Making all the right moves
Suzette Harvey has been a champion of black dance since she opened her studio more than 25 years ago.
Through United Dance Productions, she introduced hip-hop to the island — and faced scepticism from other schools.
The popularity of the genre now shows that she had her finger on the pulse long ago.
Throughout the years she has celebrated black culture through her art form, although her doors are wide open to all dancers.
She is not a fan of any barriers in fact, and is known for giving free classes to kids whose parents can’t afford them.
These are some of the traits that contributed to her receiving the Founder Award from the Bermuda Arts Council this month.
It will sit alongside others Ms Harvey has gained over the years, not least of which is the Queen’s Certificate and Badge of Honour, which she picked up in 2001 for exposing the youth to professional dance.
Ms Harvey, who was born and raised in Bermuda, said: “It’s an honour to be appreciated for your hard work and dedication to young people.
“A lot of times it is not easy and people don’t see what is involved — the hard work, the after-school programmes and how we try to shape dancers for life. There’s always a little bit more than just the step.
“We are grooming young people to become adults, to carry themselves and eat properly. These lessons stay with them for the rest of their lives.
“I have dancers who have gone on to become doctors, anaesthesiologists and lawyers ... they credit a lot to dance, like discipline and other life skills.”
Ms Harvey took up dance at the age of three when her mother sent her to the Jackson School of Dance.
She never believed it could be a career option, and was expecting to follow her father into the hospitality industry, but then talked with a guidance counsellor at The Winchendon School in Massachusetts.
“I knew him as Mr Otto and he was the turning point because he introduced dance as a career to me. If I stayed in Bermuda, that opportunity would never have opened. I am so thankful that that happened in my life.”
Ms Harvey graduated from the University of Arts in Philadelphia with a bachelor’s degree in dance education in 1990.
She returned home and created a show that paid tribute to Nelson Mandela. The late anti-apartheid leader, who became South Africa’s first black president, had just been released from prison after 27 years.
Ms Harvey took to her mother’s backyard in Pembroke and gathered dancers to rehearse for the show, which was inspired by the South African musical Sarafina.
Staged at the Ruth Seaton James Centre for the Performing Arts, it was a hit and returned for two more weeks by popular demand.
“There was a great energy and it was at the right time,” the dancer recalled with a wide grin. I wanted to salute the South Africans and what they were trying to do and bring to the forefront Nelson Mandela’s freedom.
“Black empowerment and dance was my focus, my roots. I love black dance and that is where a lot of my energy goes, but at the end of the day dance is so diverse so I don’t lock myself in.”
Then came the opportunity to teach dance at a school — Devonshire Academy — and she realised how much she loved it.
In 1992, she launched United Dance Productions, teaching black movement such as hip-hop and African dance, as well as more traditional forms like tap, modern and jazz.
In 1999, she developed the Bermuda Dance Company to try to get exceptional students on an international stage.
At a show in Philadelphia, her students’ performance was compared, by Dance Magazine, to the renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre.
Due to a lack of funding, BDC closed in 2005 but Ms Harvey was recognised for establishing it and UDP when she was awarded the Queen’s Certificate.
UDP continues to thrive and creates two major shows per year — the annual recital and the Christmas show. Similarly, Ms Harvey is showing no signs of slowing.
“It is all about keeping my calibre high now. Now I have left teaching in the education system I have more time to think about what to create and where we are going to go.
“I enjoy travelling, seeing shows in New York and spending time with my Labradors.
My family is all here in Bermuda — I love Bermudians and everything about Bermuda and it is important for me to give back to the children.
“We are going to be travelling to the Black Dance Conference in Philadelphia in the new year. All the best black dance companies will be there learning about what is going on around the world; it is a wealth of knowledge.”
United Dance Production’s show, Soulful Christmas, takes place at Ruth Seaton James Centre for the Performing Arts December 13 and 14 at 7pm. Tickets, $45, are available from November 11: www.brownpapertickets.com; 232-9933
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