by Lynn Mills

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VOL. 3 NO. 28 www.ShermanOaksSun.com AUGUST 11-17, 2006

Dance duo brings a touch of “Fame” to innovative Valley school

Otis and Kyme Sallid teach CHAMPS students the steps to success


BY LYNN MILLS

They’ve trained under such legendary dancers as Alvin Ailey and Martha Graham. Their resumes boast credits from stage, screen and television, as well as prestigious nominations and awards.

So what brings Otis and Kyme Sallid to the gymnasium of a 50-year-old Van Nuys church – the new home of CHAMPS (Charter High School of the Arts - Multimedia and Performing) – on a hot Saturday in July?

A vision. “It is our interest to create a world-class institution in (the) San Fernando Valley,” explains Otis. “That is our dream.”

With school opening in five weeks, their dream still has a long way to go. Otis and his wife, Kyme, co-directors of the CHAMPS Performing Arts Academy (the independent charter is school is entering its second year), are auditioning prospective students.

The dance floor is just a blue taped outline on the scuffed gym floorboards for now. While parents and students work at warp-speed painting classrooms, three nervous kids stand with crossed arms as Kyme patiently demonstrates basic ballet positions at the barre.

“You can do this,” she encourages, as they mimic her ever more complicated combinations. “Free it up – don’t think, ‘Oh, ballet!’ I’m just walking across the fl oor.” It’s a far cry from the brutal audition scene in “A Chorus Line.”

The Sallids have won over students with their combination of no-nonsense and nurturing — once the students decided they could live with the requirement that they wear tights in dance class.

Past students describe them as tough, relaxed, funny and approachable – often mutually exclusive terms – and note that their instruction goes beyond the classroom.

“We teach more than steps here– we’re teaching life lessons to these kids that they’ll have forever,” Kyme explains. “ The skills I’ve learned from training in dance, I’ve used in every aspect of my life. There’s a sense of commitment, discipline, how to work with others.”

Sophomore Toppacio Rodriguez described the training experience as “hard, but fun.”

“My body started molding into what I needed it to be, so I started getting in shape, eating healthier. Kyme and Otis taught me a lot of good things. Respecting other people was the biggest thing I learned.”

Emma Hunton, who woke up at 4 a.m. every day to commute to CHAMPS from San Bernardino, said the toil was worth it. “ They really are wonderful teachers… I’ve never had teachers like them who I can ask for advice and honestly get an answer that shows that they really do care.”

As an independent charter school, CHAMPS receives its funding from the state and is not affi liated with LAUSD– or the church where its facilities are located. That gave the Sallids freedom this year to model it after Manhattan’s legendary High School of Performing Arts (made famous in Fame), from which they both graduated.

Students take four classes in their performing arts major – music, drama or dance – and five academic classes, making for a long school day that lasts from 7:52 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. Kyme, who once endured that schedule on top of a 90-minute commute to and from the Bronx, tells prospective parents, “It was the best! We were doing our art; we were together and committed. There was no one getting in trouble, no getting into drugs.”

After Fame high school, both Kyme and Otis built impressive resumes.

A Harlem native, Otis won a scholarship to Julliard and performed in Broadway shows including Me and Bessie, playing opposite Linda Hopkins. He wrote and choreographed musicals such as Smokey Joe’s Café (the longest running musical review on Broadway), choreographed the Academy Awards, the T.V. series Fame, and movies including Swing Kids and Spike Lee’s School Daze. Recently, he directed, choreographed and produced the opening number for the 2006 Super Bowl, starring Stevie Wonder.

Otis sees his continuing work in the industry as an advantage to his students. “It allows me to stay up with the latest technology and thinking that’s going on around the country. At Performing Arts, the teachers were working. They were in Broadway shows; they were in all the big dance companies.”

Kyme is what’s known in theater as a “ triple threat” – equally talented as a dancer, singer and actress. After college at SUNY Purchase, she performed on Broadway and in world tours of Black and Blue, Sophisticated Ladies, and Ain’t Misbehavin’, as well as starring in School Daze.

She has also taught dance in South Central, often for free. “I’ve been so blessed to have studied with masters… for me, teaching was giving back.”

Possessing the same “pass it forward” philosophy, Otis has always taught as well. He frequently brings Millikan Middle School’s performing arts students onset for learning experiences – that’s how he met Dr. Norman Isaacs, former principal of Millikan and founder of CHAMPS.

“Otis is much more than a dance teacher,” says Dr. Isaacs. “He’s a father figure; he’s a disciplinarian. He basically provides what these children need. Kyme is a role model. We’re extremely fortunate that we’ve been able to get people of this caliber. We couldn’t afford them unless they really wanted to do it.”

Academics are as important as the arts at CHAMPS.

Last year, when drama major James Cowan’s grades plummeted, he was told he must maintain a C-average or he’d be out of dance class. “That was my motivation to work harder in math. I went from an F to an A,” he recalls proudly. “They taught me a great deal about responsibility – they pushed me.”

With the Sallids, students basically gain an at-school family. “I guess it’s good that we’re family people teaching here because those kinds of values are instilled in the students without our saying it,” notes Otis.

The couple’s sunny nine-year-old daughter, Micah, is like a beloved sibling at CHAMPS. Dancing since she was 17 months old – “She ‘hoofs’ just like an adult,” says Kyme – Micah helps her mother teach class when she has a day off school.

While Otis says CHAMPS graduates will be ready for Julliard, Yale’s drama school, Carnegie Mellon and Boston Conservatory, they’re not all expected to become performers.

“I would love some of these kids to be lawyers and doctors and community leaders, because they’ll have a real sense of the arts. It changes the dynamic of who they are.”

Otis believes learning to focus is the key to success in life. “It boils down to focus. We’re asking them to do one thing. If you can do this one thing extremely well, you can do a lot of things extremely well, because the tenets for that one thing – the focus, the discipline of that one thing – transcend a whole bunch of other things that you might want to do.”

At the audition, lounging in a red plush theater seat but watching intently, Otis explains that the kids don’t need to be great performers to get into CHAMPS – they just need an “expressed interest in the arts.” He, for one, is confident that they can make a dancer out of anyone who harbors the desire. “Just that gleam in their eyes,” he says, nodding. “I can work with that.”

Final auditions for the CHAMPS Music Academy, Drama Academy and Dance Academy will be held Friday, August 18. Call (818) 994-4744, visit www.champscharter.org or e-mail ksallid@champscharter.org.