The school day has just ended at Fair Haven PreK-8, a New Haven public school two miles from campus. Rowdy children waiting for their buses home fill the auditorium. It is easy to pick out the BalletHaven girls in the front of the room. Dressed in matching white tights and black leotards, they hover by the stage, tying their hair up in buns.
Mnikesa Whitaker, Kesa for short, enters the auditorium, armed with coffee and several tote bags stuffed with supplies. She rolls her oxygen tank behind her like a suitcase. A flurry of ballerinas approaches her.
She has brought a new leotard for one dancer. She congratulates another on turning 13 over the break. A third comes up, just for a hug, before darting away.
“There are some people here with messy buns,” Kesa announces. “I will lose my mind. Do your hair the right way.” Girls scramble to help one another pin back flyaways.
One small student can’t find her bobby pins. “Well, be a problem solver,” Kesa says, stern. “That pouty look isn’t being a problem solver. I love you; figure it out.”
The girls finally congregate on stage. Kesa sits, cross-legged, among them. Suddenly, she succumbs to an aggressive coughing fit, and seventh grader Ursele Mirindi rubs her back.
“Breathe, Ms. Whitaker,” she says. “Breathe.”
* * *
At the ballet bar 15 years ago, Kesa realized something was terribly wrong. A recent college graduate, she had been dancing semi-professionally — she had even started her own dance company with friends in Dallas. Despite her aspirations to teach English, she could not shake her passion for ballet.
So it was troubling that, on this particular day, no matter how hard she pushed, Kesa could not lift her foot from the ground. “Tears were mixing with sweat, and I just had to stop for a minute,” she remembers. She struggled to catch her breath. She was terrified.
Doctors eventually discovered that Kesa suffers from systemic scleroderma, a disease that attacks muscles and connective tissues. She describes her smooth muscle and flexible muscle tissues as being “turned to stone,” adding that, every day, she feels intense pain and fatigue, as if she had just run a marathon.
And scleroderma does not actually encompass all of her grave health concerns. In 2004, for instance, doctors determined that she had severe lung disease — today, her lungs function at just 34 percent of their capacity — and she began aggressive treatments. Since then, Kesa has undergone chemotherapy three separate times.
One day, she will need a double lung transplant, which will put her on a feeding tube “indefinitely.” If she qualifies for the procedure, she has about a one in two chance of survival after five years.
Kesa’s illness has forced her to relinquish essential parts of her identity. A career in dance went out the door almost immediately. Today, any physical activity lasting more than a few minutes is an almost insurmountable challenge. Melissa Kane, one of Kesa’s closest friends of more than 10 years, who is also creating a feature-length documentary about Kesa and BalletHaven, says that Kesa feels “like she’s got an elephant sitting on her chest and she can’t get out from under” it while dancing.
And yet, the only immediate marker of Kesa’s illness is her petite oxygen tank, which she started using in 2014 after years of resisting doctor’s recommendations. She looks like any other 36-year-old, albeit a particularly cool one. Her body is lean and toned, her hair cropped short and dyed blonde, and her outfits consistently tailored and trendy. She likes to eat pancakes at the Pantry, where she asks the waitresses for extra butter.
But despite appearances, Kesa has been suffering more and more. She recently gave up her job teaching English at Fair Haven, and thinks this might be the most painful loss yet. Working full-time was nearly impossible, due to her daily (often, twice or three times daily) doctor’s appointments and physical therapy sessions. She dealt with an almost perpetual stream of acute illnesses.
Kesa realized that she had to make a choice. She could quit and prolong her life, or she could continue to do what she loves: teach.
Inspired by Caribbean writer and activist Audrey Lorde, who called self-care an act of revolution, she decided to give up teaching English.
“Who am I without teaching? I don’t have an answer yet,” she admits. “[But] there is a quiet revolution in relentlessly saying yes to what your body needs, and in this case, acceptance is giving up the one thing I knew how to do.”
Still, she holds on to BalletHaven.
* * *
It was in 2011, following “bad news from the doctor, more bad news from the doctor and a heart-shattering break-up” that Kesa says she realized — “It was time.” Recognizing that her health was not improving, she did not want to wait any longer to pursue BalletHaven, a long-harbored dream.
She had been teaching English at Fair Haven for several years, but she envisioned running an extracurricular ballet program. She hoped to instill in girls “the discipline and dedication necessary to succeed in any academic or artistic endeavor in high school, college and beyond,” and she made this BalletHaven’s mission statement.
Kesa prides herself on the way she runs BalletHaven: like a traditional, classical ballet ensemble. She places a high premium on attendance, timeliness and perfect hair, all serving the “discipline and dedication” outlined in her mission statement. Initially uncertain as to whether or not students would be drawn to something so openly rigorous, Kesa was floored when more than 50 girls applied. Since then, close to 75 girls have competed for 35 spots every year.
