What happens when a founder dies just before opening his dance school? At the late Kabby Mitchell III’s Tacoma Urban Performing Arts Center, a new leader was born in Klair Ethridge, who has grown the school threefold since its opening in 2017 and demonstrated what a mission-driven dance organization looks like today.
When legendary Black ballet dancer Kabby Mitchell III died unexpectedly in 2017, two months before opening his Tacoma Urban Performing Arts Center, his friend and business partner Klair Ethridge wasn’t sure she had what it took to carry his legacy. Ethridge had been working with Mitchell to co-found TUPAC and planned to serve as its executive director, but she had never envisioned being the face of the school.
Now, Ethridge is heading into her fourth year of leading TUPAC, which she has grown from a fledgling program in an unheated building to a serious ballet school in its own sprung-floor studios, reaching hundreds of students across the Tacoma, Washington, area. The nonprofit has become a case study for what it looks like to carry out the vision of a founder who never had the chance to see his school open—and to take an unapologetically mission-driven approach, even when that means temporary financial precarity.
For Mitchell, who in 1979 became the first Black company member of Pacific Northwest Ballet, TUPAC was the culmination of a longtime dream: a professional-level ballet school for Black students, where no one would be excluded or overlooked. Ethridge, who first connected with Mitchell in San Francisco while on tour with The Wiz, and then 20 years later in Tacoma, had studied at American Ballet Theatre as a child. As the only Black student at ABT at the time, she felt overlooked, alienated and inadequate. She went on to dance professionally—performing in The Wiz, at The Golden Globes and in commercials—but found real career success in film and television production, ultimately winning an Emmy Award. “We were very fortunate, and we had these opportunities,” Ethridge says of Mitchell and herself. “We wanted to give these opportunities to people in this community.”
When Mitchell passed, the future of TUPAC hung in the balance. But with his memorial came an outpouring of support, encouragement and donations. Dozens of students had already enrolled in the school, and TUPAC’s board of directors believed wholeheartedly in Ethridge. There had never been a ballet school for Black students in the Pacific Northwest, and the Tacoma community had already rallied behind TUPAC. So Ethridge retired from her production work and focused all of her energy on opening the school.
Building TUPAC’s Foundation
To bring TUPAC to life as planned, Ethridge had to step up to the plate quickly. And she did: TUPAC held its first class on July 10, 2017—just over two months after Mitchell’s death. Ethridge built on her and Mitchell’s professional network to pull together an esteemed faculty with professional dancers and instructors from diverse backgrounds. Julie Tobiason, a former principal dancer with PNB, became TUPAC’s founding ballet director in Mitchell’s stead.
But by December 2017, TUPAC’s students were wearing coats and hats to the barre. The space Mitchell and Ethridge had secured that summer had enabled TUPAC to launch on a thin budget, but it didn’t have heating.
With the financial backing of the school’s first donors and grants, Ethridge focused on finding and renovating a new space for the growing program. In 2018, TUPAC reopened in a spacious studio in downtown Tacoma, complete with sprung floors, marley and mirrors—and nearly twice as many students. TUPAC now employs a faculty of 16 teaching artists and 5 accompanists, and has tripled enrollment from 83 students in 2017 to nearly 250 today.
Striving Towards Sustainability
Though Ethridge is single-minded in her focus on providing opportunities to Black students, she realizes the connection between an organization’s capacity to give back and its financial sustainability. But as much as TUPAC’s enrollment and programming have grown over the past three years, achieving sound financial footing is still a goal—one that COVID has made more difficult to achieve.
With tuition making up only about 12 percent of its annual revenue, TUPAC relies on donations, grants and fundraisers, including a yearly dance concert, frequent master classes with guest faculty, plus their original—and consistently sold-out—Urban Nutcracker. This September, opera singer J’Nai Bridges performed a benefit concert on YouTube and Facebook Live in support of TUPAC.
But TUPAC’s two largest fundraisers have been canceled this year due to COVID restrictions, and the Urban Nutcracker will likely be canceled too. An emergency check from The Bamford Foundation helped to weather the first few months, but Ethridge isn’t sure what the fall will look like financially.
But just as TUPAC’s lean budget has posed problems for the organization (Ethridge has funneled her own savings into TUPAC at times, and has never taken a salary), it has also taught Ethridge to be resourceful. This spring, in addition to holding online classes, TUPAC held its African classes outside, with an instructor, a live drummer and students dancing—literally—on a rooftop.
Creating a Mission-Driven Model
Though racial justice is currently a national focus, it was always at the heart of Mitchell’s vision for TUPAC, guiding each of Ethridge’s policy and business decisions. “We don’t wear pink tights and shoes, we wear flesh-colored tights and shoes,” says Ethridge. “When our children see other children who look like them and teachers who look like them, it really forces them to elevate. We wanted them to have that feeling of self-esteem and being accepted in a formalized ballet school.”
TUPAC doesn’t turn anyone away—most of their students are on financial assistance or full scholarship. If students can’t afford leotards, tights or shoes, TUPAC provides them. Ethridge ensures there are healthy snacks and meals available at the studio for students who need them, and quiet places to study in between classes. And though TUPAC’s focus is ballet, African dance classes are included in the curriculum “to keep our students in both worlds,” says Ethridge.
TUPAC also partners with the City of Tacoma Office of Arts & Cultural Vitality for outreach work in the city’s public schools, and in 2019 was recognized by the city with the AMOCAT Arts Award for positively impacting the community.
The Show Goes On
This moment—as #BlackLivesMatter and national upheaval calls us to pay closer attention to how dance organizations are serving their communities, and Black dancers in particular—has potential to be one of new growth and recognition for TUPAC.
This summer, TUPAC partnered with Tacoma Arts Museum to present a release of an expansion on last year’s production of Harriet: The Black Swan, an original full-length ballet based on Harriet Tubman’s life and accomplishments—Harriet: The Black Swan, In the Year of COVID-19. The new work will be projected onto the façade of TAM on September 22. Ethridge staged, filmed and produced the ballet, with a combination of in-studio and online rehearsals.
This fall, classes will resume at TUPAC—in the studio when they can, online when they can’t, and on rooftops if they have to.
A dream that began in Kabby Mitchell’s heart has taken hold in Tacoma—and Klair Ethridge carries the business with dedication and purpose. “It is a huge burden to have young people believe in what you are trying to do for them,” she says. “We wanted them to have a place where they could be comfortable, where they could be successful, in their own eyes. That’s our reason for being open. If we are teaching them correctly, even just being good human beings, then they’re going to pass that on.”
Emily Gordillo is a Tacoma-based writer and a former professional ballet dancer from Texas.