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Milwaukee Ballet's Relevè Program Teaches MPS Students to 'Rise Up'

Every few days during the school year, a class of MPS 4th graders spills into the lounge of the Milwaukee Ballet School.

They drop off their backpacks then hurry to change clothes. In a few minutes, the 20 students reappear - the girls dressed in leotards and tights, the boys in white t-shirts and shorts - and all are wearing ballet slippers.

Nine-year-old Karena Hurtdo-Reyes explains the program’s name. “Relevè means to rise up,” she says.

After translating the French word, she demonstrates relevè by pressing up on her tiptoes and holding her balance.

The program aims to raise students' self-esteem and their appreciation and access to the arts.

The students file into rows on the studio floor and halt their chattering when teacher Lori McNichols raises the volume of classical music. They begin stretching.

Afterward, McNichols quizzes them on positions of the arms. The 4th graders silently move through each. Then the dancers step to the barre and start bending forward and brushing and pointing their feet to the music.

McNichols doesn’t let them slack. “You can always work harder,” she tells the students.

The dancers working hard here today are from Allen-Field Elementary School on the south side. Over 90 percent of students at their school qualify for free or reduced lunch.

The program was created to introduce dance to interested students whose parents might not have the means.

Each year, the ballet offers the opportunity to around 175 MPS students from ALBA, Allen-Field and Dover Street Elementary Schools.

As the class begins practicing its dance for the final recital, McNichols is lightheartedly critical as she helps the 4th graders perfect the challenging choreography that includes shifting groups and formations.

“You’re supposed to be graceful, you’re floating, and you’re flying across the stage,” she tells the class. “Right now it looks like we’re bouncing down a bumpy road.”

The class laughs. McNichols goes on making corrections then restarting the music again and again until the class ends.

Nine-year-old Karena says her favorite part of coming to ballet is looking through the window into Studio A where the professional dancers practice. She likes “that they keep trying and trying and trying."

“One of the reasons we have the Relevè program here is the opportunity to see the professionals,” McNichols says. “They get to see exactly what they’re working on, but in a professional setting.”

“When I grow up, I want to be a ballet dancer,” Karina says.

Instructor Lori McNichols is glad that Relevè shows kids they can be dancers, and the program does offer scholarships for some to join the Milwaukee Ballet School. But she wants the overall lesson to be even bigger - the importance of practice and perseverance.

“I hope that they learn from these ballet classes, not just the ballet, but also they’re gaining confidence, they are doing things that they think they can’t do, or that isn’t for them, and it’s challenging,” McNichols says.

This week, the 4th graders will show what they’ve gained. Their finale will be performing before classmates and family during school.

Nicole Beilke is a journalism major at UWM. She is also studying for a certificate in Digital Arts and Culture. Nicole has reported on topics such as art and activism in Milwaukee, including these pieces for Media Milwaukee: UW-Milwaukee Students Join Tony Robinson Protests and The UW-Milwaukee Grad Behind the Collectivo Coffee Skull.
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