A short list of goals Allegra Lillard, artistic director of NDI New Mexico’s Dance Barns, has for each of the hundreds of children taking after-school dance classes this year at the studios on Alto Street includes compassion, tolerance, perseverance, moving out of your comfort zone, and loving an art form.
Lillard grew up in Jacksboro, Texas, with parents who were so supportive of her dream to become a ballerina that they drove 60 miles to Wichita Falls several times a week to take her to a better dance school than what was available in her hometown. Then they helped her find a performing-arts high school in Massachusetts. Lillard left home at fourteen, and by age seventeen she was dancing with the Atlanta Ballet. She also performed with Ballet British Columbia, Ballet Hawaii, the Oregon Ballet Theatre. At thirty, she was ready to do something else. She found a new passion in teaching.
NDI’s after-school program focuses on teaching dance technique to children from three to eighteen. Lillard devised a curriculum that includes ballet as a foundation, plus options in jazz dance, tap, hip-hop, modern, as well as classes in theater and voice. The youngest children begin with creative movement. “There is no one more honest than a three-year-old,” Lillard said. “You have to get down to their level, look them in the eye, and listen. Whatever is going on in the world can be gauged by being with three- and four-year-olds. I learn from them every day.”
Lillard recalled her own early training. “My first teacher was magical, otherworldly. It is that magic and joy that I remember most. To this day, I do things she did. We use rhymes and stories, and we sing.”
In 1996, Lillard moved to Santa Fe with her husband, Mark Morgan, a dancer-turned-chiropractor (who occasionally teaches at NDI). She was one of NDI’s first outreach teachers, when co-founder Catherine Oppenheimer was still operating the organization from her apartment in Tesuque. In the beginning of her NDI career, Lillard taught the curriculum, which is based on pedestrian movement (that most children can accomplish) mainly to fourth-graders in the Santa Fe public schools. However, she also toured the state, teaching residencies in smaller rural communities. The outreach program works with entire classrooms of sometimes reluctant students. In Santa Fe, the year ends with a series of performances in May with hundreds of children participating. For many, being part of an NDI show is a rite of passage, and some of those students are inspired to find their way to the after-school classes Lillard directs.
After a break to have two children and time spent running her own dance school, Lillard was invited back to NDI, and in 2011, she took up the position she now holds. “A big reason I returned to NDI is the diversity of students,” she said. “At NDI, we don’t turn anybody away. There is a sliding scale for dance classes. Some of the kids’ parents could never afford the tuition at a private studio. Often, the arts education is not just for the students, but for their parents. The time these kids spend at the Dance Barns is life changing for many of them. I’m so proud to be part of an organization that is open to every child.”
As a professional dancer, Lillard remembered well the day when a choreographer first asked her to improvise. “I said, ‘I can’t do that.’ In ballet, you were told what to do, and when to do it. It was scary, but I did it, and it was a huge breakthrough for me. I carry that moment with me today. My students know that the safest place to take a risk is in the studio, in front of their peers and their instructor. I want them to feel there is no need, ever, to be fearful of making a mistake.
“We can’t hold onto every kid from three to eighteen, and 99 percent of them will never become professional dancers,” Lillard continued. “But I want to hook them into loving dance, to become addicted to the feeling of expressing themselves. Dance is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do, but there is such a sense of satisfaction in doing it. Every student will find their own journey, but they all become a part of our dance family. Forever.”