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Dancing All the Way Home

Jenny Thompson's solution to a mid-life crisis? Move to New Orleans and start the NORD/NOBA Center for Dance, which has inspired a generation of students.

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When Jenny Thompson arrived in New Orleans 15 years ago, she had no job, no leads and no place to stay. "What is it that Blanche DuBois said? I was relying on the kindness of strangers," she says with a chuckle. Sleeping at a friend's place that was used to store artwork, Jenny began to connect with New Orleans' art culture. "It was kind of what I was looking for, what I had sensed I had lost in Cincinnati," she recalls. "It's that direct line to the spirit and passion and creativity in art."

But she wasn't some drifting, Gen-X slacker. She was 41.

"I was getting to an age when most people are reaching the height of their careers," she recalls. "Most people think it is very strange if you decide that that is not where you want to be."

After eight months of part-time work, Thompson landed a job with the New Orleans Ballet Association (NOBA). Since then, she has become the general director at the New Orleans Recreational Department/New Orleans Ballet Association Center for Dance, as well as one of New Orleans' most important proponents of youth education in the arts. For her efforts, she will receive the 2005 Special Recognition Award at the 11th Annual Tribute to the Classical Arts luncheon, which will be held Monday, Feb. 28, at the Hotel Monteleone.

The collaboration between the New Orleans Recreation Department (NORD) and NOBA is Thompson's brainchild, and it has allowed her to gain greater access into New Orleans' cultural community. The Center for Dance offers any child over the age of 6 the opportunity to receive hands-on dance training at any of the five participating NORD sites.

"The Center for Dance has taught literally thousands of kids to dance since 1992," says NOBA executive director Jenny Hamilton. "The kick is that the service is completely free of charge. The majority of our students are low-income (status). The reason they come to us is because we can offer professional training that they wouldn't otherwise be able to afford."

Children who demonstrate talent in the general program are offered placement into the Step-Up program, which provides intensive training three times a week and teaches skills that could lead to a career in dance. Step-Up graduates have gone on to audition at both the School of American Ballet and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. "It's just a snowballing effect," says Tulane's Theatre and Dance chairwoman Barbara Hayley. "Children are given opportunities at every level of ability, and for many, the program is the first step towards dancing professionally."

Thompson describes sending her students off much like a proud parent would: "When we email back and forth, I call myself the 'NOLA Mom.'" Thompson gets almost giddy when she talks about her students: "I don't have kids, I'm not married. My mom used to always say when people asked if I had children, 'No, she has 300 kids,' and it's true. It's the best part of what I do."

But the education a child will receive at the Center for Dance goes far beyond pirouettes and jazz hands. Thompson is equally pleased when a student goes on to become successful in a field outside of dance. Since 1998, the Center for Dance has offered free academic tutoring, a decision Thompson made after one of her prize students was denied entrance into a university because of inadequate scholastic scores. "That was when we decided that that was never going to happen again if we had anything to do with it," she says.

Since Thompson organized the Center for Dance in 1992, the program has enjoyed incredible success. "It's not hard to gauge the program's progress," said Suzanne Stack-Hirsch, NOBA's programming manager. "There was one center when we started with 30 students, and now there are six sites and 600-plus students. There has been enormous growth."

In 2002, Thompson's success won her the Coming Up Taller Award, which is presented annually by the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. Thompson flew to Washington, D.C., and accepted the award from First Lady Laura Bush.

"Jenny has nurtured the program, and look, it has grown to national recognition," says Hayley.

The Special Recognition Award that Thompson will receive on Monday will be a testimony to her entire 30-year career in the arts. She has been the president of the Dance Council of New Orleans and has written endless grants for aspiring local artists. But even with so much dedication to arts and arts education, Thompson still seems uncomfortable collecting acclaim.

"It seems really strange," she says. "What I do I don't do for awards. It never occurred to me that someone would want to give me one." If leaving behind friends, family and home at the tender age of 41 is a risk, then it is this type of decision that can pay off the most. Thompson's New Orleans family is her students -- whom she lovingly refers to as her "children" -- and her home is the Center for Dance. "I have come to realize that I have been really lucky in life," she says. "What I love to do, I do professionally, and I am really making a difference."

"My mom used to always say when people asked if I had children, 'No, she has 300 kids,' and it's true. It's the best part of what I do," says NORD/NOBA Center for Dance coordinator Jenny Thompson, who will receive the 2005 Special Recognition Award at the 11th Annual Tribute to the Classical Arts luncheon. - DONN YOUNG
  • Donn Young
  • "My mom used to always say when people asked if I had children, 'No, she has 300 kids,' and it's true. It's the best part of what I do," says NORD/NOBA Center for Dance coordinator Jenny Thompson, who will receive the 2005 Special Recognition Award at the 11th Annual Tribute to the Classical Arts luncheon.

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