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By Ann Fish
The News & Record
June 12, 2011

 EDEN — Matt Sands is dancing his way to a longtime goal of performing with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City. On June 18, Sands will enroll in The Ailey School, which is affiliated with Fordham University, for a six-week intensive summer program. He graduated Friday from Morehead High School.

At the age of 7, Matt accompanied his mother, Michelle, when she took her granddaughter, Haley, to Melanie Paschal’s Dance Creations for lessons. “He just loved it,” said Michelle, noting that Matt is a full-blooded Lumbee. She and her husband, Herman, adopted him when he was 2.

“When the kids would go in and out, he would try to get glimpses into the studio where they were dancing. If the door cracked, he would be looking in there. He was just fascinated by it. He would dance in the lobby on his own. He would try to imitate what he thought the girls were doing in the studio.”

The next year, Michelle enrolled Matt as the only boy in a class with 10 girls. “It was a little intimidating,” Matt said, but he was determined and persisted.

Since most dancers begin as early as 3 or 4 years of age, Matt was starting “a little late,” Paschal said.

The teasing could be harsh, but Matt persisted. “If you are willing and you want something enough, you are not going to care about other people’s opinions,” he said.

Over the years, when his peers gained a knowledge of what dance is — “they just thought it was tutus and ballet shoes” — they became more accepting, Matt said.

“Male dancers are such a minority,” Paschal said. “For him to have gotten through that to where he is now just proves his determination to reach his goal. It takes a lot for male dancers to survive in school because they get ridiculed so much.”

Paschal said she thinks the turning point in attitudes came when he performed a duet with classmate Alice Fair at a school variety show. “The guys in the audience gained so much respect for him,” she said. “He was lifting her and leaping and showing so much athleticism, most guys realized it was very masculine and it truly took a masculine person to do what he was doing.”

Matt has been competing for six years. In his most recent event, he was the highest-scoring soloist in all four of his competitions. He has won numerous awards competing in both solo and duet. This past season, he competed with Madison Enders in contemporary dance.

“He’s amazing to watch,” Paschal said. “He’ll definitely be missed, but I train kids to grow their wings and fly.”

Four years ago, Paschal took Matt to an Ailey performance in Atlanta.“They were the most impressive dancers I had ever seen,” he said. “They were fluid and mesmerizing. I couldn’t take my eyes off the performance.”

Matt left Atlanta with his life goal in mind: to attend The Ailey School and become a professional dancer with them. In February, Matt got his chance. He and Paschal went to Atlanta for Matt to audition for the school’s summer program. “It was a new experience,” he said. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into and no idea what to expect.”

About 80 other hopefuls were on hand. They danced in a group for the ballet portion, and the number was slashed by half. Matt remained to dance in the modern/contemporary portion and was told he would be contacted within two weeks.

Soon, while at Walmart with friends, Matt received an email on his phone saying, “Congratulations, you have been accepted. …”

He and his friends started jumping up and down and yelling. “I was extremely excited,” Matt said. “Melanie was the first person I called.”

Because the school is expensive, Paschal has spearheaded several fundraisers for Matt, raising more than the tuition. However, Matt still will need money for other expenses, such as his meals, Paschal said.

“I was extremely, extremely appreciative and feel blessed that so many were willing to support me in my endeavors,” Matt said. “A lot of times, it’s hard to find that extra help.”

Matt’s mother praised Paschal for her efforts over the years.“She has done more than teach Matt how to dance,” Michelle said. “She has always seen something in Matt. She changed his life. She taught him confidence. She has been far more than his dance teacher. She is his mentor.”

During the summer, Matt will audition for a three-year certificate program in which he would take dance to receive a bachelor of fine arts degree through Fordham University, where he will live this summer.

If he does not get into the three-year program, Matt already is enrolled at UNCG to major in dance education. He might return to New York in the fall and work toward his goal of becoming a part of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater .

“He is independent,” Michelle said. “He makes friends real easy. As long as he is dancing, he will be fine. He has to have his dancing.”

Copyright © 2011 News & Record
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