In a street-level dance studio on West Parrish Street, where the new City Center development rises ever higher, Empower Dance Studio's students are trying to get their lines right. Under the watchful eye of Empower's directors, Nicole Oxendine and Jessica Burroughs, the girls are prepping for two upcoming performances, including the Durham Holiday Parade the next morning.
For the parade routine, the dancers need to form three parallel lines. For that, Oxendine instructs them to hone their peripheral vision, their awareness of multiple "fronts." After all, tomorrow morning, there will be no studio mirror, no familiar brick walls. Each second, the dancers will have to anticipate the next move, and the next, and the next.
"You always have to be dancers," Oxendine reminds them.
Like Durham's preexisting dance studios, Empower, which opened its Parrish Street location about a year ago, trains students in concert dance, including ballet, modern, and jazz. But what sets Empower apart is its work to expand the notion of what being a dancer means. Everything about the studio, starting with its name, expresses its commitment to inclusivity and affirmation: the high visibility of dancers of color in its promotional materials; its wide variety of courses, from tap to "trap aerobics," for all age groups; and its rootedness on Durham's historical Black Wall Street.
"We are definitely trying to give something different," Oxendine says. "Part of our mission is to nurture and to uplift. We accept you, no matter your size, what your skin is, what your hair texture is. Everything is accepted, and everything is dance."
Empower is a from-Durham, for-Durham enterprise. Oxendine and studio director Burroughs both attended Hillside High School. (Burroughs was Oxendine's first dance student when she began teaching at the school after college.) Changes at Hillside and Burroughs's desire to run a studio pushed them to strike out on their own to serve the community of dancers they'd gotten to know in Durham Public Schools. In 2015, Empower rented space at the Hayti Heritage Center; Oxendine hired Hillside dancers to teach thirty young students once a week. But the demand quickly outpaced the space. After a sold-out 2016 summer session, Oxendine and Burroughs found their own studio. They had it gutted and rehabbed after buying it from Elaine Curry and Dawn Page of Empress Development, another duo of female African-American business owners.
Whether the classes are for children or adults, serious dancers or low-stakes adventurers, the Empower ethos emphasizes groundedness and personal connection. Recent initiatives include "M-Power," which aims to break stigmas surrounding men in dance, and the Empower Dance Foundation, which provides student scholarships.
"A lot of studios teach technique, technique, technique," Oxendine says. "I'm like, let's plié into a tendu, but to a song you like. If you come out of the space feeling good about yourself, that's more important than, is your tendu correct. We'll get it!"
Burroughs says she aims to model a "nurturing, safe, express-yourself-freely family space for dancers."
"They really do want to uncover elements of disempowerment that endure because of the ritual of how dance has always been taught," Empower ballet instructor ShaLeigh Fairbanks says. "Nicole came into one of my ballet classes and asked all of the students to sit in a circle, so we could chat about [what] the history and etiquette of ballet looked like, especially for women of color."
These types of exchanges are key to Empower's curriculum. "Without understanding the institution, [you can't understand] the subtleties that make a person of color feel like, Well, maybe they don't want me. Or they just want me to do the hip-hop or tap piece, not the ballet piece," Oxendine says.
At Empower, routine activities like dance apparel fittings, which are apt to trigger body insecurity, especially for young women, are opportunities for self-affirmation instead.
"[The girls] love when I match their tights," Oxendine says. "Everybody's not this one color. It's gives that little sense of empowerment, without me verbally saying, You're beautiful."
That little sense of empowerment is carefully folded into Empower's web and print materials, where you'll see young women of color clad in matching dancewear, beaming for the camera. You'll also notice the pink of the studio's branded apparel—not the pale pink of ballet slippers, Oxendine clarifies, but a "power pink. An empower pink." It makes the studio instantly recognizable. This visibility aids its involvement with Third Friday Durham, whether it's hosting visual art exhibitions or Proxemic Media's dance series. Proxemic founder Myra Weise says Empower's presence downtown represents the ongoing integration of dance into Durham's infrastructure.
"It's helping to solidify the idea that dance isn't intimidating," Weise says, "that it can be a part of our everyday life."
At the Durham Holiday Parade, you can spot the pink banner from half a mile away. As Empower dancers zip by with chassés and battements, wearing big smiles and lined up perfectly, their presence seems to linger, as if to say, Pay attention, we're here to stay.
"I have a lot of pride in my city. I have pride in what the historical black middle class created here," Oxendine says. "I'm interested in what that history means to what I'm doing now, and I do feel like there's a new Durham arts movement. It's [important to] recognize what the arts look like for people of color. Or just to recognize that we're here."