Unleash Your Self Expression With Ailey Extension’s New Summer Program

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Photo: Mercedes Vizcaino

Memorial Day weekend is upon us and with summer just around the corner, I’ve become inspired to search for more meaningful experiences rather than my usual, yet beloved, fitness-goals-saboteurs: BBQs and happy-hours. What’s a New York City libations and foodie adventurer to do?  Explore Ailey Extension’s upcoming dance schedule to not just stay in shape – mentally and physically – but also have a blast in the process.

I recently participated in Ailey Extension’s dynamic fitness class event catering to all fitness levels. First, I took Hip-Hop Cardio, a class designed for beginners with no former dance experience. It’s goal: to up your cardio game by at least 100, challenge your coordination, and assault your sweat glands into submission. Sound extreme? Not really. The class will make you feel energized and emboldened. Thoughts of joining Beyoncé’s dance troupe will cross your mind. It doesn’t hurt that the instructor, Matthew Johnson Harris, is a big fan of the acclaimed pop star and features her music throughout his classes. DSMC chatted with Matthew to learn more about his love of dance.

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Matthew Johnson Harris, Photo: Courtesy of Ailey Extension

DSMC: What inspired you to become a dance instructor? 

Matthew Johnson Harris: I have struggled with anxiety and depression in the past. Moving activates endorphins that can literally make you feel happier. Dance and fitness are a natural antidepressant and I love to share that joy with the world.

DSMC: You are a multi-hyphenated force. What are you most passionate about, dancing, teaching or activism?

Matthew Johnson Harris: Activism is at the center of everything I do. Outside of volunteering and fundraising for multiple organizations – I’ve been teaching a free class every Friday in Harlem to promote health and fitness. We should use all of our gifts to inspire change.

Check out the Harlem hospital class here: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=QwTwTBOmq_0

DSMC: What’s the one piece of advice you offer novices to dance? And, when did you start collaborating with the Ailey Extension?

Matthew Johnson Harris: There is no way you can mess up. Give whatever your best effort is and just keep moving.  I created the Hip-Hop Cardio Class for Ailey Extension in March and it’s been the greatest experience.

My second favorite class of the day to exceed my expectations: Beginner Hip-Hop with Jonathan Lee. While Mathew’s interpretation of Hip-Hop was a little more relaxed and liberal with the movements, Jonathan was very precise with his dance steps. We’re talking focused choreography here! He had a Bob Fosse-esque quality to him that the class gravitated to and obediently mimicked his instructions. At the end of the class, I felt as if I really mastered some modern Hip-Hop moves and was ready for a dance-off . Okay, perhaps I was getting ahead of myself, but Jonathan has the capacity to get his students to push themselves and reach choreographic bliss. DSMC chatted with Jonathan to get the scoop on his motivation for dance.

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Jonathan Lee, Photo: Courtesy of Ailey Extension

DSMC: What are your earliest memories of wanting to become a choreographer and what inspired you

Jonathan Lee: My earliest memories of wanting to become a choreographer began early in my training. Whenever my teachers allowed me to freestyle, I was able to put my stamp of movement into the piece. Also working with some great choreographers that inspired me as well.

DSMC: Where do you see the evolution of dance going in the next few years?

Jonathan Lee: In my opinion, dance will evolve to become more of a fusion of various styles. I believe a dancer will need to be more versatile in many styles rather than just proficient in just one style.

DSMC: What piece of advice would you give students new to dance and or choreography?

Jonathan Lee: My advice to young dancers would be to really hone your craft. Always be open to new things because dance is evolving. To train in various styles and techniques, learn from many teachers. To young choreographers, I would say: what do you have to say with your movement? Make sure your choreography makes a statement.

DSMC: How long have you been an Ailey Extension dance instructor?

Jonathan Lee: I am one of the original instructors at the Extension. I’ve been there since the Extension began 14 years ago.

