At the Art of Ballet School of Dance in Richmond, students of all ages and backgrounds develop into dancers through professional training. Its founder, Sylvia Townsend, has taught hundreds of children in the Bay Area for over 38 years and has given them opportunities to perform throughout California, including Disneyland in Anaheim and Great America amusement park in Santa Clara.
The oldest of nine children, Sylvia Townsend grew up in the Seaport neighborhood in Richmond and spent her childhood practicing the dance routines of some of her favorite ballet dancers. At the age of 7, Townsend began to search for all of the ballet books she could find on the Bookmobile, a library-like bus that made visits in the neighborhood so that children could check out books. Townsend taught herself ballet, even going so far as to creating a barre from two chairs and a broomstick. When she was 10 years old, Townsend’s father found a pair of pointe shoes in a thrift shop and presented them to his daughter as a gift.
As a young woman growing up in 1950s, Townsend faced serious racial boundaries when she tried to attend ballet schools in the Bay Area, because most dance schools at the time accepted very few black students, if any. “My parents and teachers would take me around to local ballet schools where they told me to enter through the back door,” said Townsend. “I learned from an early age that if I wanted to pursue my dreams, I would have to work for it.”
As a teenager, Townsend began organizing dancing classes for children in the neighborhood. The students would put on performances at local venues and their parents would help by designing costumes for the children. At age 17, Townsend met the Russian ballerina Alexandria Sawicka, who saw Townsend’s willingness to learn and was impressed by her self-taught choreography.
Soon after, Sawicka gave Townsend a scholarship to train with the Sawicka School of Ballet in Berkeley. “It was there that I was able to develop my artistic and technical ability under a professional instructor,” said Townsend. “This was a big deal for me because during that time, many dance instructors wouldn’t train black ballet dancers, let alone give them a scholarship.”
In 1961, Townsend decided to take a hiatus from dancing, but she later received training in jazz and Afro-Haitian dance at Contra Costa College under Debra Vaughn, the artistic director of Dimensions Dance Theater.
Townsend founded the Art of Ballet School of Dance in Richmond in 1974 and in 1985, founded the Art of Ballet Dance Company. In addition to working with local students she taught her three children—Shannon, Roquisha, and Chantler—classical ballet technique and dance versatility. Townsend accepted students of all races and ages, offering affordable rates for tuition to the school.
“My mother worked hard to promote the dance school in the Bay Area, but it was hard to get exposure as a multiracial dance ballet school” said her daughter Shannon Townsend. “My mother felt that it was important for us as to children to see that she never compromised in her objectives and never agreed to be part of a quota system that racially limits students.”
Between 1981 and 1986, Art of Ballet was housed at the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts (EBCPA) in Richmond. During that time, Townsend worked as both an artistic director for the Art of Ballet and resident dance instructor for the EBCPA. She also was one of the first dance instructors in the Bay Area to spearhead the work of teaching in the public schools through EBCPA’s after-School programs. So far, Art of Ballet has taught dance at Belding and Peres Elementary in Richmond, El Portal Elementary in San Pablo, and Marin Elementary in Berkeley.
Art of Ballet’s alumni include Sylvia Townsend’s son, Chantler Townsend, formerly of the Dance Theatre of Harlem in New York and now a lead singer in the soul/funk music group New Music Race. Some of Sylvia Townsend’s students have also trained with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center in New York as well as the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Los Angeles.
Currently, the Art of Ballet School of Dance is located at 258 Marina Way in Richmond and offers a six-week summer intensive program for students ranging from 4 to 18 years old in classical ballet, tap, jazz and ethnic dance techniques. At 69, Townsend teaches Senior Tap at the Richmond Senior Center and says that she will continue teach students as long as she can.
“Dancing is my passion and is something that I’ve devoted my life to teaching others,” said Townsend. “It’s a blessing that I’ve been able to teach for this long and ignite that same passion in others.”