By Samantha Peltier
On a recent Wednesday, four dancers ranging in age from 15 to 25 perform modern style steps around a studio room in the South Dallas Cultural Center, to perfect their art. The Studio is filled with the sound of a recording of a solo guitarist running slowly up and down a chord progression.
Loris Beckles, the dancer’s teacher and the Artistic Director of Beckles Dancing Company, sings the beat of the song, exchanging the counts of one through eight for grunts of emotion. This act of passion helps his students feel the music and portray it in their dance. “The choreographer is a source of information. You need to get that information and interpret it,” Beckles tells his students to help them better understand what the dance means. When a break is called after an hour of class, the students rehydrate and smiles form on their mouths. Soon they begin laughing and chasing each other through the halls. When the break is done and class resumes again, the students are composed and ready to learn.
The South Dallas Cultural Center houses more than just the Beckles Dancing Company. It showcases multiple disciplinary art forms from the African culture. It is a place where Dallas artists of any kind can create and showcase their art along side many other artists who specialize in African American art. People of all ages can come into the center and see theater, dance, physical art, film, and lecture series. There are also a number of free and reduced-tuition classes for people who live in Dallas.
The South Dallas Cultural Center was founded by a group of local south Dallas artists who had nowhere to showcase or perform their art. Harold Steward, Performing Arts Coordinator for the center, said that the artists wanted a location that was city operated and funded to call home. “We opened 26 years ago and have kind of operated since then as a place where the community is here,” Steward said.
The center was created with funds from a 1982 bond program. The 24,000 square-foot facility located in Fair Park cost $1.5 million to construct. It includes a 120-seat black box theater, a visual arts gallery, dance studio and a digital recording studio. Steward said that African art is mostly contemporary instead of ancient because most of the things that Africans made were to make their lives easier. They had a definite utilitarian use for art. Steward also said that the reason things such as baskets and irons are considered art is because they are not items you can buy at the corner store and just use. They are unique.
One part of the community that the cultural center has helped is the Beckles Dancing Company. It is a resident dance company with practice and performing space at the center. Beckles said that the cultural center is a nice support system for them. “We provide a training ground for younger dancers to learn, hone their skills, and be ready for a dance school or company later,” he said. Beckles wants his students to be able to adapt to the needs of any type of dance including ballet, modern, and African dance. The dance company has free, paid and scholarship classes for the youth of south Dallas. “We don’t have a sign reading ‘free classes’ but if someone recognizes your talent they can suggest for you to come to our class,” Beckles said.
Performing at the center also has a profound effect on the artist. When Stephanie Hawell, a 25-year-old graduate of Sam Houston State University, started dancing with the Beckles Dancing Company at the center she said it brought back memories of her childhood. She used to go down to the center on school field trips or with members of her church. “Now that I get to perform here I get to be a part of that history making as well,” Hawell said.