What was next on my dance agenda? Afro’Dance with instructor Angel Kaba. When Angel turned on the music everyone in the class was instantly transported to the electric and carefree sounds from The Congo, Ivory Coast, and Angola. With a mixture of African influences and street dance, this class challenges students to loosen their hips and move the rest of their bodies to the flow of the thumping beats. The cultural, social and free-spirited vibes of the class is contagious and dance students at any level will enjoy it tremendously. DSMC spoke to Angel, who now calls New York home, about her dance career.

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Angel Kaba, Photo: Courtesy of Angel Kaba

DSMC: What or whom inspired you to become a dance instructor?

Angel Kaba: My mother was a traditional Caribbean dancer from Martinique (French West Indies). She moved to Europe, Luxembourg specifically to be a professional dancer. When she had me, she brought me to concerts with her. My first concert was “KASSAV.” I ended up going on stage and dancing with the band. I was 4 years old. So my mother decided to find a dance class for me and I started dancing ballet at the age of 6. Teaching came pretty early in my life. At 16 I was teaching Hip-Hop for kids in my neighborhood. I love helping people feel happy and good about themselves. Music is also a big part of my inspiration. I always say: I don’t do choreography, I make people dance!

DSMC: You mentioned growing up in Belgium, what influences did you grow up with there?

Angel Kaba: Belgium colonized Congo (formerly Zaire). There is a lot of Congolese in Belgium. Even though I didn’t grow up with my father, who is Congolese, I was still surrounded by my culture a lot, music, food, hairstyle, fashion and gossip. Belgium is a small country with a lot of talent, very interesting! We speak basically 4 languages: French, Dutch, English and German. Brussels, where I was born, is very well situated in Europe, so I had access to a lot of cities like Paris, Amsterdam, London, Madrid, Prague…. I traveled a lot and that opened my mind and heart.

Belgium is my country, but my roots are from Africa. I learned everything I know from Belgium especially dance, theater and music. Belgium taught me and New York made me. In Belgium I was able to understand who I was. In the U.S. I learned how to be free by being myself.

DSMC: How long have you been an Ailey Extension instructor and what piece of advice do you give aspiring dance students?

Angel Kaba: Very interesting question. I knew of Alvin Ailey since I was I child, my mother told me about him and his legacy. It was in 2012, when I met my mentor Robin Dunn, and got the experience – taking classes and performing with the Ailey Extension community. I became an official Ailey Extension instructor as of May 2019! I started to teach my Afro’ Dance class, just a few weeks ago!

To my students, I would say something like: Hello, and welcome to my world. I’m Angel Kaba, and I help you express yourself through movement and music. Yes, that’s right; I teach you dance moves through rhythmic and afro-dance choreographies but most importantly, I help you express your deepest self without using a word. I help you go deep into your soul to find the light that only you have. I strongly believe that everybody is great at something and I also believe that dancing is a vehicle to tap into that gift. And I would add, beginners are more than welcome with my French accent, Let’s dance!! Voilà!

I’ve been going to the Ailey Extension for a over a year now, and every time I try their new roster of classes I become more motivated to stick to my fitness goals – and guess what, I suspect you will to if you sign up. Each of these instructors have different teaching methods, yet will inspire you to dance like you’re up for your next audition. Check them out!

This summer Ailey Extension promises to get New Yorkers moving with the return of NYC Dance Week, June 13 – June 22, not to be left behind, The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Lincoln Center engagement will run from June 12 – June 16. The annual citywide festival offers over 25 free dance and fitness classes for adults of all experience levels. To view Ailey Extension’s complete NYC Dance schedule, visit www.aileyextension.com/nycdanceweek. New students must present a downloadable NYC Dance Week voucher for all classes at The Ailey Studios, available here.

