“Level-headedness,” says Antonio Douthit-Boyd, is one of the main characteristics needed to be co-artistic director of dance at the sprawling Center of Creative Arts in St. Louis, Missouri, which he runs together with his husband, Kirven Douthit-Boyd, who is COCA’s co-artistic director of dance. The institution offers over 20 distinct dance classes for pre-professional and recreational dancers, from children to adults. “You have to handle a lot of nuanced and dynamic relationships,” Antonio continues. “From operations to the students to the parents; to the faculty to development and handling marketing needs.”
The couple first met while dancing at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. In 2005, they began dating, eventually marrying in 2013. After leaving AAADT in 2015, the Douthit-Boyds moved to St. Louis and became co-artistic directors of dance at COCA, where they now direct, choreograph and guide aspiring dancers. Last year, the pair received the Excellence in the Arts Award from the Arts and Education Council in St. Louis.
Antonio Douthit-Boyd, who began his dance training with Lee Nolting at the age of 16, joined Dance Theatre of Harlem in 2000, where he performed featured roles in several Balanchine works. In 2003, he became a soloist with the company and then went on to perform with AAADT in 2004, where he was a leading dancer for 11 years, working with choreographers such as Robert Battle, Judith Jamison, Jiří Kylián, Wayne McGregor and Paul Taylor.
Originally from Boston, Kirven Douthit-Boyd began his formal dance training in 1998 at the Boston Arts Academy and joined Boston Youth Moves in 1999. Before joining AAADT in 2004, he performed with companies such as Battleworks Dance Company and Ailey II. He also originated roles in various Ronald K. Brown works before leaving AAADT in 2015. Kirven has recently taken on the role of artistic director at Big Muddy Dance Company.
For Kirven, “nimbleness and flexibility” are the keys to doing his job in the complex COCA environment. “[You have to] stay flexible with the current generation [given] the current climate,” he says. “The pandemic showed us that you might have to rethink your entire process when it comes to training your dancers.”
So what do the Douthit-Boyds want their students to come away with after training with them? “I would hope that each student who walks away from my class felt that there was a partnership, that they were involved in the actual learning in the classroom, that I wasn’t dictating to them,” says Antonio.
Antonio and Kirven have had a storied history of training with remarkable instructors. When asked who left the greatest impression on them, both find it difficult to come up with just one name. “There are a few people, but if I had to choose one, I would say Arthur Mitchell,” says Antonio. “My husband calls me ‘baby Arthur Mitchell’ all the time. But not having a father figure growing up, I looked up to every word that Arthur Mitchell said. I wanted to embody his greatness. As much as people believed he was this big, tough guy, he was a softy, and if he believed in you, he would give you his all and would try to groom you for greatness. I hope I have even just a little piece of that.”
Dance student Keli Charles Thomas describes Antonio’s “tenacious spirit” as his greatest strength. “He never gives up on a dancer no matter their amount of training, technique, skill or level. He’s the epitome of what a dancer’s attitude should be, and he is always there to push you but also to nurture you in any time of need. It’s not just his amazing classes that make him an excellent teacher, but also his persistence, grace and determined spirit.”
“This is a really hard question for me,” admits Kirven, “because there have been so many impactful educators in my life, but I will say Denise Jefferson [former director of The Ailey School who passed away in 2010]. I give her all the flowers. She was so nurturing and knew how to gain students’ love and respect so that she could have those difficult conversations with us that would help us grow and develop,” he states. “I think of her fondly often and am led by her example in how I teach my students.”
Thomas, also one of Kirven’s students, attests: “[Kirven] has this remarkable ability to not only create such beautiful movement, but to dance with a skillful grace that just draws your eye to him. In every class that I’ve had with him, I was always astonished by his work.”
In their own roles as administrators and educators, both agree that one important thing is for teachers at COCA to continue working with, and learning from, other teachers. “It’s the most important. I tell my staff all the time to go watch someone else’s class and ask lots of different questions about it,” says Antonio. “I think that’s how the walls stay breathing. Learn from each other, or the dance field stops growing as a whole. Listen to your students—not just their voices, but their bodies and hearts. We want them to know they have our trust and we’re there for them whether they decide to become doctors, lawyers or dancers.”
Kirven agrees. “The most valuable educators are the ones who do it totally selflessly.” He also cautions would-be educators to explore their full potential as performers before they become teachers. “If there are things you want to achieve in that area, make sure you explore that before you step into a space where you’re responsible for such transformative moments of artists’ lives.”
Editor’s note: Tickets for the 2022 Dance Teacher Awards are available for the ceremony only or for the ceremony with cocktail reception (please reach out to [email protected] to inquire about group ticket pricing). Proceeds from the cocktail party fund the Dance Teacher Scholarship at MOVE|NYC|. Don’t miss the chance to join in community with and be inspired by this network of dance teachers. Get your tickets now! We can’t wait to see you there!