Former reality TV star choreographs her next moves

May 29, 2019 | GET MORE : Community

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With support from U.S. Bank, St. Louis nonprofit COCA is helping aspiring artists pursue their passions.

Six-year-old Nicaya Wiley followed the beat of the music.

During a swimming lesson at her local YMCA, Nicaya became intrigued by music she heard coming from an adjacent room. When she got out of the pool, her ears guided her to a class in the dance studio. She was mesmerized.

“When my mother found me there, she realized that this was my true passion, so she enrolled me in dance classes right away,” remembers Nicaya, who is now 18 years old.

Nicaya started classes, got involved in competitions, and ended up in a Lifetime TV reality show called Dance Moms. At 11 years old she was traveling a lot, alongside her mom, and relied on tutors to continue her education. So after a few seasons, she decided to stay in St. Louis. But to continue pursuing her passion, she joined the dance program at Center of Creative Arts (COCA) – which, today, she considers her second home.

Founded more than 30 years ago, COCA is the fourth-largest multidisciplinary community arts center in the country, serving more than 50,000 people annually. It provides more than 1,300 on-site programs in its own studios, art galleries and theatres; as well as in schools, community centers and corporate settings around the St. Louis region. COCA provides scholarships and classes, summer camps, and life skills to local youth.

In 2018, COCA announced a $40 million fundraising effort for the renovation and expansion of COCA’s historic 44,000 square foot facility, formerly a synagogue built in the 1950s. The funds will help COCA meet community needs and serve its growing student base, while sustaining its long-term commitment to ensuring access.

U.S. Bank Community Development Entity, a division of U.S. Bank, is investing almost $5 million in new markets tax credits toward the effort, helping to create new classrooms, dance studios, graphic and arts design shops, community spaces and a state-of-the-art theater with 450 seats.

The investment is part of U.S. Bank’s broader commitment to supporting the arts as part of its Community Possible social responsibility platform. Last year, for example, the company funded new recording studios (below) at Elementz, a hip-hop focused nonprofit serving youth in Cincinnati. And the previous year, it provided #TourPossible competition winner and Milwaukee hip-hop artist Genesis Renji with funds to grow his label and prepare for an upcoming album.

Since becoming a student at COCA, Nicaya has been able to polish her dance skills with the help of Antonio and Kirven Douthit-Boyd, two African American men who met and danced together at the renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York. After retiring from the theater, the couple became COCA’s artistic directors in 2015 (Antonio, a St. Louis native, is a former COCA student). In their roles at the nonprofit, Kirven says they have found a place where they can teach dance while serving as role models for people of color.

“Having a diverse representation is important and since we are people of color we make it easier for diverse students to connect with us,” explains Kirven. “With this connection we can help our students understand their joy and passion for dance and how to reach their full potential.”

Since COCA is woven with a rich fabric of creative people of varied ethnicities, these talented performers bring their own cultural identity to their artistic environment. 

“Being African American has a big influence in the way I dance, it is a part of me that I naturally bring into my performance,” explains Nicaya. “And here we don’t just dance, we also learn about African rhythms, and rhythms from other cultures, and this helps us all connect with one another on a different level.”

It has been six years since Nicaya joined COCA, where she spends more than 20 hours each week dancing for two COCA dance companies, COCA Dance and Hip-Hop Crew. It has not been easy to balance dance, homework and family life, but her dedication has paid off. Starting this fall, Nicaya will be attending the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, a top performing arts college.

“I want to build a career where I am able to dance for a famous artist or be part of a well-known dance troupe; and when I retire I want to start a dance organization where people like me can find a place that keeps them occupied and helps them cope with their problems,” says Nicaya. “Dance has been my vessel, my scape, my message, my essay, my speech. I cannot live without it.”

Written by Marcherie Vázquez of U.S. Bancorp Community Development Corporation.