A number of well-known cultural icons have emerged from the Hill District—August Wilson, George Benson and Mary Lou Williams, to name a few. But when it comes to the art of dance in recent years, one company comes to mind.
“The Hill Dance Academy Theatre—we call it ‘HDAT,” says Ayisha Morgan-Lee, the company’s CEO and artistic director. “Our mission is to train the next generation of dancers and to sustain black dance.”
For more than a decade, The Hill Dance Academy Theatre has been teaching the art of black dance, and, in doing so, the dance company has lent itself to preserving and perpetuating the Hill District’s rich cultural heritage.
Morgan-Lee founded the Hill Dance Academy Theatre in 2004, when, she says, there were too few people of color in dance performances...and a lack of education regarding black dance.
“When I grew up in the dance world I was one of maybe three black students in the studio,” she says. “I just thought that Pittsburgh has so much more to offer and that I wanted students to be able to come to a place where they could learn to dance and see the other students who look like them. And they could see teaching artist that look like them."
Students can start classes as early as three years old at HDAT, learning everything from ballet to a range of diverse dances, many becoming polished concert performers. However, Morgan-Lee says dance is only one aspect the company’s curriculum.
“We also teach them nutrition classes, acting classes, administration classes, the behind-the-scenes, the light, the set, the sound,” she explains.
Morgan-Lee adds that teaching children to be well-rounded professionals is a key to growth for the arts community across the board.
“In all honesty I’d love for every single one of these 75 students to be a dancer but that's not going to happen,” she says. “But they learn about their history, they learn about dance. They then become your funders, they then become your audience, they then become your supporters, your board members. They then become the people who are running the dance organizations, running the companies so there's so much more opportunities for them.”
Those efforts to foster both performative and interpersonal development seem to be bearing fruit at HDAT. Deborah Bennett has been bringing her daughter Mia to the studio for several years and says she is pleased with her daughter’s growth and maturation as a performer.
“My daughter just turned 18 so she’s been coming about 10-years now,” Bennett says. “There's something here that is being nurtured in our girls—and some of our young men as well—that they're not getting anywhere else.”
DaLynn Moore echoes what Bennett says. An eigth-grade student at Gateway Middle School, Moore says she has benefited tremendously from the programming.
“HDAT has helped me both dance-wise and mentally and physically of being healthy,” she says. “They make sure they pull that out of us. Dance actually gives me more discipline whether it's inside of school, outside of school, at home. They actually do make sure that I stay on top of my game, stay on top of my grades.”
Although the Hill Dance Academy Theatre accepts 75 students per session, Morgan-Lee says thousands have come through the company over the past 15 years.
“It’s very significant for us to be in the Hill because—why not the Hill?” she says. “Why can't the Hill have a place that sees art thriving and has a strong successful dance academy and know who we are so we are not Pittsburgh's best kept secret anymore? And not just known nationally but known here in Pittsburgh, as a gem.”