Nicole Oxendine is on a mission to build the confidence and authority of young people through dance. Along with Jessica Burroughs, co-founder and studio director, Oxendine opened Durham’s Empower Dance Studio in June of 2015. As the studio hits the two year mark, it will hold the annual recital Sunday at the Carolina Theatre.
On the eve of the event, we sat down with Oxendine to chat about how the studio came to be, what they’re teaching and how they’re impacting our community with their lessons.
“So a big part of what we do here is to say, ‘Whatever you are, you’re beautiful as you are.'” — Nicole Oxendine
Driven by both her love of teaching and a desire to serve the community, Oxendine opened the doors Parrish Street last October after previously leasing space at Hayti Heritage Center. “I saw a need in the community for young dancers who wanted to take dance,” she says, explaining the path to Empower. “And with what’s been happening in the state, teaching high school no longer looked like a viable long-term career.
“So those were external factors. Internally, I was going through some things and was looking for a place to put my energy. I stopped working hard for everyone else and refocused the energy on what I can work on for myself. And ever since the idea was put in my spirit, every door has opened to me.”
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The studio seeks to nurture and foster development for dancers of all backgrounds, but has a uniquely powerful position to lift up young women of color. “One of the beautiful things about Empower is the staff, and how it really goes beyond me,” Oxendine says. “All have college or graduate degrees, and most of us come from environments where we were the only [dancer of color]. We may have been treated a certain way, or pushed into, ‘Oh you do hip-hop,’ or told ‘This isn’t your area,’ or even as simple as matching tights to your skin color. So what each of the teachers also brings individually is the experience of being the only one.”
This staffing offers a more empowering experience for students. Oxendine says the staff can share with students that they can be trained well by someone who not only looks like them, but also someone who embraces them. And that the students are “still deserving of specialized attention” no matter their size or how they look.
“We make sure they have the right tights and that their leotard fits right, and we encourage them to wear their hair naturally — no extensions,” Oxendine says. “I have noticed with the eight year olds — which is our biggest age group — that it’s a big transition in self-esteem and how they begin to think and view themselves, and [how] they internalize what others say. So a big part of what we do here is to say, ‘Whatever you are, you’re beautiful as you are.'”
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But make no mistake. In addition to lessons in self-esteem, the staff at Empower is teaching dance at a high technical standard. A big part of the instruction is to encourage the children to be responsible for their own improvement. It’s a lesson that even many young adults don’t learn until they get into their first jobs: that they can take ownership of their own improvement.
“It’s a nurturing environment,” Oxendine adds. “We’ll tell them to fix their feet or lift their arms, but in a nurturing way. There’s a strength we want to cultivate with young dancers.
“A lot of times we were missed in that lesson of how do we be empowered, how do we take ownership in our own learning. We tell them, ‘You should go home and practice, and when you come back you should be better, and we will give you that feedback. We’re not going to give you something just for showing up. It takes work to get there, but we will get you there.'”
This year’s show will be much more of a production than a typical dance recital. Oxendine plans to use the children’s talent to showcase the theme “Durham Renaissance” in order to have their lessons put into practice and consider the context of their community. “We’re here on Parrish Street. We’re right in the heart of all the changes that are happening, and as artists, I think it’s important to honor that,” she explains. “We have a spiritual section honoring Hayti, a piece about the beauty of grand architecture, and a whole section about finance and the history of what Parrish Street was. And it is great because the girls can take those lessons about being a boss and being strong, and pour that into the choreography.”
ShaLeigh Dance Works and the poets of Blackspace will also be performing, tying into the theme of celebrating the arts and culture of Durham.
The recital takes place at the Carolina Theatre of Durham this Sunday, June 11 at 4:15 p.m. Get your tickets here.