NYC Dance Week is Here! Come Celebrate with Ailey’s Extension Program: June 14 – 23

Ballet, Zumba, yoga, modern dance and hip-hop – just a few class options in the Ailey Extension arsenal – to get you moving! Ailey Extension kick-offs their 6th season of NYC Dance Week beginning June 14th thru June 23rd. NYC Dance Week is a citywide celebration during which Ailey Extension offers three free dance and fitness classes each day for new students – and two free classes for new and returning students – for a total of 30 classes! I was fortunate to try three distinctive class offerings: Afro-Cuban Folkloric, DanceFit, and Absolute Beginner Horton (the modern dance technique created and made famous by Alvin Ailey).

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Afro-Cuban Folkloric Dance Class, Photo by: Christian Miles

When I first entered Studio C at the Joan Weill Center for Dance in Manhattan, I was a little nervous about what to expect. The mounted ballet bars alongside the white walls, mirrors, a piano, and sprung floors seen in a traditional dance studio didn’t ease my trepidation. Plus, the fact that two percussionists with drums would be an integral part of the class repertoire was both nerve-wracking and exciting. Instructor Noibis Licea guided students through various forms of Afro-Cuban dance tradition while representing the Orishas (dieties from the African Traditions brought to Cuba that explores movement within cultural context. This 90-minute class allowed for very little moments of rest, and challenged my coordination and ability to dance along with my fellow classmates. My body responded to the beats of the drums and transported me to the island I was born in. Noibis Licea, the Afro-Cuban Folkoric dance instructor has been with the Extension program for 5 years, also teaches Afro-Cuban Modern Dance. “My music inspiration comes from all types of music primarily percussion, strings, and wind instruments.” Noibis will be participating during NYC Dance Week and you can catch his class on Friday, June 22nd from 7 – 8:30pm.

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Noibis Licea, Photo by: Joe Epstein

Next up – DanceFit: A high-intensity training with R&B, pop, and hip-hop blasting in the background meant to give you a full-body workout without you realizing it, until the next day. This 60-minute class will test your endurance. I stumbled upon the class’s one-year anniversary, created and taught – by the charismatic Karen Arceneaux. Sure, you may think every instructor is full of energy and ultimately their job is to motivate students, but Karen has a synergy you instantly feel upon meeting her. There was a mix of students – young and old – in the class. A delightful couple in their sixties couldn’t stop praising Karen’s class and so were a number of her current students. Her enthusiasm for each student to have fun is contagious. I chatted with Karen Arceneaux about her career in dance and motivation to teach.

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Karen Arceneaux, Photo by: Rachel Neville

DSMC: How long have you been with The Ailey Extension? 

Karen Arceneaux: Wow! I think I’ve been teaching for The Ailey Extension since 2005.

DSMC: You move effortlessly when you teach DanceFit. What inspired you to take up dance?

Karen Arceneaux: Thanks a bunch. Dance was not something I had access to as a child growing up in Louisiana. However, I remember, as clear as if it happened five minutes ago, the librarian giving away old books. I was in 2nd grade and quite shy. I had my eye on a totally worn out, tattered book (cover threading seriously unraveling). It was a book with a pink pointe shoe on the cover. I watched other kids pick the book they wanted and run to the librarian with their choice. I waited on the side, hoping no one would pick up the book I wanted. After the other kids left the library, happy with their book in hand, I walked over to and picked up the book I wanted and approached the librarian. In 2nd grade, I don’t remember being introduced to any form of dance prior, except for my own happy dancing around the house or at family outings. This (the book) was the first time I saw a pointe shoe. I was immediately drawn to it. This was the first inspiration that led me to dance. We would have to sit over coffee or tea so that I could provide greater detail as to what happened after that has led me to here and now. 🙂

DSMC: What made you create the DanceFit class?

Karen Arceneaux: Movement is my life. I’m a dancer. I teach Horton technique. I train private clients and teach group fitness classes. I also create movement for my dance students in classroom and theater settings. I thoroughly enjoy wearing each hat and want my students to have fun while learning. Through dance and fitness, my mission is to inspire, uplift, and transform lives with outrageous passion and energy. As a dancer, a choreographer, and personal trainer, I wanted to create a super fun class experience that would combine my areas of dance and fitness expertise with the goal of fulfilling my mission. With all of that, I created DanceFit.

