After “practice and practice and more practice,” these dancers took the stage to meet their goal – to perform “at the very highest level” at Collage’s 11th Annual Gala. (Photos: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

Collage Dance Collective co-founders, Marcellus Harper and Kevin Thomas, are reliving the glorious performance moments of Collage’s 11th Annual Gala in the school’s newly constructed facility.

Marcellus Harper (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

 “Friday night (Sept. 24) was a day of our dreams,” said Harper. “We wanted to create a space for young, Black people, a place that would inspire young people, a state-of-the-art building designed with them in mind. Our building, itself, is a work of art.”

The structure, located at 505 Tillman Street, was the setting for a swanky, after-five evening of celebration, with highlight presentations of classically trained young people, dressed in colorful, breathtaking costumes and featured in professionally choreographed performances.

“The entire weekend, I just took a look back at how far we’ve come,” said Harper. “Of course, there were some lean years in the beginning. We did not have a space of our own, and no one wanted to sponsor us. Nights like last Friday make all of that so worth it.”

Kevin Thomas (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

As the evening’s excitement unfolded, Thomas was busy making sure his dancers were performing at the very highest level.

“We wanted to make things perfect,” he said. “There had been practice and practice and more practice. I did have my moment when I said, ‘Wow, this is huge. We have come a very long way.’”

Harper manages the business side; Thomas, trains the dancers in rigorous class exercises that draw out the very best in aspiring, young professionals.

“This new space helps me to pour myself into them,” said Thomas. “The building is ours. That means we can work for as many hours we like. It makes a huge difference. This has always been, from the very beginning, a labor of love.”

A precision performance at the Collage Dance Collective 11th Annual Gala. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

Thomas was born in Trinidad and Tobago, moving to Montreal, Canada when he was only a year old. He has been dancing since he was seven and has worked with three professional ballet companies. 

While dancing at the Dance Theatre of Harlem Ballet Company, Thomas discovered what he wanted to do in his “next chapter” – teach young, aspiring ballet dancers the technique and ability to perform. 

Harper, a native of Washington D.C., moved to New York, where he met Thomas and they began staging small, dance productions. They dreamed of establishing a school, a training component for young dancers with an educational arm. Both are essential in producing accomplished, gifted performers.

But where would be a good place to start a school of this type? Memphis would be the perfect venue, the pair decided.

“Memphis has the right demographic and it has an active ballet community,” said Harper. “There is Ballet Memphis and the Ballet Ensemble. But there was no school that focused on training young, African-American ballet dancers. Memphis was the best of all the places we considered.”

Performers in sync during Collage’s 11th Annual Gala. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

In the very beginning, it was difficult, Harper admitted. 

Collage rented space from place to place, including the “Old Galloway Church” in the Cooper-Young community and Overton High School. Even through days when it looked like the dream was too far beyond what was possible, Harper and Thomas stuck it out because, ultimately, bringing a dream to fruition looks like thankless work and unrewarded effort.

“The gala made me feel proud of how far we have come,” said Harper. “I said, ‘This is really happening.’ The level of community support and the beauty of that night’s performances made all of the struggle worthwhile. 

“Beyond that celebration, we are reaching for bigger and better things. We are more determined in our purpose now than we ever were, and that (purpose) is to inspire and empower kids.”