Choreographers share, test ideas
Loretta Simone said she has reached a higher level of creativity simply by being in an environment that gives her time and space she does not have in her demanding job as head of the dance department at Cleveland School of the Arts.
"For me, it's so nourishing. It keeps me juiced," she said. "The comments are valid, clear and not judgmental. I feel like I'm the grand weaver. I can do what I want with the comments and recommendations."
The solo Simone is developing under the peer group's watchful collective eye stems from her Lebanese heritage. At one point in the creative process, she said she had been inside her choreography so long that she could no longer see it. To give her a fresh perspective, other members of the group volunteered to perform her movements.
Cleveland School of the Arts excels doing more with less
The attendance rate is 93 percent, compared with 80 percent in the district's middle schools and 71 percent at nonmagnet high schools.
And while 77 percent of last fall's seniors districtwide passed the ninth-grade proficiency test, 100 percent of the School of the Arts seniors passed.
Administrators give credit to a family-like staff - like Simone - whose support shows her firm, patient voice and loving attention she gives students as she straightens their toes and demands tall spines.
Behind it all, teachers say, art courses teach discipline.
"You can't walk into any class whether dance or music or photography without being ready to perform on some level,"Simone says, perched on a piano bench."And I think you take that into any academic or job situation. That's the key to the hallmark of success."
Simone recalls a party three weeks ago for some of her graduates. One had just graduated from Juilliard, another was completing studies there. One had graduated from Akron University in ballet. But one was in law school, another pursuing veterinary medicine, and another was in professional baseball.
Why aren't more schools art schools? For one, they are more expensive. With an annual budget of about $3 million, it receives the same per-pupil allotment as the district's other schools. With donations and supplemental income from the Friends of the Cleveland School of the Arts, and corporate sponsorships from The Plain Dealer, we can see how adults who are aware of what happens here are not willing to let those results be threatened, no matter the challenges.
"You know we care about you," Simone says, after complaining about the boilers and the leaky roof. "Because we're here cold with you. We're here getting wet with you. Everybody does care to be here. And with that kind of beginning, I don't think you can go wrong."
Dance master a lively teacher
Loretta Simone grew up dancing. But the steps she learned during her childhood in Youngstown did not come from the classical ballet and modern dance techniques she teaches at Cleveland School of the Arts.
"I'm Lebanese," she says, jumping up from her desk in the school's dance studio and demonstrating the stomping feet and sinuous arm movements of Middle Eastern folk dance.
"I come from a very extended family of 350 immediate relatives," she says."My brothers and I grew up with drums and folk dancing. I didn't start to study dance until college. But I was blessed by God with form and natural turnout. I don't have any aches and pains. I have a strong but flexible body. I have that kind of freedom of expression that focuses in childood."
A vivacious personality who bubbles with enthusiasm for the dance program she has nurtured, Simone needs high energy to carry her demanding workload. When she joined the dance faculty in 1989, she taught every student in the school once a week for 45 minutes. "My first year went very quickly," she says. "I couldn't remember names. I knew something had to change."
The following year when she was named dance chair, Simone instituted 90-minute classes for the dance majors and reduced her teaching load from 236 students to 95. Because there was only one boy majoring in dance at the time, she brought in artist-in-residence Bill Wade to serve as a role model. As a result, the school now has 15 male dance majors and a highly acclaimed all-male company, the YARD (Youth at Risk Dancing).
Simone also convinced the school to invest in Pilates equipment for body conditioning. She formed a professional advisory board, helped bring members of Pilobolus Dance Theatre to the school for a continuing series of residencies and founded Urban Dance Collective, a company of dance majors that will collaborate with The YARD in publick performances May 16-18 at the school.
"I am dedicated to seeing growth," says Simone. "I develop not just ballet and not just modern. I develop the whole dancer. I get to watch people makingchanges. I have seen students come around 360 degrees. I amseeing how the art transforms them. I give them emotional support. I deal with psychology and the spiritual side of their lives. Some of them call me at home and talk. In class, they see a 44-year-old woman out there keeping up with them. I tell them, 'How I look today is because of what I did at your age.'"
Simone's formative years were shaped by church, school and the "close and clannish family" she can trace back 2,000 years. Her father, a poet who was disabled and spent most of his time in the family's Middle Eastern bakery and deli, shared his love of Greek philosophy and encouraged his only daughter to write poetry. Her mother, bookkeeper fot the family's meat-packing plant, sent her to Catholic school, where she sang in the Latin choir, and to the Maronite Catholic Church, where she sang in the Arabic choir.
But the strongest influence came from her grandmother. "My grandmother crocheted me bikinis that my mother would hide from me," says Simone. "She would take me to Las Vegas. She would make dates for me to have breakfast and go horseback riding while she played blackjack. I don't gamble, but she won enough money to pay for the trip. She had such energy, vitality and love of living. It makes me feel good about where I come from."
While earning a B.A. in English and psychology and an MS in education at Yougstown State University, Simone began studying modern dance and ballet. After a summer session of master classes at American University in Washington, D.C., she moved to Houston with her husband-to-be and won a scholarship to the Houston Ballet School. "When I got my degree in education, I was focusing on learning disabilities, and I wanted to teach," she says. "But dancing was so deep in my heart that I couldn't let it go. I needed to go and learn this thing about dancing."
During the decade she spent in Houston, Simone was married and divorced. After dancing with a couple of small jazz and modern companies, she founded her own group, Simone Dance Theatre. "Maintaing a lifstyl as a dancer, I made a very comfortable living," she says. "I taught Pilates privately. The company generated income with convention work, and we did modern dance showcases."
In 1988, Simone packed up her cat and her belongings and returned home to be with her grandmother, who died two years later.
Since then, Simone has earned a license in massotherapy and completed a teaching certificate in dance at Kent State University while maintaining her heavy responsibilities at School of the Arts. "The courses in composition and choreography helped me take my intuitive art form and articulate it at a more intellectual level," she says. "Now I have two student teachers from the University of Akron and KSU. They are doing trench work. It helps the art form in the school.
"When I look back and evaluate, I seem to have been a little pioneer at getting people in place. I'm the person who's here all the time. I have seen the evolution of a dance program."