DSMC: Who are some of your favorite dancers?

Karen Arceneaux: Debbie Allen was the only dancer I saw on television when I was about 12. She was an inspiration then and has remained for the past 36 years. She is my favorite dancer! I just love her.

DSMC: How did you get your start in dance?

Karen Arceneaux: Well after much back and forth with my mom (she was a no) and dad (he was a yes), my mom listened to my dad and allowed me to audition for my high school dance team. Mind you, I had no training in dance. I just loved moving and picked up movement quickly. I didn’t receive formal training until my sophomore year of college.

DSMC: Will you be participating in NYC Dance Week? If so, which classes? 

Karen Arceneaux: Yes, Yes, Yes! I will be participating! I think my Ailey Extension Absolute Beginner Horton on June 16th from 3:30 – 5pm, and DanceFit on June 22nd, which is open to the general public.

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DanceFit Photo by: Christian Miles

DSMC: What tips can you provide to those that are new to dance?

Karen Arceneaux:

My Tips:

  1. Prior to class, let the teacher know that you’re either new to the particular class or new to dance period
  2. Breathe
  3. Come in with an open mind, ready to learn something new
  4. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or make mistakes (that’s how we learn)
  5. Relax. Don’t stress (It hinders learning)
  6. Have FUN
  7. Continue to do Tip#2 throughout class

The third and final class I experienced at the Ailey Extension was Absolute Beginner Horton with instructor, Fernando Carrillo. Right before I walked into the studio, panic set in, after all this class implements the dance techniques used in Alvin Ailey’s signature Revelations performance, which I had previously reviewed . To me, this class embodies ballet and modern dance at its core. It allows students to challenge their flexibility and coordination in ways they hadn’t before. Fernando’s graceful instruction towards new and existing students is a testament to his teaching skills. I came to class with a misguided perception and left thinking about the limitless dance potential my body has – bad knees and all. I asked Fernando about his dance background and what led him to the Ailey Extension:

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Fernando Carrillo, Photo by: Leon Lee

DSMC: What was your first experience with dance? How did you know it was your calling?

Fernando Carrillo: I knew dance was my calling when I was around 10 years old. I became very interested in dance when I would watch my family dance and I loved the rhythmic steps they did to the music. I never danced back then, so it was this unspoken thought that remained in my mind until I went to college and took my first dance classes.

DSMC: How long have you been with the Ailey Extension group?

Fernando Carrillo: I have been teaching for the Ailey Extension for over 10 years.

DSMC: Who are some your dance inspirations?

Fernando Carrillo: My dance inspiration comes from two mentors I had the pleasure to learn from. Milton Myers is a master teacher who has always been very supportive. He helped me hone my skills as a dance teacher. He gave me many opportunities. I was able to teach at The Juilliard School, The Ailey School, Steps on Broadway and Peridance Capezio Dance Center as his substitute. My other great mentor is Mrs. Carmen De Lavallade. I am so grateful for her generosity. She has shared invaluable information with me. Mrs. De Lavallade helped me uncover a sense of home within me whenever I am teaching the Horton Technique. It is an extraordinary feeling of sharing and cultivating a true human relationship with people without bias or judgment.

DSMC: Have you performed in Alvin Ailey’s dance productions? If not, will you be in the near future?

Fernando Carrillo: I performed with Ailey II where I was fortunate to perform many of Mr. Alvin Ailey’s choreographies.

DSMC: Will you be participating in NYC Dance Week? If so, which classes?

Fernando Carrillo: I will be participating in NYC Dance Week. I will be teaching at Ailey Extension the following class:

Absolute Beginner Horton: June 14th from 7-8:30 pm

DSMC: What tips can you give those new to dance classes?

Fernando Carrillo: I recommend they show up to class with an open mind and ready to experience something new they have never tried before. I like to see people walk into the studio with a feeling of belonging to the arts and taking part in the world of dance. People will clearly see that with our passion and power; we have the ability to change people’s perspectives through our art.

