“Do you have the commitment and capacity to achieve excellence?” asked Keith Saunders. “If you met those demands, then you would earn a place in the Dance Theatre of Harlem.”
Globally renowned ballet company Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) is returning to the TCU campus almost 50 years after its first three-day residency in 1975. The School for Classical & Contemporary Dance will host a two-day educational program with community events and a panel discussion with DTH executive and artistic leaders.
We spoke to Keith Saunders, assistant professor of professional practice, and Kellye Saunders, adjunct professor, both playing pivotal roles in bringing the residency to campus. The couple shared with us their experience performing and serving in leadership roles at the prestigious ballet company.
Rise to Principal Dancer & Director
Keith Saunders intently listened to the professor’s instructions during his first dance class in the fall of 1971.
“As soon as I began dancing, I discovered my lifelong purpose,” said Saunders.
He left school a year later to pursue his newfound passion, enrolling in as many dance classes as possible. By 1974, Saunders’s natural talent earned him a spot as a professional dancer for The Dance Company of the National Center of Afro-American Artists. He joined DTH as an apprentice dancer a year later.
“And then, my dance education really began,” said Saunders.
He honed and developed his skills under Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook, the legendary co-founding artistic directors of the company. Saunders rose to principal dancer and toured internationally for the next 17 years, performing for royalty and at prestigious venues, including the Kennedy Center Opera House, Detroit Opera and the White House.
“This is an experience I will keep for the rest of my life,” reminisced Saunders. “The opportunity to make lifelong friendships and travel the world are high on the list of what I value, love and remember about DTH. These experiences are priceless. Indescribable. You can’t put a value on them.”
In his post-performance career, Saunders served in multiple DTH leadership roles:
- Ballet Master
- Director of the Professional Training Program
- Director of Second Company
- Director of Education Programs
After more than 40 years at the company, Saunders looked for a new opportunity to use his skillset to cultivate the next generation of artists. He left DTH to pursue his master’s in dance and accepted a position as Assistant Professor of Professional Practice at TCU. This is his fifth year teaching in the School for Classical & Contemporary Dance.
On Stage as Prima Ballerina
Kellye Saunders began her dance training at the Jones-Haywood School of Ballet in Washington, DC. She continued her dance education at Le Centre de Danse International in Cannes, France before joining Dance Theatre of Harlem as an apprentice, later rising to the rank of principal dancer. She experienced classical as well as eclectic repertoire and collaborated closely with Mitchell and renowned choreographers of the 20th century.
“Everything required something a little bit different from you,” said Saunders. “Every choreographer required more than just your body. You had to bring a different thought process to each work.”
She cultivated an acute understanding that dance requires the mind in addition to the body to create movement. Saunders took this belief into every rehearsal and performance on stages nationally and internationally.
After a distinguished performance career, Saunders pursued a bachelor’s in dance performance and quickly observed the wealth of knowledge and experience DTH provided.
“My dance history professor would always ask if anyone had experience working with a particular choreographer,” said Saunders. “I would lift my hand every time and be shocked because I was in a room full of dancers. It became very clear that Arthur Mitchell gave us something special that many dancers don’t always get.”
Saunders later returned to DTH and served in two leadership roles:
- Project Coordinator for the Harlem Dance Works 2.0 Series
- Ballet Master
She joined the School for Classical and Contemporary Dance in the fall of 2019. Saunders challenges students to develop a point of view as an artist.
“In addition to teaching the physical and technical skills necessary to the profession, I want students to become thinking artists and make it a full-body experience,” said Saunders.
Dance Theatre of Harlem Residency
Keith and Kellye kept in close touch with colleagues at DTH. Anna Glass, DTH executive director, recently reached out to ask about opportunities to collaborate with TCU’s School for Classical & Contemporary Dance, explaining the company would be performing in Texas in early 2023 and would be available for several days.
“This residency will give students two intense days of activities and to interact closely with a professional organization,” said Keith. “We want students to experience life as professional artists and witness how DTH maintains an industry reputation for excellence.”
Open Rehearsal & Panel Discussion
Monday, Feb. 6, 4:30-7:30 p.m.
Dancing in the Street
Tuesday, Feb. 7, 3:45-4:45 p.m.
The residency includes an open rehearsal, community event and panel discussion that are free and open to the public. Registration is required.