Inspired by Prince, Harlem Dance Studio He Once Supported Looks to Save Itself

Space is so tight at Harlem’s Uptown Dance Academy that some ballet dancers need to make sure they do not hit their heads on the ceiling when they are lifted. Others, arms outstretched, must look before they leap – so that they do not fly out the door. A dozen dancers can overwhelm a rehearsal room.

Although they are cramped at the academy, on East 121st Street, dancers are happy to call it home. That is largely because of the generosity of a surprising benefactor: Prince, the virtuoso and secret philanthropist who died in April. He wrote a $250,000 check in 2011 to help the studio avoid eviction in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.

As a daily reminder, an oversize check with a purple-tinged border hangs above a doorway at the academy. Despite Prince’s largess, Uptown Dance Academy’s future is uncertain. His donation covered about a year’s worth of expenses, but the group could easily use extra space, Robin Williams, the studio’s director, said.

Most other arts groups in areas like East Harlem have not been lucky enough to receive such large donations. The academy’s two competitors closed or moved away in recent years because of high rents. The financial problems come just as professional ballet companies in New York City, stung by criticism that they are not diverse enough, are trumpeting plans to expand opportunities for minority performers.

Robin Williams, director of Uptown Dance Academy, works in a 700-square-foot room, one of two of the academy's studio spaces. G-Jun Yam / NYT Institute
Uptown Dance Academy students prepared for their recital on June 3. G-Jun Yam / NYT Institute


So, the dancers at the academy will pay tribute to the benefactor who helped keep the studio open, while also raising money to relocate to a larger space.

“Without Prince, there would be no Uptown Dance Academy,” said Ms. Williams, who said that she began planning a tribute to the artist shortly after he died. “He was a music icon, and he helped us.”

The tribute, a celebration of the academy’s 21st anniversary, is scheduled for June 3 at the Hostos Center for the Arts and Culture in the Bronx.

The studio’s ties to Prince date back several years to when he watched dancers trained by Ms. Williams perform at the Apollo Theater alongside his friend Misty Copeland, the first black principal dancer at the American Ballet Theater.

Five years after receiving the donation, the studio has spent nearly all of the money that Prince donated, and Ms. Williams said some problems remain. The studio, with its lone dusty fan, low ceilings and limited rehearsal rooms, has left them outgrowing the space, Ms. Williams said. It has even started to affect performances.

“I don’t have kids who can jump that high here because it’s just too small for leaping,” Ms. Williams said, explaining that the studio’s two rooms total 2,000 square feet. Ideally, she said, she could use a larger space, with higher ceilings, floor-to-ceiling mirrors, better lighting and, of course, a Harlem location. But that kind of wish list is expensive.

“I started looking around, and I could not believe how much prices had gone up,” Ms. Williams said, her voice straining with incredulity. By her calculations, rent in this part of Harlem would cost her about $25,000 a month, up from the $4,000 a month she now pays for the space.

The rising costs for small arts groups in Manhattan have concerned the New York City Department for Cultural Affairs. It has set aside funding for cultural organizations in gentrified neighborhoods to provide a safety net. “We are making sure that the arts are included in the planning processes as they unfold,” said Ryan Max, director of external affairs for the department.

Meiling Lee, 10, left, and Shuiling Lee, 10, rehearse for their upcoming recital. The performance will be a tribute to Prince, who donated money to the studio five years ago. G-Jun Yam/NYT Institute

Right now, the city is funding Brooklyn neighborhoods, Mr. Max said.

He added that organizations need to submit applications and go through a review process. Ms. Williams said Uptown Academy Dance has applied for funding through this program.

The Harlem studio hopes to raise $80,000 from its coming show and other fund-raising efforts. Parents have held bake and candy sales, and on some days, they leave an empty jar on a table outside the studio hoping passers-by will drop in some change. The most money deposited in the jar in one day was about $50.

“Unfortunately what the parents are doing is not actually going to go very far,” said Ms. Williams, a petite woman with a chestnut-colored ponytail who favors tights and black sleeveless T-shirts for dancing. “I’m just going out of my way trying to save every penny I can.”

Shaniece Santiago, 26, has high hopes for her 5-year-old daughter Jazzlyn, who studies at the academy. On a recent afternoon, while Jazzlyn was being fitted in her purple tutu for the Prince-themed recital, Ms. Santiago explained how she had contributed to some of the fund-raising efforts.

“I signed her up because of the location,” Ms. Santiago said later, while trying her best to keep an eye on Jazzlyn and her twin brother, Josiah, as they chased each other in circles on the sidewalk. “It’s pretty much the only location in the Harlem community for a dance studio.”

Ms. Williams remained optimistic that a benefactor could still come through for the studio, but until then, she said, she would continue to shop around for spaces in Harlem.

“Some people said you might never get that opportunity again because of the way things have changed,” Ms. Williams said, shrugging. “But I know when things change a certain way, sometimes they go back.”