Born in Italy but raised in a gritty outer-Boston neighborhood, Tony Williams was going nowhere fast until he discovered dance as a teenager. “I was living in the projects, one of a biracial family of nine, heading for trouble,” he remembers. “But I’d been doing gymnastics along with baseball and track, and one day I heard these guys at the gym talking about how the Russian gymnasts were studying ballet.” Intrigued, he decided to give ballet class a try. “It turned on a switch,” he says. Nine months later, at age 17, Williams became one of the charter members of Boston Ballet.
Today, following a remarkable professional career that included stints at the Joffrey Ballet, Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Norwegian National Ballet and Portugal’s Ballet Gulbenkian, Williams is back in his old neighborhood: His studio, the Tony Williams Dance Center, is based in Jamaica Plain, Boston. But it took him a while to get there. After retiring from the stage, Williams discovered that he had a true gift for teaching and started giving classes at studios all over New England. He was a nomad for nearly 20 years before he decided that he—and his three sons—needed a home base.
“My schedule was getting exhausting,” he remembers. “I had a friend who said, ‘Tony, why don’t you go home and help the kids in your old community?’ It was a great idea. Dance had rescued me by providing a focus. I wanted other at-risk kids to experience that.”
In 1995 he founded BalletRox, a nonprofit organization that includes a dance company, a youth troupe and a scholarship program that gives underserved Boston children the opportunity to study dance. His mission was to use dance to break down racial and socio-economic barriers. Five years later, realizing that he needed his own facility with proper studios and barres for his growing organization, Williams established TWDC, which houses BalletRox but also serves 300 students from all over the greater Boston area. “Tony has created a place that is all-accepting,” says Valerie Aquaviva Maio, who’s been on faculty at TWDC almost since its inception.
Currently the BalletRox scholarship program sponsors about 40 8- to 17-year-old students each year. And every December for the past decade, BalletRox students and company members have performed Urban Nutcracker, a reimagined version of the holiday classic that’s a mishmash of ballet, swing, urban tap and hip hop, Tchaikovsky and Ellington. Phenomenally popular, the show has become something of a Boston institution. (Last year a documentary about the project, Urban Nutcracker: Anatomy of a Ballet, aired on PBS stations across the country.)
But what’s allowed Williams to pursue his larger visions of diversity and opportunity is the fact that he is, first and foremost, an exceptional teacher. “Because he’s so warm and approachable, he’s able to connect on a personal level with his students,” Maio says. “Some teachers teach to the body. Tony teaches to the soul.”
Photo Petr Metlicka, courtesy of Tony Williams
OTHER 2011 DT AWARDEES:
Photo by Petr Metlicka, courtesy of Tony Williams