NCDT dancer Jordan Leeper, a recipient of Step Up support, in action. (Photo by Jeff Cravotta.)

What started as a challenge for Jordan Leeper became an opportunity for Kobi Kennedy Brinson and the North Carolina Dance Theatre. The promising young dancer was coming to the end of the first year of his apprenticeship and running out of resources. “I really wanted to keep training here but it wasn’t in my parents’ budget to pay for my rent or for food,” Leeper said after a recent rehearsal.

Leeper’s parents, in his hometown of Jamestown, N.Y., had already helped out as much as they could, adding to the scholarship he earned to train in San Francisco, where he completed his senior year of high school, before he auditioned for North Carolina Dance Theatre (NCDT). That’s when president and artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux talked with Brinson, who had become an active fan and friend to the company. “Surely this community can support this dancer,” she remembered saying to him. “We can’t afford to lose African American dancers because of money.”

The assistance Leeper received filled the gap until he was offered a place in the company.

Luckily it didn’t end there. Instead, it was the beginning of the “Step Up” effort to support Dance Theatre’s Dancers’ Fund, which helps the company develop, recruit and retain dancers of color by providing needed financial help. The Third Annual Step Up Soiree takes place this Friday, April 12, at the Patricia McBride & Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux Center for Dance on North Tryon Street. The event, with Latin jazz from Los Leones and a catered menu, will showcase performances by the company — its veterans and new stars.

For the second year, Jared Sutton, 12, has been awarded a student scholarship. He started out in NCDT’s REACH program, which offers classes at four recreation centers to minority male and female students ages 7 to 10 who show interest and potential.

His mother, Denise Sutton, discovered NCDT when she moved with her family from Detroit, where she was a member of a lyrical dance company. She encouraged Jared to audition. “I thought it would be a good introduction to dance,” she said.

While she and other parents observed his classes, she said, “I realized how hard he worked; he was concentrating and really giving his all.” Now, after his $5,000 scholarship, as he prepares for an intensive summer session of classes and the year ahead, she said of her son, who will turn 13 soon, “He’s starting to see himself as maybe being a dancer. It’s making him stronger. He’s starting to get confidence about it,” she said, even pushing back against some friends who sometimes tease him.

Jared still finds time for basketball with his father, who initially was skeptical about a son in ballet. But, Denise Sutton said, “At last year’s soiree, when he realized that there were so many people invested and wanting to see Jared do well and how well he’s thought of, it really shifted things.”

Step Up founder and co-chair Brinson first got interested in North Carolina Dance Theatre for two reasons. She had a daughter who danced in the school, and she was impressed by a 2007 performance with cadence kept by the West Charlotte High School drum line. She said she thought, “I need to help them continue with that out-of-the-box thinking about how to diversify, and how to introduce an audience to a genre that they haven’t been exposed to.”

In 2010, she was asked to join the board of trustees as a result of what she called “my almost fanatical devotion.” And though her daughter has now turned to competitive gymnastics, with role model and Olympian Gabrielle Douglas in the posters on her walls, Brinson believes it’s more important than ever for young people to see dancers of color on the stage. And, she said, you can’t expect to have a diverse audience unless you have a diverse company. “Not only is it the right thing to do, it’s financially feasible.”

Brinson, a Bank of America senior vice president and assistant general counsel, is joined in this year’s Step Up planning by chair Kellie Lofton, along with Marcus Kimbrough, Natalie Frazier Allen, Ron Freeman, Nikki Fleming and Natasha Witherspoon. She expects a fun evening. “Where else in the world are you going to get to see internationally renowned dancers, and stay and party and do the wobble?” Brinson said with a laugh.

At this year’s event, the company will also introduce Amanda Smith, who is being promoted to the first company from North Carolina Dance Theatre 2. She will be the first African American ballerina in the company since Ayisha McMillan Cravotta left the stage in 2007. Cravotta, now principal of the North Carolina Dance Theatre School of Dance, continues to be a role model for young dancers of color.

Brinson said of Cravotta, “Just her presence says something to those little boys and little girls: ‘This is possible, I’m welcome here.’”

At 21 years old, Leeper knows he is a pioneer in his own way. “I love people looking up to me,” he said. “Being a role model, it helps me keep myself on track, knowing there are little eyes on me.” Leeper, who chose dance over figure skating, soccer and other sports, also encourages other young people to consider the benefits of ballet.

“It’s such a great way to express yourself. Whatever is happening outside — family, financial, whatever — the studio’s a great way to let it all go and dance.” North Carolina Dance Theatre has helped him grow, he said, “not only as a dancer but as a person.”

“Come to our shows, come and see what we do,” is his open invitation. And if young people want to join in but are having financial problems? “Groups like Step Up,” Leeper said, “are always there to have their back.”

Friday, April 12. $60. 8 p.m.-midnight. Patricia McBride & Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux Center for Dance, 701 N. Tryon Street. For more information, call 704-372-0101, ext. 2773, or visit

Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning Charlotte, N.C.-based journalist, is a contributor to The Washington Post’s “She the People” blog, The Root and theGrio. Her “Keeping It Positive” segment airs Wednesdays at 7:10 a.m. on Fox News Rising Charlotte. Follow her on Twitter.

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