Because Jackie Hinson's grandmother pushed her into taking ballet lessons some 20 years ago, a group of little girls from Largo will perform an intricate, colorfully costumed African dance program today at the Capitol in Tallahassee.
Those early ballet lessons eventually led to Mrs. Hinson's teaching dance to girls in Largo. Two years ago, the girls _ from 9 to 15 _ had never taken any kind of dance lessons, let alone difficult native African dances. But under Mrs. Hinson's tutelage the girls have become a skilled performing group _ Girls Inc. Imani (faith) Dancers.
"I had no experience in dance," 12-year-old Ebony Young said Tuesday. "Now I'm learning difficult dances and getting to work with people like Chuck Davis." Davis directs the African American Dance Ensemble of Durham, N.C. The dancers performed with the ensemble last month at the Bayfront Center's Mahaffey Theatre.
Last year, the young dancers gave more than 70 performances throughout the state, including a program for Gov. Lawton Chiles and a show at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center in Tampa. One of the dancers, 10-year-old Marketa Robinson, made her movie debut last year in a dance sequence in Carlito's Way.
At least one parent attributes her two daughters' improvements in school and home life directly to Mrs. Hinson and her dance program.
"I told my girls that if they didn't keep up their school work, they couldn't stay in the dance program," said Mattie Paschal. "They really surprised me. Their school work went from B's and C's to straight A's, and they seem to care more about everything. They're more respectful, too. It's a whole turnaround for them, thanks to Miss J.
"Dance has made the girls feel important and I am very, very proud of them."
Mrs. Paschal's daughter Anquanita Hearns, 14, agreed with her mother. "It (the dance program) has changed me. I get better grades and I plan to go to college."
Daughter Fredericka Hearns, 12, said she is as fascinated with the history of the dances as with the dances. "I love that we get to learn about what the people used to do in Africa so long ago."
Here's how Mrs. Hinson, a professional dancer who studied in New York City and performed internationally, got together with girls in a Largo neighborhood who, she said, "didn't know anything about African and ethnic dancing or even about their own heritage."
Mrs. Hinson, 35, learned early in life about her cultural background. At 14, she won a scholarship to study with Arthur Mitchell and Russian dance master Karl Shook at the Dance Theatre of Harlem. From there, she studied more ballet as well as jazz and ethnic dancing with such greats as Alvin Ailey and Fred Benjamin.
Several years ago she fell in love with a Clearwater man while visiting an aunt who lives here. Three years ago, the couple married and settled here. Mrs. Hinson took a job as director of the Girls Inc. of the Ridgeview center in Largo.
"The first thing I did was get to know the children and the people of the community and take an assessment of what was really needed in the way of academic and social programs," she said.
"I took the girls out in the park one day and showed them some steps to an African dance," she said. "Little by little, the girls learned the history of the dances, the music and songs, and finally the dances. It hasn't been easy for some of them. They have to attend rehearsals consistently. And they can't participate in the program unless their grades are good and they are doing well at home.
"We started out with 20 girls; now we have a steady group of 10. In the two years, some have improved academically, but all are more outgoing and confident. They know how to look a person straight in the eye and shake their hand. Their attitudes have improved, and they are learning to listen and be respectful."
Mrs. Hinson said the dance program may be expanded to some of the Girls Inc.'s other four centers in Pinellas County.
"Somebody taught me and it gave my life a direction," she said. "Now it's my responsibility to share what I've learned with these children."
_ Staff writer Lisa Pelamati contributed to this story.