I n a Midtown dance studio, Brianna Brown slowly polishes a ballet step, repeating a plie over and over until it becomes second nature. Though only 14, she’s spent countless hours at the barre mastering each move. Her intense focus on a single step helps to strengthen her performance, while building determination and will.
When she was bullied at school, it was through dance that she could express her anger and sadness. When frustrated by family problems, it was dance that calmed her down.
“It’s my beacon of hope,” says the eighth-grader, who attends Kingsbury Middle School. “As you grow as a dancer, it becomes more and more a part of your life.”
Brianna gazes at the empty studio before her lesson starts, waiting, eager. At New Ballet Ensemble, she practices modern dance, flamenco, and ballet five days a week. As a 7-year-old, Brianna received a full scholarship with the company and maintains that scholarship today. Her dance troupe performs at schools, Germantown Performing Arts Centre, and Mertie W. Buckman Performing and Fine Arts Center.
Through frequent moves to new schools and a transition to living her with her grandmother, New Ballet Ensemble has provided consistency as well as a second home for Brianna. New Ballet Ensemble’s CEO and Artistic Director Katie Smythe has mentored the teen from the beginning and watched her bloom. “Brianna is incredibly resilient,” she says. “Even in the most trying of circumstances, she acts professionally at the studio and in class.”
“There are things that can knock you down and bring your heart down,” says Brianna. “Miss Katie boosts me up.” During a lesson, Brianna joins other students at the barre. As the music quickens, her smile broadens. She is clearly in her element at the studio. She is rehearsing for the company’s performance of “Spring Loaded,” which will be performed May 20th and 22nd, at the Buckman Performing and Fine Arts Center.
Brianna choreographed a segment of her dynamic modern dance, borrowing some techniques from Method acting. “My character Jill is very energetic, and so I practice acting hyper at home. When you play someone else, you have to make quick changes emotionally and learn to be free,” she notes.
Before any performance, a dancer makes “soul” food, says Brianna. “I’ve always thought that the studio is like a kitchen, and if we mess up we can go back and fix something. When we have dinner ready, we bring it out to the dining table, which is the theatre. Then we serve our souls out to the guests in the audience.”
After dance lessons, she heads home, where she lives with her grandmother, Belinda Lowery. A straight-A student, she starts homework at 9 p.m. before getting four or five hours of rest each night. While Brianna would like to enjoy more sleepovers and parties, dance comes first.
New Ballet Ensemble’s mentoring program is supported by Team Up Memphis, a program sponsored by the Memphis Grizzlies. “You can’t just teach dance,” says Katie. “You have to teach life because they’re artists as well. Ballet students are so driven, and it’s not always easy for them to go to school and be understood by other kids. Everyone has pressures, and dance is a refuge for all of us.”
Over the summer, Brianna hopes to participate in Kansas City Ballet’s Summer Intensive. She is set to enter Immaculate Conception High School in the fall. When it’s time for college, she hopes to attend Boston Conservatory on a modern dance scholarship. A shutterbug who loves to take nature photographs, she may combine dance with a minor in photography. With sure direction in her life, Brianna tries to inspire other girls. “Chase your dream and do the thing you’re confident in.”