Founder Ann Williams and Artistic Director Melissa M. Young Look Forward to a New Generation
By Leslie Barker
Photographs by Kim Leeson
When you are the founder of the Dallas Black Dance Theatre…when the sign on the building and on the street surrounding it bear your name…when such dancing maestros as Alvin Ailey and Arthur Mitchell have sought you out … when you and your dancers — including children who would never have worn a pair of ballet shoes if not for you — have performed all over the world… when the theatre’s growth has surprised others but certainly not you…you’re not going to leave your dream in the hands of just anyone.
Which is why, when DBDT founder Ann Williams decided to retire and the board chose Melissa M. Young to succeed her as artistic director, Mrs. Williams was beyond pleased with the decision.
“Melissa and I are so in tune with each other,” Mrs. Williams says. “I have no doubt she understands the quality and artistic excellence of running this company. I hit myself every day and say, ‘I could’ve been gone 10 years ago!’ ”
With such peace of mind, Mrs. Williams can sleep as late as she likes. She can play bridge several times a week. She can be in no hurry as she walks Sparky and Bobo, her beloved dogs.
And when she attends a DBDT performance — watching dancers who weren’t even born when she started teaching the craft to minority children more than 40 years ago — she can just soak it all in.
“I am so pleased,” says Mrs. Williams, now a very youthful 81. “I get joy when I’m in the audience and the curtain goes up and it’s so beautiful and they’re performing so well.”
She didn’t hesitate putting utmost trust in her protégé. Ms. Young danced at DBDT for 11 years before becoming (take a deep breath for this) rehearsal director, dance academy director, associate artistic director and interim artistic director and then, in September 2018, artistic director.
“She has always been a leader,” Mrs. Williams says. “Dallas Black Dance Theatre is like her home. You can’t say that for everyone.”
Echoes Ms. Young: “I believe in the mission and values of our organization. I respect it. I feel DBDT is woven into my DNA.”
But when she first auditioned for DBDT more than a quarter-century ago, she had never heard of Dallas Black Dance Theatre. But her mentor had — even calling Mrs. Williams on the phone to talk to Ms. Young.
“I told my roommates that was the last audition I was going on,” says Ms. Young, who had graduated from The Ailey School and was getting weary trying to make a living as a dancer. “I said, ‘If I don’t get the job, God’s telling me to do something else.’ ”
She got the job. But not long after moving to Dallas, she called her parents in California.
“This city is weird,” she told them. “The energy is different. There’s no skyline. I think I made a mistake.”
Her mother told her to give it two years, which sounded like an eternity. Then Ms. Young got caught up in dancing for DBDT; with its camaraderie, passion, stellar reputation; with the national and international travel. And, of course, with Mrs. Williams, whom she calls “a genius.”
“My mom always gives the best advice and her timing was so perfect,” Ms. Young says. “After two years, I was trying to come up with reasons to leave: ‘I’m not leaving until we travel to…’ and then we’d travel there. ‘I’m not leaving till we perform at the Kennedy Center, at the Lincoln Center.’ And then we did.
“Ms. Ann had said we’d have our own building one day. So it was, ‘I’m not leaving until we have our own building.’ ”
Which, since 2008, DBDT has had. (For the record, Ms. Young still isn’t leaving). The building, formerly the Moorland YMCA, has special significance to Mrs. Williams. This was where she learned to swim and where she later taught others to swim. It’s where she attended her senior prom and, she says with a twinkle, “probably where I had my first kiss.”
The pool was filled in when the building was renovated for DBDT. But Mrs. Williams insisted that lessons still be taught in that area, which is now a practice room.
“There’s history and energy that exists in these walls,” Ms. Young says. “She wanted people’s eyes to dance when they came in here. It’s a rich historic place to surge forward. Not everyone can understand. But that’s OK: We understand that.”
Talk to each of these women individually and their thoughts seem to intermingle, even though they’re not even in the same room. Each gets almost reverent talking about the sound of the curtain being lifted, the thrill of applause, the feeling of interconnection between those on stage and those in the performance hall.
“We want the audience to feel they have hope, that there are infinite possibilities in their lives,” Ms. Young says. “I’m big into creating new experiences for the audience and dancers alike. As much as the dancers discover who they are, the audience learns about themselves by being there. I call our audience family members. I take it very seriously. The moment you walk through our door, you’re part of our history.”
Thus, selecting the right dancers is paramount.
“It goes far beyond talent,” Ms. Young says. “It’s your mindset and how you treat others. It’s integrity for yourself and how you interact with those around you. It’s about humanity.”
Since taking over the reins of artistic director, she’s often asked what she will change at DBDT. “I’m here to significantly enhance and grow what’s been built, not to recreate the wheel,” she answers.
Which isn’t to say she doesn’t have her own ideas. She does. But they’ll be intermingled with the legacy with which she’s been entrusted; offered to the next generation of dancers and the one after that.
“Every dancer wants to succeed,” she says. “I want to help you nurture and uncover the best sides of yourself. This comes in part from my upbringing and care we had for each other. Everyone who knows me knows my family is No. 1.”
She has something else to say about Mrs. Williams, reaching for a tissue. (“I brought them for my allergies, not my tears!” she says) before continuing.
“She wants everyone to have opportunities, to enhance their lives,” Ms. Young says. “It’s almost as if she puts the puzzle pieces in front of you and you have to find a way to put them together.”