When Jeffrey Edmonds was first exposed to ballet a few years ago, he told his mother it was "a sissy job." Nobody, he added, would get him to wear leotards and tights.
He still will not wear the leotard or tights, but today Edmonds, 14, is one of the stars in the Peace Lutheran Dance Company, a group of young black dancers from Maryland and the District. The Director, teacher and choreographer who has turned Edmonds and his friends on to dance is Adrienne Chalmers, 23, a nursing and dance major at Howard University.
The company began four years ago when Chalmers decided that children near Peace Lutheran Church, located in Northeast Washington near the Prince George's County line, needed something to do on Saturday afternoons. p
That first year, 15 children came. This year, Chalmers had 70 students from Maryland and the District and a waiting list of 45. The company, with 22 dancers ranging in age from 6 to 18, represents the best dancers from the class.
The company performs throughout the area, sometimes as often as three times a week. During the mayoral campaign last fall, the company had a nonpartisan tour performing for all three candidates, Walter Washington, Marion Barry and Sterling Tucker.
Next month, the company will make its television debut on "stuff," a local program produced by Channel 4.
Its director says she is as surprised as anyone by the rapid growth of the company and the dance class.
"It's like a dream," said Chalmers, who had thought she was headed for a career as a pediatrician. "If you'd asked me a few months ago what I was most interested in, I'd probably have said medicine. But so much has happened that it's turned me around and turned the kids around. I have to sit back and assess what's happening."
On Sunday, the D.C. Civic Association will honor Chalmers, who lives in the District, for outstanding community service through her work with the dancers.
Listening to the easy exchange between Chalmers and her students, one begins to understand part of the reason for her success. Although Edmonds said he never thought he would dance himself, he could not resist the challenge Chalmers put before him.
"I kept on going and seeing what Adrienne was up to," Edmonds said, "And she would tell me I could do better, that I was acting like I had no movement in my body and I wasn't lifting. When recital time came, I want to show her who could do what."
"That was a little psychology," laughed Chalmers. "I knew he could do those things, but I told him he couldn't."
"The company's other male dancer, Maurice Gordon, 16, had planned to dance in one recital and quit.
"She sort of tricked me," he explained with a smile. "She said, I need you just this one time as a replacement, and there would be just one more time and then one more time."
Chalmers and her students agree that she is strict and demanding. As 9-year-old Cheryl Wesley, of District Heights, Md., put it, "She expects us to be perfect."
"I'm more serious now than when I started, said Chalmers. "I want them to be paid for their dancing one day, even if it's only a little, because then they'll be on their way. But i tell them the public won't want to pay if the dancing is not right."
The dancers also speak of a sense of accomplishment.
"We look around and see most of the colored children our age in jail or in some kind of trouble," said 15-year-old Sherry Huggins, of the District, who has studied with Chalmers for three years. "adrienne makes us feel we can do more than get into trouble."
Chalmers fosters a family atmosphere in her class. There is a lot of good-natured teasing between the dancers and with their teacher. If someone is having difficulties that cannot be handled during class, Chalmers usually calls the student later to talk things over. And the problems are not always related to dance.
"I have a lot of personality changes to work with," said Chalmers. "I love kids, I really do, and I'm like a counselor, a sister, a teacher and a nurse. Anybody that has a problem knows he can come to me."
With one assistant, Chalmers teaches all 70 students during a three-hour class on Saturday afternoons at Peace Lutheran Church. The students are divided into groups, each headed by a dance captain, who is one of the best dancers. They learn a variety of styles, including jazz, modern, tap and ballet. The choregraphy for the annual dance class recital and company performances is done by Chalmers.
Chalmers admits that she doesn't know where she gets her ideas. "Ideas just come," she said. "I start moving and stumble on to steps. Sometimes I go to bed and I dream about steps."
For several years, dance and medicine have vied for Chalmers' time. This summer, she worked as a child care technician at Children's Hospital. Before going on the late night shift at the hospital, she often would appear with the Bronze Movement, an adult dance company she and another woman recently formed. This year she will complete her double major in dance and nursing at Howard University.
Now, Chalmers said, "i'm torn. Half of me wants to be a pediatrician and half of me wants to do the other. A lot of people would be hurt if I gave up the dancing. Maybe I should keep this while it's going good."