Classical ballet. Ballet fusion. West African dance. If you haven’t already heard of the phenomenal Tacoma Urban Performing Arts Center (T.U.P.A.C.), you should know about them. For the past year and a half, this group of high-caliber instructors and local supporters have been bringing classical ballet and so much more to youth and adults across Tacoma. Their mission is to bring world-class dance education to students who would not otherwise have access to it, and as their hit The Urban Nutcracker showed in late 2018, they have been doing so in a big way.

T.U.P.A.C., named for the rapper and activist Tupac Shakur, has already changed lives. Co-founded by Klair Ethridge, an Emmy-winning entertainment producer, and Kabby Mitchell III, the first African-American dancer to join the Pacific Northwest Ballet, T.U.P.A.C. serves to empower youth through dance. It is a groundbreaking idea: bring classical ballet to an urban community, especially students of color, where they have role models and instructors who look like them and inspire them. T.U.P.A.C. shows young people that dance is for everybody, and everyone’s potential is nourished here.

I went to see The Urban Nutcracker debut in 2018 and was amazed. Far beyond a traditional ballet, this extravaganza brought together more than 50 dancers of all ages who put on an energy-packed show, with the story set in Tacoma and dancers of all levels included. There was ballet, hip-hop and African dance in the mix. The audience gave a standing ovation. Clearly, something special was at work here.

Sugar Plum and Cavalier
From young children through adults, T.U.P.A.C. offers dance for all levels and ages, making them a uniquely inclusive community studio. Photo credit: Theresa Guerrero

I got to visit T.U.P.A.C. to catch a glimpse of the studio in motion. Located in Opera Alley, I met Ethridge, the warm-spirited director who oversees everything from coordinating high-profile guest teachers to giving students rides home. On the day I visited, students were enjoying a West African dance class taught by master teacher Awalahassan. They were all smiles. Most of the students were from UpWard Bound, a college-prep program for low-income high school students. Talking with Clover Park High School student Antoinique Porterfield, she said classes at T.UP.A.C. are fun because she likes learning new moves and “everyone is close-knit” both at Upward Bound and at T.U.P.A.C.

One thing that is unique about T.U.P.A.C. is that they offer scholarships and free classes to make dance cost-accessible to students who would otherwise miss out on this valuable art form and the life skills that come with it. Dance teaches discipline, social etiquette, teamwork, and self-confidence along with physical stamina and coordination. T.U.P.A.C. offers free classes to children staying at the Tacoma Rescue Mission as well as the teens in Upward Bound.

I also got to talk with Renee, a freshman at Stadium High School who has been taking classes at T.U.P.A.C. for over a year, and now dances on pointe, an advanced skill. Composed and mature, she says that along with dance, T.U.P.A.C. has helped teach her skills like “time management. I’ve learned about planning ahead and even how much rest I need to get so I can be ready for ballet the next day.” She says she definitely plans to continue dancing as a life-long interest.

TUPAC Ballet Class
T.U.P.A.C. is unique in that it makes world-class classical ballet training accessible to urban students in Tacoma, focusing on whole-person development through dance. Photo credit: Theresa Guerrero

Ethridge sees it as her duty to make sure the dance experience helps shape each child as a whole, as a person and future community member. A scholarship student with Alvin Ailey and long-time entertainment industry professional, she has high standards for the students. They follow a definite code of conduct that includes rules for punctuality, dress, and social skills. Teens step up and become role models to younger children. They help calm nerves backstage and set a good example in classes.

When asked what’s been most rewarding about running T.U.P.A.C., Ethridge says it’s, “Seeing children who have always wanted to take formal dance classes get to do this. And it’s also the involvement and enthusiasm of the family as they see all the hard work and the joy of accomplishment” their child has achieved. In fact, especially in families where an activity like dance has never been a part of life, it often has a positive ripple effect for everyone.

Students at T.U.P.A.C. also regularly get to perform dance in the community, at settings ranging from Annie Wright School to the NAACP to the Tacoma Art Museum. These new experiences help give them both audiences for their work and “cultural agility,” board member Dr. Joye Hardiman says. They learn to thrive in these new environments, which helps them stretch their comfort zones and confidence. Like the Tupac Shakur song, the studio helps “roses grow from concrete,” Hardiman says. The diversity embraced here is “reflective of our urban environment, and enhances the work itself.”

TUPAC Dance Group Photo
It takes a village to make T.U.P.A.C. strong. Pictured here (from left to right) are student Renee, musician Awalsheimawu, co-founder Klair Ethridge, Master Teacher Awalahassan, Board Member Dr. Joye Hardiman, Ph.D., and student/volunteer Theresa Guerrero. Photo credit: Gale Hemmann

The sheer drive and heart for the mission to make T.U.P.A.C. grow are impressive. Watching class in the airy, brick-walled Opera Alley studio (it looks straight out of Brooklyn), it’s hard to believe that the students not two months ago were bundled up in mittens and coats, dancing in a space with no heat, while Ethridge facilitated the move as they were rehearsing for The Urban Nutcracker’s opening. “I saw this space available,” and made it happen for the dancers, she says with a sparkle in her eye.

The staff and Board at T.U.P.A.C. have leveraged their professional connections in the dance world to bring in top-notch teachers, who are often willing to lend their talents at a lower cost in support of T.U.P.A.C.’s work. Still, maintaining the studio takes a village, and donations of funds, business sponsorships, and volunteer help with things like painting and mailings are always welcome. They have some special upcoming shows planned in 2019 and appreciate your support.

Another great way to get involved with T.U.P.A.C. is to sign up for a dance class. Not just for kids, T.U.P.A.C. offers all-ages classes that welcome adults to this fun fitness, stress reduction, and creative exercise form. Dance is great for balance and cognitive abilities for older adults, too. Why not kick off your weekend with an Open Adult Ballet Class? You can register for classes on a drop-in basis or preregister for a great discount rate and to make sure you have dance on your schedule for 2019.

To learn more about T.U.P.A.C., including class schedules and upcoming events, visit their website. You can also find them on Facebook.

TUPAC Company
The entire dance company at T.U.P.A.C. poses for a cast photo after their hit performance of The Urban Nutcracker this past holiday season. Photo credit: Theresa Guerrero