"All I want to do is dance." Long before Ke'Ron "Rainbow" Pugh committed that statement to paper, it was written on his heart.
He was smitten by ballet as a second-grader after attending a field trip to see a performance of "The Nutcracker." Now, the 16-year-old is preparing to audition in Chicago to gain entrance to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA), a performing arts school in New York and Los Angeles. There’s the expected flurry of activity, including physical conditioning, costume and music selections, professional photos and of course, perfecting the dance. Then there’s the added layer of anxiety -- Rainbow is homeless.
The staff at Ann Arbor Public School’s Skyline High School and the Education Project for Homeless Youth (EPHY) at Washtenaw Intermediate School District/Ozone House, rallied around Rainbow -- a nickname given to him because of his penchant for Skittles®.
Heather Jackson, the McKinney-Vento Ally at Skyline, began reaching out to colleagues to give legs to Rainbow’s dream. The McKinney-Vento Education of Homeless Children and Youth Assistance Act is a federal law that ensures immediate enrollment and educational stability for homeless children and youth. According to the act, homelessness is defined as living in situations where housing is unstable, temporary, and/or inadequate. This often includes families who seek shelter with family members, due to lack of financial resources.
Audition fees and costume purchases were covered by EPHY and Jackson is investigating scholarships on his behalf. She is also one of his biggest cheerleaders and is coaching him through the process.
“Rainbow is remarkable,” Jackson said. “He sees that he has people in his life that are consistent, that care about him, and we’re not asking for anything in return. We just want to see him do his personal best.”
Sarah Hierman, Grants Manager for Washtenaw ISD, said EPHY and allies, like Jackson, work in tandem to identify barriers to a student’s ability to participate fully in their education.
“Heather brought Rainbow to our attention and requested assistance with purchasing ballet attire for him. It isn’t often that we receive a request to support a homeless student in pursuit of postsecondary education, and I was delighted to be able to help with his audition,” Hierman said.
Rainbow, his two younger brothers and mother are currently living with an aunt in a small apartment. While he understands why his family cannot provide the financial and other support required to pursue his dream, reaching beyond life circumstances to chase a goal has had emotional ramifications. Yet, as his nickname implies, the rain has subsided, and beauty is left in its wake.
“Ballet is such a beautiful art that has inspired me to dance, to entertain and in turn to serve as inspiration to others,” Rainbow said.
Even as he admires the art of dance, he recognizes stark realities. It takes incredible hard work and focus to withstand the competitive nature and racial barriers that exist in ballet.
“The dance community is harsh,” Rainbow admits. “Skin color and complexion is a huge challenge.”
It could explain the role models Rainbow cites. He admires Sergei Polunin, a former principal dancer with the British Royal Ballet, whom Rainbow describes as a “rebel,” and singer Sia, who he looks to as a “real artist who wants to be known solely for her music, not her physical features.”
Walking to the conditioning room at the high school, he picks up the kettlebell, his lean form responding to the rhythm as his arms keep the weight in motion. Under the watchful eye of Coach Brandon Bedinger, Rainbow is expanding his comfort zone to build up strength, stamina and flexibility to prepare his body to respond to the music.
“Dance is a sport,” Rainbow said adamantly. “It's a very serious sport like football and soccer. If a dancer is injured, they push through; they continue to perform.”
In the weeks leading up to the audition, Rainbow knows he has to put distractions aside and press on, even when he wants to give up.
“Sometimes I’m lazy, but Miss Heather keeps pushing, pushing, pushing me,” Rainbow says with a smile. “She has made me more persistent. I can’t expect to get what I want if I don’t strive for it.”