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  • Writer's pictureHannah Box

Learning to Fly Together

“Use those beautiful and brilliant minds of yours,

my grandmother said.

Lift your arms,

close your eyes,

take a deep breath,

and believe in a thing.

Somebody somewhere at some point

was just as bored as you are now.”

-The Year We Learned to Fly by Jacqueline Woodson

Ballet class has been my home for as long as I can remember. Putting my overactive mind’s energy toward my physical, technical, and expressive goals has continuously saved me from being overtaken by my worries, anxiety, and sensitivity. The only thing that grants me more peace and passion than taking ballet class is teaching it. Not only do I get to share my love of dance with my students, but I also get to experience a piece of their life’s journey with them. For me, there is nothing better than sharing a moment of curiosity, discovery, or joy with a child through dance. These moments are especially potent when I get to lean on my beautiful community of like-minded helpers to create magical moments with children who may not otherwise have access to such experiences.

One of my teaching sites is Sullivan Elementary School, a public school that works in partnership with Metropolitan Ministries – an organization that provides a wide range of services to unhoused and at-risk families. As an outreach instructor at the Straz Center, I get to teach ballet to these students every week. In addition to practicing our movement skills, we learn about ballet history, vocabulary, and ways to use dance as a form of self-expression. Each child receives a pair of ballet shoes to ensure they are ready to move around the gym safely and confidently. Our end-of-year showcase is our major production of the year. Last year, the students performed the story of Fredrick by Leo Lionni. The dancers moved as mice, as well as the colors, sunbeams, and words of Fredrick’s imagination. There was not a dry eye in the house.

Hannah posing with Fredrick and some of our word scarves, in our cast t-shirt supplied by the Straz Center.

This year, we are utilizing the beautiful story of The Year We Learned to Fly by Jacqueline Woodson as inspiration. Each dance will represent how we can use our “beautiful and brilliant minds” to fly above boredom, frustration, loneliness, or anything else we may encounter in our lives. This book celebrates the power within us all, and I cannot wait to showcase that strength through dance. Of course, this performance starts with the story, which means each kid deserves their own copy of the book. I happen to have an “in” with Bess the Book Bus – a beautiful literacy non-profit – through my favorite helper, my mom. Bess supplied each student with a copy of the book to keep, which made reading our story in ballet class that much more exciting.

Presenting this year's book in conjunction with one of Bess the Book Bus's Joy of Reading Pop-Up Book Fairs!

My amazing mom, Michelle, giving out a copy of The Year We Learned to Fly to a student.

As an educator, I do not always believe it is fair to a child to encourage them to think, dream, and fly without presenting them with concrete examples of how such dreaming can move them forward. When I heard that my incredible friend, Desmond Nunn, was going to be in Tampa to rehearse one of the touring casts of Hamilton the musical, I knew I had to try to facilitate my students meeting him. Not only has Desmond had immense success as a performer, choreographer, and dance master (notably, he has been all of the above for Hamilton productions worldwide!), but he is also kind, thoughtful, and passionate. I met Desmond when I was a teenager. Back then, he was a recent college grad living and dancing in Huntsville, Alabama. Now, he is the Dance Supervisor for multiple Hamilton tours and is the Assitant Choreographer for Hamilton in Germany. He knows how to fly better than most.

Desmond and Hannah

Desmond chatted with some of my older elementary students. They discussed everything from the value of a good plie to meeting the Kardashians. Most of all, Desmond encouraged them to work hard and dream big by utilizing the opportunities around them and carving out their own paths.

“For a long time, the kids on the ground watched us …

then one by one

they lifted their arms.

One by one

they too

learned to fly.”

-The Year We Learned to Fly by Jacqueline Woodson

Whether with my mom and the other Bess the Book Bus director, Jennifer Francis, or Desmond, I felt overwhelmed with gratitude that I get to facilitate little magic moments for my students. For me, ballet has never been about being the most praised dancer in the room or having the perfect body for someone else’s aesthetics. It has always been about my own commitment, self-care, and expression. My path has been made possible by inspiring figures around mentors and me that encouraged me to fly. I am not just at home when I am dancing; I am flying along with my students, family, mentors, and community. Teaching now is about creating opportunities for my students to fully commit themselves to their work and find their own ways to fly – whether through the power of reading, movement, or meeting someone they see themselves in. Through that, I fly a little higher.

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