-By Shon Lomax
Catching up with Monica Alicia Ellison is no easy feat. After a series of emails and a missed phone call or two, ARTA managed to tie her down for a few questions. In between my short breaths and swift note-taking I wondered how she still had so much energy at the end of the day. Personally I was exhausted. Did I mention that I was sitting down?
When she’s not chasing students around a studio or wowing theater goers with sky touching leaps and graceful pauses, her attention is turned to her rambunctious and oh so adorable one year old, Cherokee, who sometimes accompanies her to class. She teaches ballet at Cleveland City Ballet(Cleveland, TN) and modern dance at Chattanooga State Dance (Chattanooga,TN). A certified ZUMBA instructor, Monica just recently started her own company MACE Dance and Fitness which incorporates all forms of dance instruction with an added emphasis on fitness.
Monica Alicia Ellison
Photography by A.B.E.
At what age did you discover your love for dance, the arts?
I twirled a baton competitively from ages 3-7. It was tons of fun. I excelled in the dance portion of the routines. Less so in the twirling acts of throwing the baton up and catching it. I discovered my love of dance in the fourth grade when I started my first dance classes.
Describe your childhood.
It was awesome. I was born and raised in Baltimore, MD. There was never a dull moment because I grew up with a wonderful and fun-loving younger brother named Linwood. Although I always knew my father and have a good relationship with him, my mother is the person responsible for shaping and molding my brother and me into the people we are today. We certainly were not rich, but I never felt poor. My mother made it possible for me to take as many dance classes as possible. My childhood was the perfect balance of fun, dream pursuing, and learning to be disciplined and responsible. I remember playing outdoors and making up my own dances long before I actually started taking lessons.
Who were some of your earlier influences?
My mother has always been an amazing example of strength. That and her love of music has been my greatest influence to date. My Aunt Nise started a company in Baltimore which provided my first real opportunity to dance. Soon after I was under the instruction of Ms. Ava Fields who encouraged me to audition for TWIGS(To Work In Gaining Skills) an afterschool program for 2nd-8th graders held at the Baltimore School for the Arts. It offered free instruction in various art forms including dance. After auditioning and being accepted I began to take ballet classes three times a week. Robin Synder Wiencek was also one of the program instructors who also encouraged me to dance more. I attended her local studio and added formal modern, jazz and tap to my training. Baltimore School for the Arts would become my high school later on, where dance teachers Stephanie Powell, Anton Wilson, and Debra Robinson Deckelbaum strengthened my skills. Obediah Wright, the director of Balance Dance Theater of Brooklyn, NY gave me the finishing touches and the confidence to unleash the artist within. Michael Jackson is my favorite entertainer…of all time.
How has education shaped your creative path?
I was always a good student who loved learning. I really enjoyed English and history classes. My academic love of learning translated to my dancing. As much as I loved practicing my craft, what I found equally as interesting was the history of dance. After high school, I chose to attend Southern Methodist University because it offered me the opportunity to have a full academic course load in addition to my dance studies.
Why did you choose this medium to express your art?
I have a deep appreciation for all arts. I love visual art and all types of music. I even played the flute briefly. But I don’t sing. I chose to dance professionally because I have a deep love for the art and I only want to do work that inspires me. Even if I did not do this for a living I would still dance.
The dance world is very competitive and is known for its ruthless demands. Do you think you will ever return to a company?
I enjoyed my time as a dancer with Dayton Contemporary Dance 2 and with Balance Dance Theater. I had the opportunity to dance some of the best choreography in the world. Those experiences gave me the discipline to teach, choreograph and to continue to perform. Now that I am married and have a child, I find it more fulfilling to work for myself. I am able to balance my professional and family life. When I collaborate with other dancers I have the freedom to do exactly what I want without having to worry if we mesh or not. By calling the shots I am creating the look of the dance and am free to determine the aesthetic.
Tell us about your current project that combines dance and fitness.
I am the owner of a small company, MACE Dance and Fitness. It truly represents my dance philosophy. It says it in the name, Monica Alicia Coates Ellison Dance and Fitness. I love teaching and choreographing. Having no funds and even less time to spare makes it impossible to run a dance studio fulltime. So I decided to become a freelance instructor instead. I am one of the lead ballet instructors and choreographers at Cleveland City Ballet(Cleveland,TN) and I teach modern dance at Chattanooga State Community College. I also instruct many of my students in a private lesson setting. The fitness aspect of my business came about because I realized that I wasn’t getting enough exercise. Although I teach a lot, nothing compares to taking a class for yourself. Being more active than the average adult, if I felt that I needed to move more, then I knew there were other people who felt the same way. Especially those with sedentary jobs. I decided to become a licensed Zumba(combines dance and aerobic moves to hip hop, salsa,merengue, ect.) instructor so that I could offer low-cost classes to people wanting to exercise more and improve the quality of their life. It has been really wonderful.
Your greatest accomplishment?
It’s hard to say. I am so proud of everything I’ve done that it’s difficult to categorize my life’s accomplishments as personal and professional. From becoming a principal dancer with Balance Dance Theater, traveling overseas to South Korea and successfully transitioning from New York to Chattanooga, TN and establishing myself as a teacher,choreographer and performer, it has been a whirlwind of life changes. But I have never stopped dancing. In the first year of my marriage I had my son, Cherokee, and added two more classes to my already full teaching schedule. Recently adding Zumba. I say all of this not to be boastful but to say that whatever it is that you want to do in life just do it. Do not ever stop. Of course there will be times when you may have to do things differently just don’t ever stop. Also, surround yourself with encouraging people. My husband Aaron is not only loving but encourages me creatively. It would be impossible for me to do all of this without his support.
I asked Monica to share a fill in the blank moment with ARTA CHIC readers. People would be surprised to know that my brother briefly danced when we were in elementary school. Although he played sports all through high school, he did a little ballet, modern and jazz dance before that. To this day he still remembers ballet terminology. Whenever I’m home he acts like he doesn’t want to dance and a minute later he’s leaping, spinning and shaking right along with me.