Maria Baker listens to the Spirit, because the Lord has been there for her through plenty of difficult times. So when she and her granddaughter, Char-laé Shorter, boarded a SCAT bus five years ago, she believes the Spirit inspired a passenger who had noticed the young girl's graceful form to tell Baker about a program offered by the Sarasota Ballet of Florida.
Every year, Dance-The Next Generation (DNG) accepts about 30 students into its after-school program. Although DNG concentrates on dance classes, the environment in the studio helps students learn about much more, from social etiquette and nutrition to public speaking. Students who stick with the demanding seven-year program can win scholarships to Manatee Community College and the University of South Florida in Sarasota.
For Char-Laé, who's now a 13-year-old Brookside Middle School student, the success of the program is reflected in improved school grades and a maturing personality. "I used to wear short shorts and tube tops. I was speaking ghetto and cussing," she says. Now she has not only improved her image and behavior, she's also found an outlet for the pressures she often faces in her home and neighborhood. "When I'm dancing, it's like the stress has been taken off me," Char-Laé explains. She's even considering applying to Juilliard, New York City's prestigious performing arts school.
"She can do it," says DNG program director Lisa Townsend, who attended Juilliard herself. "But I tell her she has to become completely devoted to dance."
Still, making professional dancers of the DNG students is not the goal of the program. "Dance is such specialized work, and a competitive world," Lisa explains. "Not many people make it. Our goal is the development of the individual as a person."
DNG students are given the opportunity to perform in productions with the Sarasota Ballet. Two years ago Char-laé danced in The Nutcracker. Students also dance at various city and county events, such as Arts Day and the Sarasota Reading Festival downtown.
By opening up the world of dance, the classes at DNG have helped Char-laé overcome the challenges of a difficult life: poverty, peer pressure, a custody battle between the two women she loves, her mother and her grandmother, who's been battling illness and depression.
Now Maria and Charlaé are facing another challenge. The house where they have lived for 10 years has been sold, and the new owner refuses to renew their lease. Maria tells Char-laé not to worry, because the Spirit will take care of them. "He always has," she says. And Char-laé, with newfound strength from her accomplishments and ambition, trusts in that Spirit-and the spirit of dance.