Extension Diary: Russell Morton Pays it Forward
Posted by Content Manager, April 26, 2013 |
The Ailey Extension
“Track was my first love – I didn’t even know I could dance at all.” For many, having both a talent and the passion to pursue it are the rarest of gifts. Russell Morton has both – and only discovered it by chance.
One day during his senior year of high school in Brooklyn, Russell happened upon the school auditorium where a hip-hop class was taking place onstage. He stood inside for a short while to observe, but after a few minutes the instructor turned to him and said, “You can’t just stay in the auditorium. You have to either join us onstage, or you have to go.” Russell’s initial reaction was to flee: “I thought to myself, ‘I don’t have any rhythm. I know I can’t do it.’”
Fifteen minutes later, he was on that same stage, executing eight counts of hip-hop choreography as though he had been doing it for years. “I couldn’t believe that this was my body, and that I was able to put moves together. The teacher said to me, ‘You’re a natural.’ And that’s how I got started in dance.” Russell went on to become a hip-hop teacher with that same program, Good Shepherd Services, before going to Brooklyn College to get his degree in Physical Education and returning to Good Shepherd full-time as an Advocate Counselor.
Now, thanks to the Work Study program at the Ailey Extension, Russell is also a (recently promoted) Extension desk Manager and – most significantly – a full-fledged dancer on the professional audition circuit. The extent to which Russell has taken advantage of the perks offered to Work Study employees is astonishing, but what makes his story all the more impressive is how all of these roles are inextricably linked. In his own words, Russell tells us how the Extension has changed his life beyond measure, and why everything he does goes back to “paying it forward.”
“The Best Thing That’s Ever Happened to Me”
Russell says: I first walked into the Ailey Extension in 2008, but I didn’t take any classes. I was so intimidated. Not by the Extension itself, but because my peers had told me I was too old to start taking classes like ballet and contemporary, and that I should have started earlier. It wasn’t until 2010 when I returned, a little bit wiser, at 21. I said, “You know what? I’m going to start dancing.” I bought two classes with the 2-for-$25 introductory offer and took Contemporary with Michael Leon Thomas and Horton with Iquail Johnson. I thought to myself, “This is living. This is dancing. This is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
So, I bought a 20-class card and went full-speed ahead. I stopped teaching hip-hop and decided it was time for me to become a student and learn as many different techniques and take as many classes as possible. After a month, though, I realized my money was running out, so I applied to the Work Study program at the Extension. For those who don’t know, Work Study enables students to work at the Extension desk in the lobby in exchange for free dance classes and other incredible perks. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. If it weren’t for that, I’m pretty sure I might have given up on the whole situation. This allowed me to be consistent and find a home.
I take class every single day. At least once a day, and twice if I can. Modern and contemporary are in my heart. It’s the way they make me feel – the connection I have with them. It’s the smooth movement and the music, which is sometimes performed in class with live drummers and pianists. When I’m dancing in general, I feel good about myself, but when I do contemporary or modern I feel like I’m in another place. That sounds so cheesy, I know, but it’s so true. I’m happy each and every day I walk into that classroom. No matter what’s going on outside, I run to class because those problems do not exist when I’m in there.
Real Classes for Real People
When someone comes to the Extension for the first time, they don’t always know what they should take. Even if they look like a dancer, it’s possible they aren’t, so I ask if they’ve ever taken class before. If the answer is no, I ask what they really love doing, and then I can tell them the differences between a Basic Beginner and Advanced Beginner class. I can also tell them how to transition to the next level. Sometimes they’ll ask how long they should be in one level before moving to the next; there is no specific amount of time, but there are ways of trying it out because you can test yourself. In ballet, for example, you can let go of the barre and see how long you can hold relevé.
I personalize every experience for the customer and use the brochure to help them figure out a schedule that will help them progress. Some people don’t want to become dancers – some just want to get in shape, and so I recommend certain classes to them, like Pilates or Zumba®, or even a dance class here and there. We have such a large variety and great time slots, so it works for everybody and it’s easy. I learned for myself what classes to take and not to take, so I learned to give that advice back to people because everyone needs something different.
I love the Ailey Extension because it’s non-judgmental. When you go into these classes, you don’t feel the intimidation that you can feel in other studios. That’s a big, big deal. When you come here, there are real classes for real people – that’s their slogan and they mean that. No matter where you come from, what you do for your 9-to-5, whether you stopped dancing for 30 years and are coming back, it doesn’t matter. When you go into that classroom, they start from scratch and they treat you accordingly. If you are a beginner, they will create modifications for you, and I love that. When you go to some other studios, it’s a one-level, all -day, every-day competition. I’ve gone to them, and they can break your spirit if you don’t know that maybe it’s not the right place for you. It’s all about finding the right fit. For any beginner, this will absolutely work for them. There are so many ways you can get into dance from here.
Taking it to the Next Level
As Work Study employees, we receive half-off on Extension workshops, so it’s much more affordable to get performing experience. Participating in a Horton workshop with Karen Arceneaux was the first time I performed as an adult, doing something I loved, and I even had my first real solo. It felt great to perform three nights in front of dancers, in front of family, in front of friends, and to be able to say I performed in the Ailey building.
We also get two complimentary tickets every December to Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at New York City Center. From my perspective, you can use those two tickets for yourself, or you can share them with someone else as a gift. Someone who hasn’t danced before, or wants to dance, or is dancing but needs to be inspired again – that’s what I use my tickets for. My organization works with at-risk students who have social and emotional problems and academic issues, and my job is to mentor 35 freshmen. My goal is to get them on track, and if they are already on track, to get them onto a better track. Pushing them forward and giving them more opportunities in life. So my second ticket always goes to a dancer I’ve worked with in the past who graduated from high school, lost their way, and needs inspiration to get back into dance. I was fortunate enough to have mentors around me to push me and say “This is a gift, you can’t let it go.” Once the kids graduate, I can’t be there to really push them, so if I get a comp ticket I give it to them and they say, “Ok, I’m ready to go back again!”
That’s why I always pass it on, because you pay it forward. That’s how it works. Someone gives you something, and you make sure you give it to as many people as you can, because it may change their lives in the same way someone has changed yours. Even if you don’t see the change immediately, you never know when it’s going to come back and help them in the future. I’ve learned that from being here at the Extension – paying it forward. Everyone has given me so much advice and nurtured me. They see my drive, and they make sure I don’t falter. So I couldn’t ask for anything more.
All photos of Russell Morton by Arthur Coopchik.
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