“You can just see the craving for something that pushes them and gives them a place to belong,” Melissa said about the numbers of Fair Haven girls who turn out, year after year, to audition for BalletHaven.
Kesa herself did not start dancing until age 12, after she saw one particular group of ballerinas — “all brown girls like me.” Only then, she says, did she realize that it was not just a discipline for white girls. Awestruck by their beauty and strength, she decided to take up the discipline herself.
Linaidy Gonzalez, a ninth grader and a BalletHaven alum who volunteers with dance classes each week, expressed a similar sentiment. Before she auditioned for Kesa’s group, she says, she “was really hesitant about ballet.”
“All I thought I would see was white people dancing,” she remembers. “Ms. Whitaker made me realize that all people can do it.”
Linaidy says that Kesa shaped her entire character. She joined BalletHaven as a reticent seventh grader, and credits the program with teaching her how to express herself, set goals and create plans in order to achieve them.
Seventh grader Ursele Mirindi, a current BalletHaven dancer, says that she has learned how to organize and schedule her time, and working through frustrations to improve as a dancer has made her a more confident person. She finds that BalletHaven has been carrying her through middle school. In a few years, she hopes to attend Juilliard.
Ursele added that she considers Kesa to be “like a mother” to her. She is not alone: At the end of Tuesday’s recital, one of the dancers shouted “Bye, Mom!” to Kesa on her way out. Kesa laughed for a moment, pointing out that students at Fair Haven accidentally slip and call their teachers their parents with relative frequency.
“Well, it makes some sense,” she shrugged. “Sometimes they do spend more time with us than their parents.”
* * *
A sober tone marked the beginning of Tuesday’s class. One dancer, Janine, took a seat in the circle. Kesa asked if she was okay and Janine shook her head. She gave Kesa permission to tell the group what was wrong. Kesa explained, in a slow and even tone, that a close friend of Janine’s — 16-year-old Jericho Scott — was killed in a drive-by shooting last Sunday.
“So she’s hurting right now,” Kesa told the ensemble. “We all need to remember to be gentle with her. I’d also like to point out that she showed up for class today, even though she’s hurting, and that’s very strong.”
Several BalletHaven girls call the group their second family, praising the support network it creates. Melissa remembers interviewing one particular BalletHaven alumna for her documentary: She told her that Kesa and BalletHaven almost single-handedly prevented her from dropping out of school in sixth grade to help support her family. The student told Melissa that she looks at a gift from Kesa, a sticker printed with the words “From homeless to Harvard,” each day for motivation.
Most of the students at Fair Haven come from poor, minority families, and many have experienced hardships and trauma at home. Kesa remembers her initial reactions to the Fair Haven environment, and her subsequent motivation to instill in her students more general skills beyond the disciplines she was teaching.
“It became clear to me that we have so much work to do in terms of literacy, and that I can’t teach them all of that in the two hours per week that I might see them,” she said. “But what I can do is prepare their minds: so that they’re pliable, so that they’re able to think for themselves.”
The greater New Haven community has noticed BalletHaven. Melinda Marquez, who runs a flamenco dance center in New York and New Haven, found out about BalletHaven when the Independent awarded Kesa “New Havener of the Year” in 2013. She reached out, and has begun teaching some BalletHaven classes over the last few months.
Marquez called BalletHaven “powerful and inspiring,” adding, “The kind of solidarity I see there amongst young women is, I think, unique.”
Thanks to funds from private donors and local organizations like the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven and the Mayor’s Community Arts Grant, no member of the group has to pay for leotards, tights, shoes, matching duffle bags, hoodies or warm-up jackets, the goods that they earn through committing to BalletHaven.
At Tuesday’s rehearsal, Whitaker showed the group the new duffle bags that some students had earned. She pointed out that the design includes the name “Fair Haven.”
“Because people always say ‘Oh, Fair Haven?’” she imitated distaste. “A
nd we’re like ‘Yeah, Fair Haven!’ We want people to know that good things come from this neighborhood.”
The girls nodded, bursting into applause.
* * *
Twelve years ago, heading to her Fair Haven job interview, a 23-year-old Mnikesa Whitaker saw two girls crossing the neighborhood’s landmark bridge. Dressed in blue warm-up suits, hair tied in high buns and armed with tote bags and books, they immediately stood out to Whitaker as a pair of young ballerinas. Watching them, she felt an acute intuition — something her grandmother would have called her “first mind.”
At this point, Kesa knew that she wanted to be an English teacher. She knew that the burgeoning symptoms of some vague and very serious illness were beginning to spin her life out of control. And because of this, she says, she knew that she needed to make a decision just for herself. At that moment, form a slew of offers and interviews, she chose Fair Haven School.