By Lisa Petrillo

MIAMI (CBSMiami) – A class of young aspiring ballerinas is under the watchful eye of Ruth Wiesen, the executive director of Armour Dance Theater in South Miami.

She watches them practice their graceful moves. Whether physically in class, at home virtually, or across the county in the satellite programs, all the dancers are under the watch of Wiesen.

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“The mission of Armour Dance is to use dance to give children across our entire community more opportunity and to open avenues of choice that were not previously open to them before,” Wiesen explained.

In the 1980s, Wiesen was a teacher at what is Miami’s oldest youth dance school, Thomas Armour Youth Ballet.

Wiesen, along with a group of dancers, presented a lecture to students in Carol City and had an eye-opening interaction.

“At the end, a little girl came up and said, ‘I just love ballet!’ she just gushed. And I asked her ‘Do you take classes?’ and she laughed and said. ‘No, only white girls are allowed’,” she recalled.

At about the same time, the New World School of the Arts High School opened.

“The kids in the magnet programs who have enough money to get classes after school were the ones who were competitive, so it was a very uneven playing field,” she said.

Wiesen seized the chance to make a difference. She approached her boss – world-renowned dancer Thomas Armour – and told him there was room to bring kids from all over with a scholarship.

“He later told me that he said ‘okay’ because he thought I would fail and he wanted me out of his office,” Wiesen laughed, adding he later became a big proponent of the program.

The scholarship program she devised is succeeding through outreach to underserved neighborhoods.

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“Our four sites are Morningside, Miami Gardens, Frances Tucker, R.R. Moten elementary schools. And this summer, we will be at Pine Villa Elementary doing summer camp,” said Wiesen.

The after-school program, funded through the Children’s Trust and other endowments, provides instruction beyond the ballet.

“We also give them reading with a literacy specialist, we give them math for an hour with the math teacher, we give them snacks and art classes, it’s a great program. For the sixth graders, we make sure that they’re ready to audition for those magnet programs,” said Wiesen.

There are success stories of scholars in many fields who went on to college, including dance, like Christopher Rudd.

Rudd met Wiesen as a fourth-grader in Perrine. He entered the program and at age 11 became the first Black child to dance the title role in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker.

Rudd has since performed all over the world and opened his own dance company in New York, RudduR Dance.

He can’t say enough about the opportunity he was provided and about Wiesen’s impact on his life.

“Ruth didn’t just become my teacher, she became my second mother and my biggest champion,” he said, adding that “the discipline that they instill in us is used through all walks of life.”

Wiesen is busier than ever, keeping the program funded and running, and teaching classes. But she never loses sight of the mission.

“Any child that goes to The Nutcracker should be able to look upon the stage and see somebody that looks like them, from the smallest part to the principal roles.”

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Lisa Petrillo