A Light On Her Feet

A Light On Her FeetA Light On Her Feet

E ven (or perhaps particularly) when clad in ballet shoes, Mnikesa Whitaker is not to be messed with. “I’m focused on instilling a sense of discipline and work ethic into the girls. That’s what dance is about, and that’s what I’m about.”

Whitaker, known respectfully as Ms. Whitaker by the students she leads in class and on stage, teaches English at Fair Haven K-8 Middle School on Grand Avenue. Also a part-time graduate student, she’s 33 years old with the strong, graceful build of the classically trained dancer she is. And she’s fighting a mean, degenerative autoimmune disease: diffuse systematic scleroderma. That seems like enough—too much—for any one person. Still, Ms. Whitaker launched and cultivates an after-school ballet program for girls in Fair Haven: BalletHaven.

It’s immediately clear that Whitaker is a force to be reckoned with: seemingly nothing will stop this woman. The disease is attacking the connective tissue in her body—meaning it’s slowly eroding her heart, lungs, GI system and muscles. “I have 48% of my lungs left,” she says, talking over iced coffee one afternoon, taking breaks to catch her breath. Whitaker is open and honest about what she’s facing—she says she knows no other way to be. She’s waiting for a stem cell transplant if approved by the FDA. In the meantime, it’s been two years of chemo and treatments. Despite formidable health issues, Whitaker’s had a vision for BalletHaven since she started teaching years ago. “I was waiting to get better before I started it,” she says. “But I’m not getting better.”

Clearly an inspiring teacher, her dedication to her students extends beyond the classroom and onto the stage of the school’s auditorium. During the school year, Whitaker leads 23 girls in focused, intense ballet instruction twice a week after school. The troupe is on summer break now, with

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BalletHaven resuming in the new school year. In May, before summer’s arrival, Whitaker’s middle schoolers are attentive and calm under her instruction. Lined up at ballet barres reconstructed from old bleachers (thanks to Fair Haven’s shop teacher), the girls listen carefully as Whitaker speaks into a microphone, detailing the process of a “chasse”—the ballet term for what is, essentially, an elegant gallop.

“That’s good. Focus here,” she says, standing in the middle of the stage in sweatpants as she watches the girls cross the stage in pairs, mimicking her movement. “Remember there is no flexed foot. Your foot is pointed the whole time. In French, chasse means to chase. So watch me—this foot is chasing my front foot, but we’re still in control—we’re not just hopping around.” At first, there’s complete focus. But with the increasingly energetic movements comes a murmur of young voices, giggles and gasps—and a slight loss of attention. Ms. Whitaker does not approve.

“We are showing you this, and if you are talking and you miss it, I’m not going to feel bad for you when you don’t know what you’re doing.” An immediate snap back to attention. It’s astounding to watch the girls respond to Whitaker’s guidance—mostly gentle with occasional firmness and a reminder that the dancers are here to learn, not to mess around. Her expectations are high, she admits, but the girls are capable of meeting them. Uniforms must be neat and, well, uniform: leotards with tights (not necessarily new, but clean) and perfectly arranged, slicked back ballet buns. Not a hair out of place. The buns are important, she says, as ballet is largely about presentation. And arriving to class with the correct

uniform and bun is also an exercise in discipline and preparation, which she says gets the girls focused before they step foot on stage.

Whitaker first put out feelers for the program in November last year, expecting perhaps a dozen girls at an introductory info session. There were more than 70. She’d planned on accepting five girls to the program to start. Instead, after an intense application, audition and selection process, she had 23. “I did make it clear from the start that this wasn’t going to be for everyone, and that’s ok. I was committed to creating a culture of hard work and discipline, no excuses.”

Part of BalletHaven’s mission is to use the art of ballet to instill dedication, focus and discipline even when tired, distracted or frustrated. After practice, waiting for the bus in sweats, one dancer said Whitaker’s rules and training have had a positive effect on other areas of her life. “When I’m in class, I hear Ms. Whitaker’s voice telling me to focus. So I’m paying better attention, and my grades are getting better.”

While ballet in particular is often associated with the upper middle class, most of Whitaker’s students come from low- to middle-income families. That thought motivates Whitaker. “It’s not fair that just because you don’t have money you don’t have access to dance. These girls deserve to dance—they’ve worked for it and they’re so talented.” She’s set up a Go Fund Me page to raise money for costumes, supplies and uniforms for the girls—although she also asks them to contribute financially in any way they can. “I want them to take some responsibility and feel some ownership over this.” But most of the girls can’t offer much, and Whitaker has turned to the community for help purchasing camisoles, tights, ballet shoes, and warm-ups.

Within the group there are already a few stars, she says, a couple of whom will dance professionally. “That’s not an easy road.” So beyond training and uniforms, she’s teaching her girls to seek role models for inspiration—Alvin Ailey’s venerable dancers for example, or the internationally renowned Cuban National Ballet.

“Ultimately I started dancing because I saw dancers who looked like me. If you see someone who you relate to, all of a sudden the possibilities expand. You say, “Oh, yeah. I want to do that too.”

In the midst of continued chemo, treatment, grad school and teaching, Whitaker has no plans to give up on BalletHaven. “I found myself through dance. And although I can’t do it any longer, I can still pass it on to these girls.”

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Uma Ramiah is a New Haven-based journalist using audio, print, and photography to tell stories about Connecticut. She holds a Masters in Religion and African Studies from Yale and spent a few years traveling and working in West and Central Africa before settling down in the Elm City.

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