culture.

“You could pick a thousand people off the street, and they would’ve loved it,” Straub said.
“Tiffany knows what she’s doing,” he added, praising Montage’s success and strength,
particularly at a two-year college with dancer turnover just that frequent.

Local audiences have the chance to see Montage Theatre of Dance’s “The Dance of the Lion King” in upcoming performances at Thalia Mara Hall in Jackson Feb. 9 and Cain-Cochran Hall on HCC’s Raymond campus Feb. 11-13.

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Sherry Lucas is a veteran feature writer in Jackson whose stories spread the word on Mississippi's food, arts, culture and communities. A lifelong Mississippian and University of Mississippi graduate, Lucas has decades of daily newspaper experience. She is now a freelance writer and contributes regularly to Mississippi Today.