Written by: Toni Thomas
Realization of a Dream
Where DANCE Captures the HEART and Inspires the SOUL!
When asked to put together a story about Phusion, I welcomed the opportunity to sit down with Andrea Nalls, the Artistic Director and co-founder (with husband, John Nalls). After all, Phusion Performing Arts School is taking the Atlanta area by quiet storm. With a little less than eighty students and a Company of young students that rivals the best, Phusion is making more than a footprint within the performing arts community.
Step inside the doors of Phusion and you immediately sense the difference. Take the time to observe a class and you can see the difference. There is more than the typical “follow the leader” type of teaching going on here. Instructors are busy educating students about appropriate technique that should be displayed and students are hungrily engaged; eating up every word, direction, and correction. Outside the classroom there is almost as much activity going on with Phusion parents steadily involved in a variety of volunteer services to support the school. Take another step back in to the community and you can find Phusion performing across the Atlanta area, almost monthly, at events such as Hosea Feed the Hungry, NAACP Image Awards Gala and Celebration of Living Gala, hosted by the Emory’s Winship Cancer Institute.
With all this in mind, my goal was to understand the impetus behind Andrea’s vision and dream of building a performing arts school that served the community. We sat down one late Sunday evening and after posing the question, I merely had to listen as Andrea passionately talked about how it all began. She starts in a soft whisper, barely audible, as she tries to hold back the tears. “Most people don’t know that it was really hard for me to do this.” You see, Andrea’s vision for “Phusion” actually is an extension of the same vision that her beloved mentor/teacher/father-figure/friend, Gary Harrison, had when he was teaching; he has since passed away. Gary’s dream was to reach out and provide the non-traditional dancer (those of different ethnicities, sizes, and shapes) the opportunity to dance. Andrea’s eyes continue to tear as she recounts the story about her own experiences dancing with his company, the Harrison Dance Company. “Gary supported me and encouraged me in those early years before I was able to do anything technically correct. He believed I could do whatever I put my mind to. Gary was willing to pour in to me (and in to all of his students) time, commitment, and all of the knowledge he had acquired throughout his own dance years.” Andrea believes that God, through Gary, got her to where she needed to be as a dancer.
After ten years with the company, Andrea learned that Gary was ill and that he would not recover. She distinctly remembers God putting it in her heart the need to complete what Gary had initiated– reaching out to help those children who are sometimes forgotten, only because they did not fit the prescribed shape or have the “right look” of a dancer. However, at that time, Andrea did not feel she was strong enough to take on such an endeavor. And once her good friend had passed away, Andrea’s will for dance died with him. She withdrew from anything and everything having to do with dance. For ten years she turned her back on the dance world.
Then, about 5 years ago, Andrea decided to take a leap of faith and begin to walk within the steps she believed God had ordered. She and John decided upon the name “Phusion Performing Arts Alliance” because it seemed the most appropriate representation of Andrea’s vision. “Phusion” grew out of the want to fuse students, parents, the community, mentors, and the instructors; “Performing Arts” evoked the need for students to be well-rounded, embracing all of the performing arts; and “Alliance” strongly suggested the building of safe and secure bonds between the school and its students.
With the name in place, Andrea opened the doors of Phusion Performing Arts Alliance with three students. Within several months she gained a fourth student, and the small school began to take shape. Unlike other performing arts centers where students were allowed to take whatever classes they deemed were fun, Phusion was (and still is) interested in technically training students. In addition, Andrea wanted to build a school where the foundation of the dance program was built upon a strong understanding of ballet; each student is required to take at least one ballet course (more if they want to venture on to pointe). And guess what? They are still having fun, because for the first time the students are learning how to fully express the inner gift that God has planted within them; they are given the chance to succeed with proper guidance and support. Before long, word got out about the tremendous opportunity for those students who might not necessarily get in to the more traditional ballet schools. And boy did they come – from DeKalb, Gwinnett, Fulton and Clayton Counties.
Still, Andrea feared stepping out to fully embrace the dream/vision that had been passed down to her. For four years she continued to stay under the radar, knowing that if people really saw what this then-tiny school could do, more would be expected of her. Was she really ready for this? Could she step in to Gary’s shoes? Maybe not, but then she did not have to; Andrea simply needed to walk her own path. So, as Phusion grew, and her support network grew, she finally decided to “let go and let God” do with her (and Phusion), all He was trying to do. After all, she felt strongly that God’s hand was in this endeavor. “What I have come to learn is that there is no more fear; it is just a matter of execution now, and staying the course”.
And what would she tell the parents about their children who attend the school? Simply stated, “Let the kids dance from the heart.”