Rusty Hernandez and the Young Men's Dance Initiative

Rusty Hernandez has been a supporter of The Academy for almost two decades.

Earlier this year, he founded the Rusty and Jeffrey Sanfilippo Young Men's Dance Initiative, an Academy scholarship program for elite-level male dancers entering the 9th grade. Rusty sat down with Academy Marketing Director Tim Butler to discuss his inspiration and goals for the scholarship.

Tim Butler: So how did you get to know The Academy?

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Rusty Hernandez: I first became involved with The Academy through Randy [Duncan]. I was a fan and supporter of his choreography, and he was working with another dance company that I was involved with. He really piqued my curiosity about The Academy and the great things happening here. And then I went to visit and I immediately wanted to turn back the clock to go back to high school!

Tim: A lot of people say that! There was no arts high school in southwestern Connecticut. I certainly would have liked to go to a school like this.

Rusty: I think where I grew up in Los Angeles the opportunities would have presented themselves at Hollywood High School. A lot of celebrities have gone to Hollywood High, and so I tried going there. I didn't care for the school I was supposed to go to, and so I used a friend of the family's address to be eligible to go to Hollywood High. My first day of school there I immediately said “Oh, this is not what I thought it was.” So, I turned around and got on a bus to my original school. I got there late for the first day.

Tim: I didn’t know that.

Rusty: And that one didn't have an arts program.

Tim: And you had just known Randy forever?

Rusty: It’s been a long time. I've been living in Chicago for 20 years. I met him shortly after I arrived—when we were both 12 years old (laughs).

Tim: Where did the idea of the Young Men's Dance Initiative come from and why did you decide to take on a leadership role?

Rusty: Well I mentioned I had been involved with a small youth dance company out in the suburbs, the Barrington Youth Dance Ensemble. They had a summer program they were trying to develop, and they had tested it the year before I became involved with them. But they just didn't have the personnel to really take it to the next level.

Tim: The faculty or the dancers?

Rusty: Well, all of it. They had a few boys but they needed somebody that could do marketing and outreach to get the word out. And then there was the problem of retaining the boys. So, in the second summer I was involved with them I decided I would take on that challenge. I've always felt that we say “girls can play sports, too”; why don’t we also say “and boys can dance”?

Tim: For sure. That's a good way of putting it.

Rusty: And that's exactly what our summer program tagline was: “If girls can play soccer, boys can dance, too”. We had a good turnout.

Tim: Were they middle school age students?

Rusty: At first our turnout was about 12 kids — mostly middle school age, and a couple fifth and sixth graders. No high schoolers. Randy didn't teach that class, but [former Academy faculty member] Guillermo Leyva did, and another local dancer Wade Schaaf. The kids loved Wade, so they wanted to be in his class, and I made an effort to keep them all in the program — bribing them with T-shirts and a field trip to the Chicago Fire soccer game. The parents loved it at the time, but I found the challenge was getting them invested in keeping those boys in dance during the scholastic year. There was a lot of “Well I'm fine with it, but my husband isn’t.” And then there were some families that wanted their kids to stay in dance year-round, but couldn’t do it because of need. They didn’t have the funds. So, we decided to start a scholarship fund just for boy dancers, the Rusty Hernandez Scholarship for Boys. Soon we started seeing boys in the company throughout the school year.

Tim: I see. So, you had done sort of a beta version of the Young Men’s Dance Initiative with younger dancers.

Rusty: Yes, in a way. Randy came to one of the Barrington events a few years ago and we started talking about other scholarship opportunities. We started considering this larger-than-life project called the Young Men's Dance Initiative scholarship and eventually decided to pull the trigger. It was the last key needed to bring in these extremely talented boys that are serious about a career in dance, have the support from their family, and the encouragement and commitment to undertake the challenge.

Tim: Outside of enrolling more male dancers at The Academy, are there any long-term goals for YMDI? Even 10 years down the line, is there anything you hope this scholarship will be?

Rusty with Academy dancers Zach, Aden, Isaiah, Colin, and Amari.

Rusty with Academy dancers Zach, Aden, Isaiah, Colin, and Amari.

Rusty: Well, I hope with this program that any young man that is serious about a career in dance, who has all the other pieces of the puzzle, should never have to walk away because they don't have the financial support. If they have the talent, commitment, and family support — if the finances are the only thing that's going to close that door, I want this to be the key to open that door. And over time, I hope more people begin to see the value of a dance education, and begin to create more funding and awareness.

Tim: Of course. When I first came to The Academy, I really had no idea that it was such a need in the dance industry. I guess that is partly because I was only seeing professional performances where the companies are maybe not struggling as much to find the male talent.

Rusty: That's because almost every young man that goes through a semi-professional dance education will get a contract! Because these companies will have two males auditioning next to 10 females.

Tim: Sure. Regarding the long-term goals of YMDI, Jason [Patera, Head of School] once put it well when we were trying to highlight the scholarship’s greater benefit. He said that while we obviously want the kids to enroll at The Academy, we also want to put more boys in the pipeline to the greater dance community. These kids are going to go on to college dance programs and professional programs. So, the Initiative ultimately helps out the whole community.

Rusty: And there are perfect examples of students that went through the dance program here at The Academy that highlight the fact that the need for YMDI is there. There was one young dancer a few years ago, who we knew had huge potential, but The Academy had already allocated all the scholarship money for the year. There wasn’t any funding left. Randy and I both came to the conclusion that I would make this donation to the school to go towards this young man’s education. He excelled in his first semester, excelled during his senior year, and after graduating, his biggest problem was deciding whether he wanted to go to college on a full-ride on the west coast or the east coast. This young man might not have had that opportunity without this scholarship.

Tim: I think it's important to look at it as an outlet as well.

Rusty: I see this program as the skipping rock and the ripple effect in the water. You throw the stone—you open the door for one young man, and that young man is going to open so many doors for other young men in dance down the road.

Tim: That's a great way of putting it.

Rusty: They are going to be role models to even younger kids.

Tim: Leaders in the dance world.

Rusty: Exactly!

Tim: They could be the ones looking for young men in their own dance companies.

Rusty: And I see this program having that potential. I sometimes relate it to the show So You Think You Can Dance. I think the evolution of that show has opened doors for more boys to go into the dance world. And it's also changed the mindset.

Tim: Especially with some of the men that they get on that show. I mean, some of them are former athletes, football players.

Rusty: And the audience members can see that a break dancer can learn ballet, or even win the competition as a well-rounded dancer. By the time they're done with that program, they are phenomenal. And I think parents are seeing that it's more acceptable. Or even a show like Newsies. It's a cast of tens of male dancers. I see YMDI as having the same effect. Maybe other schools will do it as well, or this becomes so big at The Academy that we are attracting young men from all over the world. That’s the goal. Dance is an art form that can communicate regardless of language, without music, without props — just with physical movement. You tell a full story that anybody can understand. It has the ability to rip through your chest and grab your heart. I’m happy to do my part in promoting it.