Since its initial class of just 30 students back in 2013, AbunDance Academy of the Arts has blossomed into a multi-faceted arts initiative serving the greater Brooklyn community. Broadway veteran Karisma Jay founded the Academy with a mission to share the transformational power of the arts. AbunDance offers dance, vocal, theater, martial arts and music classes, as well as performance opportunities, for students of all ages, backgrounds and abilities. And in upholding its vision that all people should have the opportunity to experience the arts, AbunDance grants an incredible amount of scholarships and assistance to students from low-income families. Jay and her bourgeoning arts school have won numerous grants and awards over the past three-and-a-half years. Still, AbunDance unfortunately was forced to give up its studio due to the rising cost of rent. But the search for a new home base did not stifle AbunDance’s annual performance — this year, Sister Act, Abundantly!, a fusion of the two films, musical and very current events.
Dance Informa speaks with Jay about her recent performance of Sister Act, Abundantly!, founding and fostering AbunDance Academy of the Arts, and her vision for the potential and future of the arts.
What inspired you to found AbunDance Academy of the Arts?
“I have to say that I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit and loved to see transformation in my students. I started teaching when I was just 10 years old and have been inspiring and healing with the arts as my conduit ever since. So, AbunDance Academy of the Arts was somewhat of a no-brainer because I wanted to provide more healing through the arts on a wider scale.”
How has being a professional performer, Brooklyn native, trained teacher and woman of color helped you to cultivate this ever-growing performing arts academy?
“These identities have kept me grounded and humble. I often get asked how AbunDance Academy for the Arts can afford to stay afloat as a non-profit arts organization in this day and age. I really aim to keep the cost as low as possible and to provide scholarships for our students. When my mom put me in the arts as a kid, she was a single parent and had to work three or four jobs just to make ends meet. When I think of where I come from, where I am today and where I’m going, I strive to make the prices affordable as if my mom were paying for it for me.
As a woman of color, I didn’t see myself in a lot of the ‘classics’ when I was growing up watching TV, movies and Broadway shows. When I walk into the studio to teach with my head wrapped or when I invite my students to a performance of mine or of my peers, they can see themselves in us. It’s incredibly liberating, humbling and rewarding. It also keeps me inspired to spread AbunDance as much as I can.”
Why are the arts such an important outlet for people, especially today?
“The arts heal; they make us sensitive, grounded, compassionate, aware, flexible and agile. The arts make us think with our hearts, with our bodies and with our voices. They give us access to outlets we might not otherwise have access to. The arts allow children to explore and express themselves. The arts allow adults to dance who didn’t get the opportunity as a child. They allow senior citizens to perform on stage like they dreamed. AbunDance and the arts in general make all of this accessible to everyone.”
How has the Academy grown over the past four years? What are your goals and visions for the future?
“Our four-year anniversary is coming up in March of 2018. We have grown abundantly! We started out with 30 students. We are now at 100 students. While we used to only do children’s programs, we continue to expand and access more of the arts. We collaborate and host classes at senior centers in the community. Provided that we secure our new space and expand, we will also incorporate health and wellness into AbunDance with a juice bar and a dance boutique.”
Last year, you produced Annie, AbunDantly!, a creative, modern twist on the well-known story of the little orphan…where she grows up to be the first African-American female president. This year, you’re presenting Sister Act, AbunDantly! How have you transformed the story to better connect the performers and the community to the material?
“When I create the modern twist on the classics, the goal is to bring back all that we love about the movie/show/play but add more elements that are my AbunDance spin on it. When I would watch Annie as a kid, I always had questions like, ‘What happens to Annie after Daddy Warbucks adopted her?’ So in our version, Annie grows up and becomes the first African-American female president of the United States! I like to make a lot of social and creative statements in the work. This year, in Sister Act, AbunDantly!, we are touching upon budget cuts and priorities in our communities. For example, would we rather put money into high rises and investments that don’t necessarily give back to our community, or should we invest in the arts? A lot of times, I’ll get new parents who think of the arts as purely recreational. But I think of the arts a supplemental tutor, teacher, guidance and level of support for all students. So, in Sister Act, AbunDantly!, we’re questioning where society’s values are placed.
We’re also experiencing ‘art imitates life’ on a whole new level. In the series of Sister Act 1 and 2, Deloris was fighting to keep the community from going downhill. And in my life, I feel like I am playing Deloris — I am having to make sure that my school and my community in Brooklyn move forward with quality programming, teachers and growing the leaders of tomorrow. So we are living Sister Act right now, and that adds an extra spin on the whole process.”
For more about AbunDance Academy of the Arts, visit www.abundancearts.org.
By Mary Callahan of Dance Informa.