Courtesy Matt Karas

Since 2013, Forward Momentum Chicago has been engaging local students in the art of dance by meeting them where they are—in their schools.  

The South Loop–based organization is led by founder and executive director Pierre Lockett, a professional dancer who performed with the Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Joffrey Ballet, where he also served as director of outreach. He was inspired to start Forward Momentum after observing the positive impact of dance classes on his young niece. 

Lockett envisioned Forward Momentum as a dance education program that could bring resources and training directly to students who might not have the means to afford or travel to regular dance classes. “I thought ‘How about if I take the work that I’m doing at the Joffrey, make it a little bit more intense, and expand beyond bringing the children to us?” Lockett says. “I recognized that there is a need for programming in the schools and for that programming to be affordable.”

Today, Forward Momentum provides dance training to 45 schools and 5,000 students across the city, mostly within the Chicago Public School district. Many of the youth served by Forward Momentum are introduced to dance instruction through their programs. “For a lot of students, this is their first opportunity to do something creative that is natural for them,” Lockett says.

Their most common classes include hip-hop, African dance, Latin dance, ballet, and creative movement, though they’re able to tailor their programming to meet the objectives of school stakeholders. For example, they might use dance to teach students about diverse cultures or to help them improve fine motor skills. In addition to in-school classes, Forward Momentum runs year-long programming in partnership with After School Matters, a local nonprofit that allows students to explore their passions through after-school and summer learning opportunities. They also host free Saturday dance classes for students who wish to expand upon their dance training.

Pierre Lockett

While their programs are centered around dance, Lockett says the ultimate goal of Forward Momentum is for students to take away important life lessons and skills from the art form. “It’s not necessarily about making them dancers for me. I think it’s more important for them to learn the skills that are associated with being a dancer,” Lockett says. “It’s a confidence builder. It helps develop personality. It helps develop character.”

In 2019, Forward Momentum joined a cohort of dance organizations involved with the Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project (CBDLP), a program dedicated to addressing inequities within the city’s dance landscape by providing local Black-led dance organizations with funding, advocacy, organizational growth strategies, and shared performance and marketing opportunities.

As of today, Forward Momentum is the only organization in the cohort focused solely on community engagement and dance education. Since joining, Lockett says that his students have been able to participate in joint performances with the companies within the cohort, allowing them to connect with some of the most influential dance figures in the city. 

“For [the students] to be able to see the other professional dancers and interact with them, and see other possible opportunities to expand their training, that’s really more important to us,” Lockett says. “The more they see and the more they’re exposed, it makes them feel that what they’re doing can lead to something else.”

For some Forward Momentum students, that exposure has led them to pursue careers in dance education. Program manager Bradlee Lathon is one of several Forward Momentum former students that went on to work for the organization as teachers or in other staff roles. Since Forward Momentum joined the CBDLP, Lathon has also been able to learn directly from some of the city’s most influential dance leaders.

“As a young dancer, I was seeing Joel Hall [of Joel Hall Dancers & Center] and Homer Bryant [of Chicago Multicultural Dance Center] and Nicole Clarke-Springer [of Deeply Rooted Dance Theater], and now I get the opportunity to sit in rooms and listen to their successes and their failures and how they are trying to make the legacy of Black dance sustainable in the city,” Lathon says. “Myself and my peers that are coming up [in the local dance community] know that we have a lot of work to do, but we also have that support.”

Reflecting on how Forward Momentum has fostered the next generation of Chicago dance leaders, Lockett says, “We’re seeing this full-circle moment. We’re seeing that what we’re inspiring them to do, they’re actually doing—which is becoming awesome human beings.” 

Forward Momentum has exciting plans this summer. In addition to their Saturday class showcase on June 3 and its annual fundraiser on June 8, they’ll host the Epstein Family Foundation Summer Dance camp, starting June 26th, with locations in Englewood and Avondale. 

As Forward Momentum nears the tenth anniversary of its founding, Lockett says he remains in awe of the thousands of students who continue to commit themselves to learning the art—and joy—of dance. 

“This program is designed to push you beyond what you’re thinking you’re capable of doing, and nine times out of ten, the students rise to the occasion,” he says. “I am just constantly amazed at their desire to finish what they started and to get better and do better.”

The Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project is a program of the Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago. Their current cohort of local dance companies includes Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center & Hiplet Ballerinas, Deeply Rooted Dance Theater, the Era Footwork Collective, Forward Momentum Chicago, Joel Hall Dancers & Center, M.A.D.D. Rhythms, Move Me Soul, Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago, NAJWA Dance Corps, and Praize Productions Inc. For more about CBDLP, visit chicagoblackdancelegacy.org, and chicagoreader.com/special/logan-center-for-the-arts-at-the-university-of-chicago.

To learn more about Forward Momentum’s programs and upcoming summer camp, visit forwardmomentumchicago.org.