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A New World Grad Overcomes The Odds

Courtesy Damion Bradbury

Before the pianist plays the final arrangement, Damion Bradbury stands in the front row of the New  World School of the Arts dance studio towering over most of his fellow dancers at 6'4".

His feet are tuned out in a “V” shape, first position. His long arms hang by his side.

The piano notes waft through the room.

Gerard Ebitz, a ballet teacher at the school, talks the students through what will be the last reverence at New World for the 2015 senior class.

There is a solemn feel to this dance sequence performed at the end of every ballet class. 

Bradbury looks out into the mostly empty seats before him that will soon be filled for his final spring concert performance.  He spreads his arms wide.

“This place has been my home. Whenever I needed something to eat, or someone to talk to," he says. "They’ve been my counselors. This place here means the world to me.”

Bradbury graduated Tuesday. He’s the first person in his family to graduate from college.

He has a job lined up as a company member with the critically acclaimed Garth Fagan Dance Company in Rochester, NY.

He says he wasn’t supposed to make it.

Bradbury started dancing late; he took his first dance class at 19-years-old.  He was on his own with little family support in a strange city -- he moved to Miami from Baton Rouge, Louisiana -- and while he was chasing his dream to become a dancer, he ended up homeless. Twice. 

“It was all worth it,” he says. “I made it. I made it.”

Credit Nadege Green / WLRN
Damion Bradbury performs a grand plie in his last ballet class at New World School of the Arts.

Three days after he graduated from high school in Baton Rouge, Bradbury packed a small suitcase with two sneakers, jeans, and a few T-shirts.

He told his mom he bought a one-way Greyhound ticket for Miami.

“I told her it was my time to find out who I am,” he says.

He landed in Cutler Bay with an aunt who didn’t care for his quest to become a professional dancer while he took classes at Miami Dade College Kendall Campus and the Thomas Armour Youth Ballet in South Miami, a studio that often gives scholarships to students with potential.

He’d been in South Florida for two years when he auditioned for New World.

Ruth Wiesen, director of TAYB, says she immediately saw Bradbury’s raw potential when he moved on his own, unencumbered by ballet or any formal technique.

“His movement was velvety. It was like he was moving through honey. Slow. Deliberate. He was beautiful.”

On the day of his New World audition, Bradbury says he felt intimidated.

After two years of formal training, he was still a beginner going up against dancers who had been dancing since they were toddlers.

The ballet portion of the audition, he says, was a bust. He stumbled through many of the steps and struggled to understand the French lexicon that defines ballet.

During the solo choreography portion of the audition, he felt the most comfortable.

“I just let down my wall and showed them who I was,” he says.

He choreographed his solo himself. The movement was his; it was organic.

“I think that’s what got me in,” he says.

On the first day of class at New World, Bradbury showed up to school with a suitcase, a duffel bag and a backpack. He was homeless after his roommate at the time put him out because she was moving.

While many students were talking about their new apartments during a freshman orientation welcome session, he raised his hand and asked:

“Does anyone have somewhere to stay? Because I don’t have anywhere to stay right now,” he says.  “One girl in my freshman class opened her door to me and let me sleep on her couch for a year.”

Early on, he struggled in his dance classes, too. He was barely keeping up with the advanced training.

Credit Courtesy Damion Bradbury
Courtesy Damion Bradbury
Damion Bradbury bought a one-way ticket from Baton Rouge to come to Miami to dance.

Peter London, a modern dance professor at New World, says he watched as Bradbury performed the wrong steps or was off musically, but he says the tallest kid in the class never gave up.

“He just kept coming back and pushing through and pushing through, and it was very difficult work for him,” says London. “This guy just would not give up.”

London says it’s that perseverance that made him call his close friend Garth Fagan earlier this year.

After four years at New World, he felt Bradbury was ready. He set Bradbury up with an audition for the Garth Fagan Dance Company. The audition lasted a week.

Before he returned to Miami at the end of that week, Bradbury says Fagan told him they needed to talk.

“He told me, ‘OK, I’ll give you a week break after graduation and then you come up here and start working with us.’”

Back at the New World dance studios, the reverence, is almost over. The reverence signals to the audience that the performance is coming to an end.

Bradbury steps to the side and spreads his arms out wide.

“Even when I had doubts or someone doubting me thinking that this career wasn’t the right career for me, I knew something in my heart told me, ‘Dance.’”