Tony Williams grew up in the projects of Jamaica Plain in the 1950s and ‘60s. At 16, after experiencing trouble as a street gang member, he discovered an unlikely pathway to success — ballet.
As a young man, he gained access to Boston Ballet’s dance program and progressed to become a principal dancer. From there he performed all over the world. When Williams retired, he returned to his hometown and opened a dance school.
Not long after, he created the beloved Urban Nutcracker, a modern, Boston-centric take on the holiday classic. Williams chatted with us ahead of the Urban Nutcracker performances at the Shubert Theater, Dec. 19-28.
You were very athletic and into sports growing up in Jamaica Plain. How did you get into dance?
I played baseball and was on the track team in high school. I also did gymnastics. At that time, some of the guys were taking ballet to help their gymnastics. I went along with them and got hooked on ballet.
You spent years traveling the world as a ballet dancer. Is there a place or production that stands out as your favorite?
One of the countries I performed in while performing with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet was Cuba in 1974. I met the famous Cuban ballerina, Alicia Alonso, while watching her Cuban National Ballet.
What was your vision when you started Tony Williams Dance Center? Have you seen it come to fruition?
To be honest, it was to finally find a respite from being a “Ballet Teacher Gypsy.” You see, I had been making a living teaching at many dance schools, including Boston Ballet, Boston Conservatory of Dance, Wellesley College, Acton School of Ballet, Lexington School of Ballet, Groton School and many schools in New England. A typical work week had me travelling throughout Greater Boston, New Hampshire, and Connecticut. Finally opening up my own school afforded me the luxury of being in one location. My original vision of starting my school, in my twentieth year, has truly come to fruition.
What’s your approach to teaching? Was there a learning curve when it comes to teaching children or did it come naturally?
I’ve been teaching since the late '70s, but when I would ask the people who taught me to dance, ‘how do you do teach kids?’ they would say, ‘I don’t know!’ They just knew how to teach professionals. That’s easy.
Teaching kids is hard. It’s like having a firm fist with a soft glove on the outside. But I had discovered that I — this 6-foot-tall guy — could sit down cross-legged, make funny faces and teach toddlers. And the kids love the fact that you are acting like a kid!
You have mostly kids who are beginners but there’s always someone that’s very talented. So how do you juggle keeping everyone moving at their own pace? The sign of a good teacher is someone that can have a telepathic sense of where those kids’ consciousness is. A student has to be pushed more because if they can do more, they want more.
Some kids are hungry, but some aren’t. But the kids that aren’t so hungry need to be pushed too.
Your motto is ‘diversity through dance.’ What does this mean?
To provide excellent dance training for kids from mixed demographic backgrounds. My studio is located in the heart of Jamaica Plain. JP has a diverse socio-economic population. Here, students come from the housing projects (where I lived as a kid) to the stately mansions lining Jamaica Pond. I am most proud of the nexus of families from diverse backgrounds. They come together to share the wonderful experience of the world of dance.
What’s the story behind the Urban Nutcracker?
When I started my school 20 years ago, I had 17 boys enrolled along with the girls. The boys were recruited because of my two male hip hop and tap teachers. I got the idea to get the students parents help me put on a Nutcracker production.
Because there were already many traditional productions, both professional and amateur, I came up with the idea to incorporate my ballet background (and many years of performing in the Nutcracker) with hip and tap. At that time I had heard Duke Ellington’s orchestration of Tchaikovsky’s original score. So, I set upon mixing both scores along with ballet, tap and hip hop and called it the Urban Nutcracker.
Urban Nutcracker has become a staple in Boston during the holiday season. Why do you think it continues to resonate with audience members and different generations?
Well, most of all, it is an entertaining show. The show has lots of heart. The humanity expressed by the dancers in the show is reflective of those sitting in the audience. Folks feel a palpable connection — an electric charge — to the unfolding performance.
A mother who attended the performance with her parents and 3-year-old daughter once told me that her parents and their granddaughter were fully absorbed in the show. If you can have three generations absorbed in a show, then you’ve got a show that can endure for years to come.
What do you want your legacy to be?
As a person that strove for harmony among both friends and strangers. One who tried to achieve his goals through hard work, getting up when pushed down, and never gave up on dreams.