Tony Williams Dance Studio by Kendra AbbottSmall Business and Neighborhood Economy

Chapter One: The Growing Dance School

When you first walk into the Tony Williams’ dance studio, located on the border of Egleston Square and Jamaica Plain, you are greeted with a bright yellow on the walls, and usually a loud variety of music playing. Tony Williams has been in this location since 2004, but before that, his studio was in the heart of Jamaica Plain in a church basement.

Tony’s Background 

If you talk to Tony, he will tell you that he comes from street life where he grew up in Roxbury. He didn't have much, but he knew he wanted to go back to his roots and help his community. Therefore, he moved into this building, which at the time, was rundown and abandoned. He believed that the community wanted the building to turn into something good, but he knew that the dance school couldn’t be too expensive so that the working class families of Egelston could have their children attend. Tony had a non profit called BalletRox that eventually ended years after starting. To make it affordable, Tony lets students and parents help out around the studio. This can mean parents can help out at the front desk, clean and organize, or students can assist classes or help Tony with any projects. When the recession hit in 2007/08, Tony didn’t raise the prices, even though enrollment was down, and the rent for the space was hard to pay. He wanted to keep his mission true by bringing dance into this community of Roxbury/JP which has has helped young people no matter what race, size, or gender.


Chapter Two: Backstage 

The studio holds a recital at the end of each year. But more recently, they have added more productions, and there is a large production coming up in May. I attended a meeting about this production with Tony, Dustin, and Adam (a friend of Tony’s who has worked in dance before) since there was minimal time to try to finish it. We were all in Tony’s office, where a 2011 award for “Best Teacher” sat on Tony’s desk with a glass shell surrounding it.

Who Runs the Stage 

The budget isn’t huge for the production, but the question of a stage manager is brought up multiple times. The men wonder, will there be a need for one? How else will there be someone to get the dancers in order and figure out what music goes when and what light cues are needed? The stage is small so there can’t be too many dancers behind it making a lot of noise. Tony wants someone backstage to be able to get everything done, but Dustin thinks that that could make it too hectic. As I listened to the conversation, I found myself agreeing with Tony, since I'd seen the value of a stage manager during my 10 years as a dancer with the company. The meeting lasted over an hour, where Tony, Dustin, and Adam all talked about what is needed for the production and the time that they have to complete it. They all agreed to have a stage manager, since it was the best option for the performance to do well.


Chapter Three: Tony Williams

Tony has created this dance studio, which has an annual recital of all the classes at the studio, and the production of The Urban Nutcracker. This production is free for performers, besides the audition fee ($10), personal makeup costs, and other personal belongings. The free costumes made it possible because of all the donations that Tony has received from the public and his old friends. These donations are made also made by a lot of families who are part of the production and the dance school.


Tony likes to have his name on the studio and the Urban Nutcracker because he created both, and he wants his legacy to live on. The dance classes aren’t free, but the payment of them can be divided different ways, for instance by month or year, to make it more accessible.


Tony wants the dance studio to have a sense of community, but also knows that it needs to run like a “tight ship.” Dustin Rennells helps with these demands; he makes sure that no two classes of the same age groups run at once, respond to emails from parents, orders costumes and supplies for the office, and a multitude of other tasks.


At the dance studio, there are three studios, but mainly Studio 2 is used, since it is the biggest studio. In the waiting room, children and their parents play with the magazines and blocks that are kept in a corner, either waiting for their class to start or for another sibling to get out. Dustin is usually sitting at the front desk, greeting the families and dancers as they walk in, along with many other things.


A Week Long Break 

In the April vacation week-long break, the dance studio runs a day-long camp to get kids out of the house and keep parents worry-free. Usually this camp can get a little pricey, but this year, a donation was given to Tony Williams so that the girls of the Mother Caroline school could attend for free. This lead to being an opportunity for the students to try dance, have something to do during the day, and possibly make Tony Williams an option for dance classes next year.


At the end of the week, I saw a performance that the girls did. The parents can come to see the students perform after their weeklong experience. The students were only young girls of color, so the audience (the parents) were the same. There was an even mix of gender, both men and women, and even some younger siblings to cheer them on. The girls were split into two groups, both mixed ages, but same level of dance in both. The opening of the show began with a speech from Illanga, who has worked with Tony for a long time. Below are field notes I took during the speech on April 21st, 2017:


The show is about to start, Illanga, a man who works for the studio but doesn’t really have a direct role, talks to the audience about the performance and what it is about. He says it was a “very intense” week for the students, since it's long days of only dancing and learning about dance. He ends the talk off with saying that “it gives the students a chance to focus [on dance].” One women gets up and thanks the parents/families for their time and their kids to spend all week at the studio. She then walks over to Tony Williams who is the director and founder of the school/company and thanks him for his time, support, and love. Parents are nodding in agreement with the women, and then the door opens and kids come flying through to their first performance. 


The first performance, which I’ll refer to as Group 1, were mainly the younger girls that had less experience in dance. Rick, the choreographer for the dance, explained that it was a ballet piece. The girls ran to their poses and waited for the music. They were all wearing ballet shoes with socks and leggings, which is not the usual ballet attire, but no one appeared to care. The parents pulled out their cameras and phones and filmed the girls doing their dance. The music started, and the girls seemed shy and timid. They appeared uninterested as shown by the lack of emotion and smiles that was on their faces, along with the slow music that played in the background. A lot of the girls were using the opposite foot or the wrong arm, which is the usual problem for beginners in dance. Tony was in the studio watching from the side, a faint smile lining his face. He watched the girls closely, and I wondered whether he was considering their growth over the week of intense classes. The music ended, and the girls ran away to the room they came out before. The audience clapped and cheered for the dancers, and the other group of girls, which I’ll refer to as Group 2, ran out and went to the same spots the other dancers were in. Some of them smiled, and in general they appeared to be happier with that dance. They had finished, and the first girls came out again. Romero, who had presented himself as the hip-hop teacher, talked about what the girls had done with him throughout the week. He then went over to the stereo to started the music. The girls started their dance and they seemed much more confident and knowledgeable about this dance than the ballet piece before. They concluded the dance with a freestyle in the middle of the studio, and the girls who weren’t currently freestyling were cheering the others on. The girls generally wore black, the most general uniform of a performer. The dancers all took a photo together at the end to thank the people who had donated to make the camp happen, along with the teachers congratulating the dancers for working hard. I observed the rest of the dances, noticing how the girls seemed more comfortable in front of the audience with every dance.


As I watched the performances, I reflected that Tony Williams made it possible for the girls to have this opportunity, and to be able to dance today. Without Tony or the dance school, these girls probably wouldn’t have gotten this experience.