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Our Story

Ballethnic Dance Company Inc. (pronounced \bal-eth-nik\) began with the love story of a young couple Nena Gilreath and Waverly T. Lucas II, who met in New York City while dancing with Dance Theatre of Harlem. Expanding their relationship from the studio and the stage, they believed that using one’s God-given talent could impact the community and the world.

More than three decades ago, they traveled throughout communities in Metropolitan Atlanta and the Southeast with their vision that there needed to be a professional Black-led Ballet Company in the South that could represent the possibilities of a professional career for many overlooked and undervalued citizens. They believed that the community needed another alternative for Black dancers and dancers of other ethnicities. 

They were often not afforded access in companies once token spots were filled by hiring one or two black dancers. Sharing their vision through their commitment to excellence, many community members took notice and soon joined as supporters. On January 15, 1990, after consulting with Louis Johnson and Dr. Richard Long, the couple successfully launched the second Black-founded professional Ballet Company and the first by a Black female. Creating another vehicle in the U.S. for dancers of color to be at the forefront.

The professional company of six dancers was formed and began its history on the campus of Spelman College with the assistance of Mozelle Spriggs, the Chair of Dance who had always envisioned this type of company in Atlanta. Spelman College Dance Department created a foundation for the Ballethnic Dance Company, whose first concert, coached by Dr. Pearl Primus, was the initial exploration to blend ballet and African dance concepts. 

Cofounders immediately started to create original versions of Ballets such as Urban Nutcracker, changing the setting to Atlanta’s own Sweet Auburn Avenue. Resident Choreographer Waverly T. Lucas II selectively created dances that were more reflective and inclusive of the black or African diasporic experience while maintaining particular classical consistencies. Hundreds of thousands of cast and audience members have had an Urban Nutcracker experience, and the tradition continues. Their vision was groundbreaking as they decided to trailblaze their path, creating original works and opportunities influenced by African American and African diasporic culture, demonstrated in their unique African Ballet, The Leopard Tale. This growing vision required a training ground; hence the manifestation of Ballethnic Academy of Dance was formed, incubating this increasing desire for an organization that could provide a place for dancers from training to a professional job in the company.

While building the training ground of Ballethnic Academy of Dance, the professional company performed throughout the Southeast and made its debut in New York at Aaron Davis Hall and Lincoln Center Out of Doors. Ballethnic is a niche organization that flies below the radar but continues to soar, successfully presenting their international performances at The Bermuda Arts Festival with rave reviews. Through its numerous performances at the National Black Arts Festival – and a National search by International choreographer Irene Tassembedo – Ballethnic Dance Company, received the only original commission from the 1996 Cultural Olympiad. The company performed on Atlanta’s world stage premiering the ballet Trouble by Tassembedo and Waverly T. Lucas’ Alonzo to critical reviews from the New York Times.

Credit: Keiko Guest Photography

More than three decades later, the path continues with the evidence of an increased number of Black dancers in the industry.  The continued strength of its professional company bears witness to the dedication, hard work, and perseverance.

Ballethnic continues to produce new works each season that speaks to its unique fusion of Ballet infused with African Dance concepts, choreography most recently seen in Opposites Attract and Distract by Cofounder and Resident Choreographer Waverly T. Lucas II and accompanied by original music the cast created during the pandemic. A new collaboration ignited by regular meetings with the Arthur Blank Audience Builders sparked by the regular convenings of the Arthur Blank Audience Builders RoundTable prompted a collaboration between The Breman Jewish Museum and Ballethnic.  Jazzing: Memoirs in Jazz, dance, and photographic celebration of Herb Snitzer – photojournalist of iconic jazz greats – as well as the dynamic hybrid choreography of dance storyteller and ethnochoreologist Waverly T. Lucas II emerged out of the pandemic. 

Cofounder and the Facility Director of East Athens Educational Dance Center Nena Gilreath has created an opportunity for creatives through the Athens to Atlanta Artistic Pipeline. Dancers, musicians, students, and professionals have taught and taken classes, performed, and convened in Athens, East Point, and Atlanta. Students and professors from the UGA Department of Dance have also shared skills and resources, broadening the reach exposure and access of, exposure, and access to dance excellence in the region. As members of the International Association of Blacks in DanceBallethnic is proud to announce being selected as one of 25 companies for phase 2 of the COHI MOVE Beta Collective Cohort that provides general operating support, change capital, and technical assistance to help strengthen the company and its infrastructure.

Forging the path of collaborations and great art is the hallmark of Ballethnic Dance Company. Creating the steps and the course for the next generation continues to lead Ballethnic.

“Leaving a legacy of achievement through dance guided by spirited entrepreneurship.” 

Nena Gilreath