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Hartford's Artists Collective Fosters Creativity and Performance in Low-Income Kids

Feb 3, 2016

"If you treat a child right, they will never forget you, no matter how old. And if you treat them bad, they won’t forget that either."
Aca Thompson

The Artists Collective is one of the most recognized landmarks on Albany Avenue. Community activist Denise Best describes it as much more than a well-maintained property.

"It’s pristine because there’s a mind-set that says we protect this building," Best said. "Through all of the dance classes, they set the stage for behavior, for appreciation, for respect for each other. It’s fantastic."

"It’s a movement over there," Best said. "It really has a great effect on how children view themselves and each other, and the respect that they have for their teachers and that particular building. Every day, it’s amazing. You can go through the back, into the parking lot, you won’t see a bit of trash. It’s almost like a church."

Hibo Rozetta, 18, has been taking classes at the Artists Collective since she was two year old. She said it's impacted her physically, mentally, and emotionally, "I feel more socially open. It's had a big impact on my life."

The Artists Collective started as an idea in 1970 hatched in the living room of Dollie McLean and her late husband, Jackie.

"He was particularly interested in young people who did not have hope, and really felt that he needed to use whatever resources he had in developing a program that would inspire them, that would teach them, and push them on," Dollie McLean said.

Jackie McLean was a jazz legend. He was a student of Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Thelonious Monk. He became one of the most sought-after saxophonists in the world.

Dollie McLean was a dancer, but there was a focus on incorporating as many art forms as possible in hopes of engaging as many kids as possible. The McLeans assembled a team of fellow artists, and started with classes at multiple locations around Hartford.

Even from the beginning, the McLeans' goals went beyond just the arts.

The Artists Collective from the outside.
Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
"Before there was an Artists Collective, there was a void."
Cheryl Smith

"It was to really nurture, educate, and really touch many of the children in a neighborhood," Dollie McLean said. "And we’re not just speaking of this neighborhood. It’s wherever children are who are poor, who don’t have the advantages that other children have, and to really give them a sense of themselves, besides training them in whatever that might be. I think people -- and young people especially -- need to care about themselves, love themselves, and understand that they are not disposable, if you will."

Originally from Jamaica, Devé-Ann Bennett moved to the neighborhood in 2010, after getting her dance training in California.  

"It’s a place where you can feel free to express yourself," Bennett said. "It doesn’t matter what art. It’s a place of different arts. I’ve never been to a studio that has dance, singing, drama, visual arts, martial arts -- any art you can think about, we have it here. It’s a place just to come here and be yourself."

Bennett came to the Artists Collective initially as a volunteer during her first summer in Hartford. She is now one of its full-time dance teachers.

"I work with the neighborhood kids in seeing them be able to come to a place that is, you know, a safe place to be," Bennett said. "And you see these kids work, and see those small moments they achieve -- like after five months trying, they finally got it -- and see in their eyes that they’re learning discipline. It’s just amazing."

Inside the Artists Collective.
Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
Aca Thompson directs dancers at the Artists Collective in Hartford's North End.
Credit Shana Sureck / WNPR

Bennett also works with, and studies under, the Artists Collective’s master choreographer Aca Thompson. 

Now 82 years old, Thompson has done it all in his career. As a performer, he danced with Josephine Baker, toured three continents, and studied with many of the most recognizable names in dance.

Along the way, Thompson gave up on his own performing career to focus his efforts on community education, and for a pretty simple reason.

 "The children. They are our present and our future," Thompson said. "Without them, we are nothing."

In the 42 years Thompson has been teaching at the Artists Collective, he has become a cult figure. He has developed his own dance technique, and along with tap, jazz, ballet, and African dance, his classes are infused with African music and African history. Whether walking down Albany Avenue, or getting on city buses, he’s recognized and enthusiastically greeted by students he hasn’t seen in decades.

"When you reach a child, see, there’s two things," Thompson said. "If you treat a child right, they will never forget you, no matter how old. And if you treat them bad, they won’t forget that either. Those formative years are very, very important."

Cheryl Smith is another of the Artists Collective’s master teachers. She has been involved since those first conversations in the McLeans’ living room.

"Before there was an Artists Collective, there was a void," Smith said.

Dancers Tyra Long, Joon Wilson, Gerald Skyers, and Cherresse Monique.
Credit Shana Sureck / WNPR

Smith was born and raised in Hartford. At the time, she said the one teacher in the state teaching African dance was in New Haven, and there was no place that offered this wide a variety of dance under one roof.

Despite having taught at the Artists Collective for over 40 years, Smith said she’s still learning from her mentors Dollie McLean and Aca Thompson every day. The collective has now been an integral part in the lives of generations of Hartford children who didn’t know life without it.

"So those of us who have had that opportunity to get that exposure and to be involved, some of us may not even realize it, and a lot of the kids, they don’t realize it until they are away from it," Smith said.

One of those kids is recent Berklee College of Music graduate Lomar Brown. He attended the Artists Collective for six years, and found inspiration in its artists and its alumni.

"A lot of those people would leave, and then they would come back to the collective and actually teach us, and share their stories of being out in the world of music," Brown said. "And -- not saying that my teachers that weren’t black didn’t influence me as well -- but being a young black man, a young black child, in this country, it’s really important to see people who look like you doing things that you like to do."

Brown is now a professional musician, and he gives a lot of the credit to the faculty at the Artists Collective.

"I would not be here without any of them," Brown said. "Even if I didn’t learn from them directly, just being around all these people, you just can’t get it in a book, and you just can’t get it being homeschooled. You know? It’s priceless, really, what it is."

For related stories and photos, visit WNPR's Radius Project.