At just twenty-one years old, Ayisha Morgan-Lee became founder, CEO, and artistic director of Hill Dance Academy Theatre (HDAT). Fifteen years later, HDAT has touched thousands of students through technical dance training and repertory, liturgical movement, composition, summer intensives, and teacher training. HDAT’s mission is to develop and train dancers in Black dance traditions, expand knowledge and contributions of Black dance traditions, and create emerging dance artists who will sustain dance in the Black community.
Ayisha Morgan-Lee, Ph.D., leads HDAT while serving on the board of The International Association of Blacks in Dance (IABD), teaching at The Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School, and has recently earned her doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh Out of School Learning Program. While her decorated career has spanned the globe she remains a steadfast community leader in Pittsburgh and the Hill District, where she resides.
Ayisha Morgan-Lee leads a HDAT dance performance at Gateway Medical Center Wellness Fair. Photo by E.A. Smith.
Hill Dance Academy Theatre has been activating young minds, bodies and spirits for about 10 years. Founder and Director Ayisha Morgan-Lee started in 2005, founding the organization with a couple of goals in mind – one is to give dancers and students a chance to dance who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it. Here, she shares what drives her, HDAT, and the dream to send her students to Los Angeles. Shares Morgan-Lee:
Celebrating the Black Dance tradition - for me, it’s celebrating as people of African descent to celebrate our legacy through movement. There are a number of Black dance companies that are happening around the country and within those companies they have schools and are training dancers – HDAT is part of keeping that tradition alive.
About 10 years ago, my mom [Dr. Veronica Morgan-Lee] told me to get a job, so I went throughout the Hill District and found people who wanted to dance and started teaching, calling it Dance on the Hill. When I was done with Howard University in 2005, we started HDAT out of Grace Memorial Church with about eight students and myself, and throughout the 10 years, we’ve really grown, really faster than I expected.
We have students who have been with us since they were young and we can now see their growth and how the arts have helped these young people. A part of HDAT is that we want students who are hungry about dance to find out what it’s like to be a professional dancer - that this can be their reality, too.
We use dance as a core element and teach other core aspects that support dance – costume design, physical education, music, theater, and nutrition - so that students, before they get on the stage, have a full appreciation of all that dance encompasses – these students can become a costume designer, a stage director, a lighting person because they have had this knowledge of dance.
I’ve been dancing since I was three years old. I started out in a school in South Hills, and most of the places I went to, I was the only Black girl. I went to Civic Light Opera academy, and there I took jazz, ballet, and tap and met Ms. Leslie Anderson Brasewell, my first Black ballet teacher. Some of my other influences were Buddy Thompson and Tommy Cousins, my jazz teachers. The beautiful thing about these three people is that they are now teaching at HDAT! They encouraged me to pursue my dance career – push me and give me the technique and discipline and they are now teaching HDAT students ballet and jazz.
We just had one young lady receive a partial scholarship to study at Dance Theatre of Harlem and Joffrey Ballet. We have choreographers who are on the national circuit who are now recognizing the gifts and talents in our students and want to come to Pittsburgh to choreograph for our students and companies.
Many opportunities come across our desk, all the time. Part of helping students become professional dancers is accessing these opportunities. Our students generally do not get to see opportunities, for many reasons. I received a notice from Debbie Allen that we could have a master class with Misty Copeland and other artists and I showed it to my mom, then shared it with our very strong parent group, saying we wanted to send the HDAT company to Los Angeles to dance and learn from not only Debbie Debbie Allen but Misty Copeland of American Ballet Theatre – ABT's first Black prima ballerina.
When I told the students we wanted to take them to LA and meet Misty Copeland, they could not believe it – they all have Misty’s book, her picture on their phone – they all want to be her, they want to be the next Misty Copeland. We decided that just like we rally around our Steelers, we want to rally around these dancers and get them to LA! On Saturday, March 5, 8pm – 1am in St. Benedict the Moor’s social hall, we’re hosting a Blue Jeans on Pointe Cabaret and we’re hosting a GoFundMe Campaign online, right now. Sometimes this work becomes a challenge – raising money, giving students as many opportunities as we can. My older ones [students] show me that all of this work is worth it – we are really growing these young women.
And, the 3 and 6 year olds definitely inspire me because they are the next generation coming up – they want to do everything and they are really big on this LA trip, even if they are not going – I know what they are thinking: ‘That could be ME, one day!’