As the owner of the Brooklyn-based AbunDance Academy of the Arts, Karisma Jay works to help Black and brown dancers discover their individual potential through art, and reach their professional goals within the dance industry.
While Jay’s dancing has been featured on BET, MTV, NBC and VH1, and she is a veteran performer with STOMP, teaching was always part of the career plan. In fact, she jokes that she taught her very first student when she was just 4 years old. While taking an African dance class with Yousoff Koumbassa with her mother, Jay approached a woman in her 50s (whom she affectionately calls “Mama Rochelle”) to show her how the steps should really be done. By the time she was 9 years old, she was assisting her teacher’s classes, and by 10, she was leading her own classes at Professional Center for the Arts in Brooklyn, NY. As an adult, Jay added other schools around New York City to her teaching resumé, while she studied performing arts and medicine at NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study and beyond.
After graduating, Jay felt moved to create her own program—one aimed at helping underserved children in underserved and under-resourced communities. “I was meeting all of these students with talent who had no idea of their potential in dance because nobody had ever given them the opportunity to develop it,” Jay says. “Nobody had really given them anything, and I wanted to help.”
AbunDance is a 501(c)(3) organization—more commonly known as a nonprofit, public charity. This structure allows Jay to offer a sliding-scale rate for her students, providing full tuition scholarships for some and affordable prices for others. “My mom was a single parent who had to work hard for me to dance,” Jay says. “My motto is, ‘If my mom could have afforded it, then that is what I can charge.’”
Beyond offering financial support, Jay’s teaching mission is to help Black and brown dancers access their own abundance, and for it to be rooted in knowing where they have come from. Jay’s own dance training began in West Africa on childhood trips with her mother. Her mother, a dancer from Panama, would take her to learn about her African heritage and thereby develop an attachment to her identity. (She would also send her to Panama during the summers to learn the language and culture.) To that same end, her courses include African dance as well as Western styles—complementing Jay’s own training at a number of schools, including Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts—and she shapes her productions around Black and brown stories. “My theory is that everyone should be able to see themselves and their folklore through art,” Jay says.
AbunDance productions have been themed around reimaginings of The Wiz, Annie (with a Black titular character), Sister Act and Dreamgirls. For the academy’s last performance before the pandemic, Jay created Us Abundantly, based on the children’s cartoon The Magic School Bus. “It’s important to me that my students have teachers who look like them,” Jay says. “To that end, I made Ms. Frizzle Black and called her ‘Ms. Frizz.’” In the production, Ms. Frizz, named after Frances Cress Welsing, takes her students back in time and shows them their history, meeting Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, Josephine Baker, the kings and queens of African tribes, and more along the way. In the end, Ms. Frizz is thrown into prison because she was teaching too much urban content, and the students have to protest to get her out.
According to Jay’s former student and now fellow AbunDance teacher, Lake E, Jay’s influence in the Brooklyn community of Crown Heights, where the academy moved after rent hikes forced the school’s second relocation in 2018, has been immense. “We have large windows at our studio, and people in the community often walk by and stop to watch the Black dancers who are wearing skin-toned tights and skirts,” she says. “That’s something that’s never happened before, and it’s all because of Karisma.” For her dancers with aspirations of a professional career, Jay helps them get started with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Broadway, the Brooklyn Nets and more, preparing them with audition classes, resumé building, private lessons and high-level performance opportunities from a young age. “She’s able to give these kids access to a world that wouldn’t have been accessible otherwise,” Lake E says.
In the classroom, Lake E says Jay has a commanding presence. “Sometimes she teaches with tough love, other times with praise. Sometimes she gets results through repetition, and other times simple fine-tuning,” she says. “She expects a lot from her dancers and pushes them beyond what they think they are capable of.”
Perhaps Jay’s influence can most clearly be encapsulated in the experience of one particular young dancer. “There is a little girl with a brilliant mind who first came to our school looking small and timid,” Lake E says. “Within five years she has grown to be a strong dancer who walks into a room ready to learn. Because of Karisma, she knows her gifts and what she has to offer, and she commands her space.”
That is the power of Jay: She opens the door to ambition, and shows her dancers what they are capable of.
Register here for the 2021 Dance Teacher Awards, taking place Wednesday, October 6, at 6 pm Eastern/3 pm Pacific. Meet the rest of the honorees here.