I was truly impressed by the Ailey Extension and am considering becoming a permanent member. I encountered talented instructors with a passion for dance and wanted to know more about this extraordinary program and its formation from the woman who oversees it, Executive Director, Lisa Johnson-Willingham. Check out our conversation below:

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Lisa Johnson-Willingham, Photo by: Andrew Eccles

DSMC: What are some of your earliest recollections of wanting to become a dancer?

 Lisa Johnson-Willingham: I was always very active as a child. We played a lot of music in my house. My entire family loved dancing. For my 6th grade graduation, we created choreography to the one of the Funkadelics’ songs. My counselor saw me and introduced me to a National Youth Sports Program – a summer camp with dance program. Ms. Reed was my first dance instructor. When I saw her – so graceful and beautiful – long and lean, I was 10 and said: I want to be her! That was the moment I wanted to be a dancer. I was there for 10 years. When I started, I was the youngest in the program. Everyone else was older. I loved the challenge. It was so much fun. Ms. Reed had just graduated from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in D.C. and I decided that’s where I wanted to go for high school.

DSMC: You had joined the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater in 1994 as a dancer and remained with the company for 5 years. Was becoming a dance instructor a natural progression for you?

Lisa Johnson-Willingham: Definitely, yes it was. After I left the company I was AileyCamp Director in Chicago for 10 years. After that, I became the Director for the Ailey Extension and that was an easy transition for me. AileyCamp consists of 6 weeks in the summer, but you work all year round with 100 kids, bringing dance to the people. Which is the Ailey Extension’s mission: real classes for real people. It was the same, but with children. Dance changes lives. It has a real effect on people’s health, it uplifts the mind, body, and spirit. When you come into this community you get a whole body experience – a spiritual experience. We have classes, workshops, and performance workshops. Last week Robert Battle (Alvin Ailey Artist Director) taught a repertory workshop at the Extension. It was amazing. That connection goes deeper than taking a dance class.

DSMC: What’s your vetting process for selecting the instructors at Alvin Ailey?

 Lisa Johnson-Willingham: We want prominent instructors. We have instructors from around the world. I participate in one of their classes, look at their resume. Teaching at the Extension is different than teaching at the Ailey School. They are professionals. They need to be skilled instructors that can deal with the general public. They need to be skilled at all levels of dance and have experience in teaching. In this room you’re going to have all levels of people who are beginner or advanced. It’s a beautiful thing to have so many people at all levels – and being able to handle that well – is a skill in itself

DSMC: NYC Dance Week is in its 6th season, how involved were you in creating the classes?

 Lisa Johnson-Willingham: My team and I got together and chose classes we thought the public would be interested in. We didn’t want people coming through the doors feeling intimidated. So of course, a lot of the classes are our beginner-level and fitness classes. Horton is on the list. We want to welcome people and allow them to have the Alvin Ailey dance experience.

DSMC: Are there any disclaimers or waivers the public has to fill out before taking  classes during NYC Dance Week?

 Lisa Johnson-Willingham: Everyone can go through NYC Dance Week’s website, fill out a form and retrieve a voucher, and bring it with them before participating in the class.

DSMC: What’s the adequate mindset people need to have before participating in NYC Dance Week?

Lisa Johnson-Willingham: If you’re new to dance, it takes time to perfect the steps. It’s a welcoming environment. You are there to have a good time. There’s no pressure. You can zone out at the gym or any other fitness facility, but with dance, you use your mind, body and spirit – you’re telling a story, expression through movement. And, life is constant movement.

Since its inception in 2005, the Ailey Extension program has welcomed over 83,000 new students with the help of Lisa Johnson-Willingham, creating annual workshops: The Ailey Exeperience, Voices and Visions, and World Dance Celebration. The Ailey Extension shows no signs of slowing down; instead it plans on bringing new and exciting challenging dance classes – to existing and new students. To check out NYC Dance Week’s schedule, click here.