New Documentary Explores Moves of Homer Hans Bryant | WBEZ
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New Documentary Explores Moves of Homer Hans Bryant

Twenty years ago, Homer Hans Bryant established the Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center. A former member of Dance Theatre of Harlem, Bryant has used his school to nurture thousands of students aspiring to become high-caliber dancers – as well as confident individuals. For WBEZ, dance critic Lucia Mauro shares his story.

Homer Hans Bryant cuts a toned and energized figure that belies a man about to turn 60. The founder and director of the Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center at Dearborn Station in the South Loop has been training an eclectic student body to master the discipline of classical ballet. But he also encourages them to become better human beings. Bryant is the subject of a new documentary, titled Raising the Barre. The film follows him through his daily interactions with students and provides a context for Bryant's much-admired “tough love” approach to teaching.

It's not uncommon to hear Bryant, in his subtle native St. Thomas accent, command a late student to “drop and give me 50.” Or for that aspiring dancer to turn out 50 pushups. What may sound harsh is one of the healthy ways he teaches students responsibility. And if they bring any negative behavior or attitude into the classroom, he promptly tells them to leave. Yet his current crop of 300 ballet students–who also study tap, jazz, hip-hop, African dance and gymnastics –show exceptional drive, enthusiasm and, most importantly, individuality. He has counted Sasha and Malia Obama among his students.

Since 1990, when he opened his school, Bryant has seen his young charges go on to careers in ballet, contemporary dance, musical theater and big commercial shows, such as Cirque du Soleil's upcoming Viva Elvis! in Las Vegas. His original Rap Ballet, performed across Chicago public schools, has introduced countless children to classical dance. But even those who don't pursue professional dance careers have their own success stories as doctors, lawyers and educators.

“I found my niche,” Bryant told me before heading into class. “I can make a difference turning kids around.”

His dedication is evident during ballet class for students of varying ages on any given day. With looks of quiet determination, girls dressed uniformly in black leotards and pink tights, and boys in white T-shirts and black tights, take their place at the ballet barre. They are surrounded by inspiring phrases – like “Be smart” and “Be real” – tacked to the wall. Throughout, Bryant softly paces the floor – his eagle eyes catching a turned-in knee or un-pointed toe. But he doesn't raise his voice or intimidate anyone. Instead, Bryant readjusts a dancer's turnout or lengthens a leg in arabesque while giving him or her positive reinforcement. He only reproaches the latecomers, who know the drill of immediately dropping to the floor and doing those 50 pushups.

Bryant's own life was turned around when he began taking dance classes at a small school in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. He later joined Dance Theatre of Harlem and performed in The Wiz with Michael Jackson and Diana Ross and in Eartha Kitt's Timbuktu on Broadway.

A touring production brought him to Chicago, which he has called home since 1989. Bryant soon developed a following as a positive, nurturing and dynamic teacher. He makes it a point to practice what he preaches when it comes to maintaining a strong and healthy body. Bryant arrives at the studio almost at the crack of dawn to work out and maintain his youthful physique. And he's rarely seen without a big plastic cup filled with what he calls swamp water – a homemade wheatgrass energy drink. Looking to the future, Bryant hopes to relocate his school to a larger facility and establish his own dance company.

You can witness Bryant's vision during Raising the Barre: The Homer Bryant Story. It is scheduled to air Thursday, December 17 on WTTW-Channel 11.

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