A quest for their dream Dance: Willia Noel Montague is pursuing her passion -- and that of her mother and grandmother -- as she continues her studies in New York.

April 03, 1997|By James Bock | James Bock,SUN STAFF

In a little dance studio tucked amid the U.S. 40 clutter, a young woman in a black leotard vaults high into the air, head erect, torso straight, arms and legs extended, and lights up the room.

Dancer Willia Noel Montague has studied at the Baltimore School for the Arts, won a national youth competition, declined offers from two professional companies, accepted a fellowship from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center in New York and performed a solo on network television.

She is only 19.

But here Montague finds herself in a nondescript office building next to a pancake house, demonstrating modern dance moves for a dozen girls in purple leotards.

The venue is Flair Studio, a Catonsville dance, charm and modeling school. And for this promising dancer, it is a homecoming.

In the vestibule are the two women who raised Willia Noel. Peeking in the studio door is Willia Bland, the dancer's grandmother, who founded Flair Studio nearly three decades ago. Sitting at a desk taking clients' calls is Andrea Travis, Willia Noel's mother.

For all she has accomplished, Willia Noel Montague is just beginning her quest to be a dancer. It is a quest that spans three generations of women in her family.

"She is the dancer my mother wanted to be," Travis said. "She is the prima ballerina."

Willia Bland founded Flair Studio in 1968. The first classes were held in the Harlem Avenue dining room of her late partner, Lucille Banton. Flair later had studios at Mondawmin Mall. Five years ago, it moved to Catonsville.

"After the riots of 1968, many people were soul-searching to determine what they could do to help our community," said Bland, who was then an official with the U.S. Public Health Service. "I decided to start a place I couldn't find when I went looking for it."

Bland, who grew up on Stricker Street in West Baltimore and graduated from Douglass High School, taught modeling, dress and diction. She eventually added dance classes, taught by her daughter Andrea and others. Today, the studio serves a clientele that ranges in age from 2 to 76.

Willia Noel Montague gave her first Flair dance recital at 3 or 4. As a fifth-grader, she entered the School for the Arts' T.W.I.G.S. (To Work in Gaining Skills) program. She later enrolled as a dance major at the school.

But it was not until summer 1995, after winning a Dance Theatre of Harlem scholarship, that Montague decided "maybe I could do this for real."

"I had always done it because it was here," said Montague, who TC has a compact, athletic 5-foot-3 frame and exudes calm. "But now I have a passion for it and don't want to do anything else. I dance from about 9 to 6 every day, and even though it's hard and puts a lot of stress on my body, I couldn't see it any other way."

Montague "has a fabulous jump, she's beautiful in the air," said Norma Pera, dance department head at the School for the Arts. "She's extremely versatile. Her movement has depth; it's not high schoolish, not young."

"If she didn't have that ability, she could have started from the cradle and it wouldn't have made any difference. She has the physical attributes, plus drive, plus talent. The determination is perhaps most important," Pera said.

Pera said family support has been vital to Montague's success.

"Her grandmother Willia is the quintessential mother hen, and we love her. She was never intrusive in a typical stage-mother way. She is [a] kind, generous, giving woman who worked very hard with Willia -- and Willia is an easy child to work for," Pera said.

Montague's Baltimore teachers were proud when she was accepted last summer into the highly competitive Ailey fellowship program. (She must audition every semester to retain the fellowship.) They were more proud when she danced a solo with the rhythm-and-blues group Blackstreet on February's NAACP Image Awards show, televised on Fox. She won the gold medal for dance last summer in the NAACP ACT-SO program, a national competition.

When she started at Ailey last fall, Montague said, "I had to work so hard to get the teachers to pay attention to me and even to learn my name. It was very competitive at first. Now I realize the only person I compete with is myself. It's not about who can jump higher than me or do more pirouettes than I can."

She studies the Ailey company dancers, their bodies, movements and artistry. She aspires to join Ailey's 10-member Repertory Ensemble, an apprentice-level group that tours.

Montague said she is learning "the difference between going through the movements and actually dancing from the soul, having this spirit and aura around you. That's what they're trying to get out of me. It's there, but it's tough."

She focuses squarely on dance. She leaves the Bronx apartment she shares with two other students at 7: 30 a.m. and sometimes doesn't get home on the subway until 10 p.m. She has no boyfriend. She sees little of New York.

"You just trust everything will work out," her mother said.

Willia Bland, who in a different era never had a chance to dance, enjoys watching her granddaughter follow her -- their -- dream. Bland says a preacher taught her as a little girl that a turtle "goes nowhere unless and until he's willing to stick his neck out."

She is also aware that few dancers can earn a comfortable living. The odds against success are high.

"So many people embark on an arts career, and it's just difficult," Bland said. "As a dancer [Willia Noel] has a home here at Flair. I think that is very important."

Pub Date: 4/03/97

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