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Metro Atlanta couple start ballet company for Black dancers

Waverly Lucas II and Nena Gilreath both started the dance company because they wanted to give Black dancers more opportunities that weren't limited.
Credit: Ballethnic Dance Company
Ballethnic Dance Company

ATLANTA — A married couple from different parts of the country needed to "solve a problem" after moving to metro Atlanta from their New York ballet careers. The two birthed their own ballet company when they discovered the sky wasn't the limit for many Black ballet dancers who hoped to become stars.

"It was really revolutionary at that time because there was not a Black ballet company in the South that could provide that opportunity, " said Nena Gilreath, founder of Ballethnic Dance Company

Gilreath and her husband, Waverly Lucas II, got their inspiration to create this company when they left the Atlanta Ballet. The couple realized there were limited opportunities for Black dancers and wanted to make a change. 

Credit: Ballethnic Dance Company

"There was definitely a ceiling that prohibited us from being able to really reach our fullest potential and to tell our stories as it's related to art and to our place in the world and our potential for moving forward," Lucas said.

Ballethnic is the oldest professional Black ballet company in the South, according to the founders. The dance company started on the Spelman College campus with the help of the former Chair of Dance at Spelman. 

Community leaders around the metro wanted to be a part of their movement and supported their journey. Gilreath and Lucas also recounted the moment when Dr. Pearl Primus, a prominent African dancer, helped with one of their favorite ballets before her passing.

The husband and wife shared why "The Leopard Tale" is so culturally moving for them. They described the ballet as a blend of classical and African dance concepts that puts movements in the tiptoe position, also known as "La Pointe." 

Credit: Ballethnic Dance Company

"I think our signature ballet is certainly "The Leopard Tale." It embodied the essence of Ballethnic, and it distinguishes us from any other company in the world," Lucas said.

The couple also prided themselves on the creation of the Urban Nutcracker. The act was made to be a nontraditional form of the original Nutcracker, shying away from its European realities of it.

Lucas described the Urban Nutcracker doll as a play on Marcus Garvey, giving him the name of a soldier instead of a doll. 

"One of the reasons or one of the things that I knew that we were on the right track when we produced Urban Nutcracker for the first time, there were people who were so fascinated by the fact that there was every body type and every skin tone," said Gilreath. 

Teaching superstar siblings Chloe and Halle

Lucas and Gilreath also had the opportunity to teach stars Chloe and Halle. 

The two sisters were born in Mableton. They are both actors, vocalists and dancers. The founders said they got their foundations of dance from the company. 

"I would say one of the inspiring stories is seeing our students, Chloe and Halle performing from being in my class and learning the Ballethnic way. There are many other Chloe and Halles in their own right," said Lucas.

Click below to watch a 2020 video of the sisters celebrating the dance company's service. 

Thanks Chloe and Halle ... I am reposting this to encourage other Ballethnic alumni to also provide a video statement for our 30 years of perseverance. 🖤✌🏾✊🏾Mr. Waverly

Posted by Ballethnic Dance Company Inc. on Friday, July 31, 2020

The company has performed at The Bermuda Arts Festival, National Black Arts Festival and more. They were recently invited to the Opera House at the Kennedy Center. A group of Ballethnic students will take an April trip to Canada to perform at the National Ballet School.

The couple is looking for the next leaders to help them continue their company and leave their mark. 

To support the couple's business or to learn more information, visit here

This story is a part of a series highlighting local Black businesses and their embodiment of Black excellence in light of Black History Month. To view more stories, visit 11alive.com/blackhistory

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