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The Buffalo Inner-City Ballet has the distinction of being the only dance school and dance company in Buffalo founded and run by African-Americans.

It was established in 1972 by Karl Singletary as an alternative to gang activities for inner-city youth. In 1989, the program expanded, and the Buffalo City Ballet performing company was born, becoming a diverse group that offers anyone the chance to dance. Today, it continues to grow and its studio on the third floor of the old Trico Building on Main Street is like a second home to a wide spectrum of people.

Every dancer has a story about starting out. Melanie Donnelly, 16, of Buffalo has only been dancing for five years. Her interest was sparked when her mother was writing an article about the Buffalo City Ballet's 1996 production of "Giselle." After seeing the show, Melanie was sure this was something she wanted to do. Before she knew it, her mother had talked to Marvin Askew, executive director of the ballet, and Melanie was attending classes on scholarship. She has been in practically every one of the company's performances since then.

Ashley Owens' experience was different. The Buffalo teen got interested in ballet after seeing a Buffalo City Ballet demonstration in Delaware Park. Still others have been dancing for so long they can hardly remember how or why they started.

Askew has vivid memories of his ballet beginnings. He was the typical city boy who thought dancing was stupid and boring. He got interested in basketball and wanted to do something to improve his flexibility and become a better player. He began to take dance classes at Clinton Junior High School, which is now the Buffalo Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts. His first motivation for attending class regularly was to spend more time with girls, he said. But after being amazed by performances of the Joffrey Ballet and the Dance Theater of Harlem, his interest in dance increased. In fact, the more he saw and understood about dance, the more he began to like it.

His journey took him to New York City where, after observing men's classes at the School of American Ballet and American Ballet Theater, he found himself doubling up on classes to pursue an unexpected dream of becoming a professional dancer.

It is not uncommon for people who start dance at an early age to stop when they enter high school. The Buffalo Inner-City Ballet serves everyone from tiny tots to adults. When giving reasons for sticking with it, the older students say dance is almost like an addiction. The thrill of performing also keeps students coming back class after class, rehearsal after rehearsal.

There are many dance studios in the area, but dancers have definite reasons for choosing the Buffalo Inner-City Ballet. Shawna Sneath, 15, who has been coming to the dance school for nine years, makes the 30-minute trip from Clarence into the city almost daily. The number one reason is the cost. Thanks to local and state grants, chances are slim there is another place where someone could get classical dance training for an easily affordable amount. The second, and perhaps more important reason is the atmosphere. There is no pressure. Dancers are there because they want to be, which makes every rehearsal or class something to look forward to. Askew runs the dance company with the idea that anyone who wants to can and will dance, but only hard work will get someone to the top.

Adult dancers of the Buffalo City Ballet will present "Zone Unknown" for Black History Month at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at Rockwell Hall, Buffalo State College, 1300 Elmwood Ave. Tickets are $10 and $12. Swan Lake, including younger dancers, will be performed May 11-13. For more information on performances or classes, call 833-1243.

Elizabeth A. Gruber is a junior at Mount St. Mary Academy.

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