Constituent Spotlight: Iona Calhoun brings beauty through dance to the community
After studying and performing for years in New York City with the world-class Dance Theater of Harlem and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Iona Calhoun decided to head back to her hometown of Chicago and found her own school of dance
Having earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology, Calhoun believed she could offer unique guidance as an instructor and create a dance program different from any other. So she drew on her wide range of training and talents to found the Iona Calhoun School of Ballet at the South Shore Cultural Center.
“I wanted to open a school since I was 17, and I’d been dancing since six,” said Calhoun, who attended the Sammy Dyer School of Dance and is trained in ballet, tap, jazz, tumbling and theater. “I was lucky enough to have gotten a scholarship to dance, but due to some injuries, I wanted something more sustainable. So I pursued psychology. I also wanted to stay in Chicago because I love Chicago. And I wanted to create a place, especially for African Americans to learn ballet. I saw a deficiency of classical ballet programs, and I had an opportunity to start teaching. That’s how it all it got started.”
Combining psychology with dance created a harmonious mix of talent that resulted in a creative and democratic approach to teaching.
“It sets us apart because I’m an African American female in Chicago and have a background in social work and psychology. That background allows for me to be more tolerant and use more creative approaches with the children. I can engage kids in more effective ways. Classical ballet programs have a lot of rules and, at times, can be very exclusive. I wanted to be the opposite of that. I wanted everyone, regardless of body shape and size, to have the same opportunity to appreciate the arts and learn the art of ballet.
During class time, Calhoun talks to her students about “social and emotional principles,” health and cultural enrichment.
“Other dance schools are focused on technique and performance. We focus on those same things, but we’re unique in that we also focus on how the children develop and mature and are prepared to pursue their goals. Too often, the only things you hear about are violence and poverty. I want youth to be able to develop themselves and bring something beautiful to the community.”
The program has had a great impact on the students, not only physically, but socially, mentally and emotionally as well.
“Physically they are learning about fitness and nutrition in addition to the fact that they are engaged and productive and are not sitting at home. They interact socially with peers in a positive way. They’re able to exercise mental fitness with the sequence steps and other dance exercises. It helps brain development, which can translate to academic success. Regardless of whether or not my students become professionals or go on to attend other schools, it doesn’t replace what they learn at my school.
Since opening 15 years ago, the ballet school has flourished and enrollment is growing. Some of her students have gone on to pursue the arts professionally. Like any dance studio, students are always eager to perform before audiences to show off what they’ve learned. Calhoun is currently seeking expanded space and upgraded equipment, in addition to performance opportunities for her students. She’s also looking for collaborations and partnerships throughout the Chicagoland area.
You can find these talented young dancers on the school’s website at http://www.theionacalhounschoolofballet.com.