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Former ballerina brings experience to new role
Ayisha McMillan leads N.C. Dance Theatre school
Published Thursday, September 15, 2011 10:27 am
by Ryanne Persinger

Ayisha McMillan started her career at age 18 and retired before 30.

That’s the norm for a professional dancer.
Ayisha McMillan, a former professional dancer, is principal of North Carolina Dance Theatre's School of Dance.

While some are forced to retire early because of injuries, McMillan made the decision to hang up her ballet slippers at 29.

“I actually retired a lot younger than a number of my colleagues,” McMillan, 33, said. “I felt very, very fulfilled with my dance career. I decided to stop dancing because I wanted the longest time I could have with a healthy body with healthy joints. I didn’t want to be 40 years old and walking with a cane.”

McMillan, who danced with the North Carolina Dance Theatre for five years, was named principal of its School of Dance in February. Prior to that, McMillan was part of theatre’s marketing department.

She oversees the school’s budget, faculty, schedules and works with students and their families regarding development and career plans.

In a statement earlier this year, NCDT president and artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux said he was excited to work with McMillan in a different capacity.

“I know her knowledge and enthusiasm will positively benefit the school and our students,” he said.

In her new role, McMillan works with over 700 students – youths and adults – a year.

“We use discipline of dance to help young and adult classes to be the best they can be,” McMillan said. “Ballet has far-reaching benefits from just the way an individual carries him or herself to understanding how the body works to also using it in their lives to (show) all of the things they can achieve.”

McMillan says the lessons learned outside dance transcend beyond the studio.

“I hope to be able to share dance with many different people,” she said. “I think that specifically in classical ballet there are very few black women who study ballet particularly on the levels that prepare them to be professional dancers.”

While McMillan was a dancer with NCDT, she was the first African American woman to play a principal role in “Nutcracker.” She also performed as Tinkerbell in “Peter Pan” and was featured in Alvin Ailey’s “The River,” as well as in George Balanchine’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Prior to dancing with NCDT, McMillan, a native of Oak Park, Ill., performed with the Houston Ballet Academy at age 15. By 18, she signed a contract with the company and was touring in London, Hong Kong, Toronto and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

“I was lucky to be able to dance with the Houston Ballet,” McMillan said. “At that time there were two other black dancers there. Ben Stevenson was the director at the time and I will always be grateful to him for having that inclusiveness. I just can’t even overstate how unique that was back then.”

McMillan shares the sentiment for Bonnefoux. She says working with him is like working with “superstars.”

“I really appreciate that equally Bonnexfoux had no hesitation with taking me into his company and casting me,” she said. “He’s made such a huge impact on my life. He invited me into the role that I serve today. I love the story of how I tried to leave the dance theatre twice and each time he offered me a new position.”

McMillan is thriving with the NCDT and Charlotte. In less than a month she is marrying freelance photographer Jeff Cravotta and her mom, Connie Van Brunt, manager of Smith Institute For Applied Research at Johnson C. Smith University, stepfather and sister have all since relocated here.

McMillan hopes to return to school at UNC Charlotte to earn a degree. In the meantime, she continues to push her positivity to the community through dance.

“Time flies when you’re having this much fun,” she said. “It’s a tremendous amount of work, but it’s really very great.”

On the Net:
North Carolina Dance Theatre


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