Alberta Keys: dancing queen

She left her head and her heart on the dance floor. Alberta Keys grew up in a rough landscape where opportunities seemed scarce and the violent, red-tinged feel of a school fight was common. But like a diamond waiting to be discovered, Keys landed at Santa Monica College in 2008 and found her home in the dance department.

"I came in the fall of 2008 as a regular general education person. I was actually planning to go to Spelman College," says Keys while taking a break from rehearsals for the upcoming Synapse show still a few months away. "I took my first ballet class here, and ever since I took ballet here every other thing and dream went out the window."

A closer look at Keys's pre-SMC days reveal an undeniable syzygy that led her to where she is today. In high school, she ran track and did cheerleading. The fusion of athleticism and artistry has now come full circle in her intense desire to be a professional dancer.

It was a simple desire to stay in shape, or "toned" as she puts it, that led Keys to the dance department.

"Everyone told me that ballet helps keep your form structure," she says. "I took the class and it was something deeper than anything I had ever done before in my life."

For Keys, the experience of artistic creation through the body was also cathartic. A life-long introvert, Keys had found a way to say things she had always wanted to express.

"I found out that movement in art was a voice for my personality," she emphasizes. "When I get into the dance room it's like air. The roof isn't there. When I'm onstage I don't see the audience or the people. I see a connection with the story that's being told."

Dance has also been a healer for Keys. It requires a kind of vulnerability fused with a hard iron discipline.

"It gives you structure, you learn to calm down and just breathe. In the real world of dance if you say anything crazy you're eliminated, no matter how talented you are," she says. "Dance helped me respect myself and others."

Even her family and friends have noticed the profound change. She describes her old self as a "fighter" not afraid to raise her voice at anyone. Now even her old elementary school teachers are impressed with the new, serene, focused dancer standing before them.

Keys didn't jump straight into dancing however upon joining the program. Before hitting the stage, she had to start off as a prop holder during the department's renowned Synapse shows.

She would carry artificial stars across the stage. While doing this she took classes every semester to grow as a dancer and is now a top performer.

Last year however, Keys began to turn heads when she wowed the Broad audience with her solo performance titled "Disassociation," choreographed by her and based on personal, childhood memories. Keys used the chance to do a solo to express the need to revisit painful pasts, let them go, and accept oneself in the present.

So committed to her craft is Keys that along the way sacrifices have been made and a trail of memories left behind.

"I've lost jobs, I've lost relationships, loves, pride and dignity. You lose yourself here in the sense of rebuilding yourself to become something so much bigger, it's all worth it," says Keys.

Life after SMC for Keys means enrolling at California State University Long Beach or transferring to the University of San Francisco. Her goal is to be a dancer and like many artists finds herself with supportive parents who are still trying to comprehend how an art form can be a practical job.

For now, Keys is immersed in preparations for both the Synapse and Global Motion shows which are more often than not grand spectacles of movement and sound.

"It's going to be breathtaking. You'll see nice trios, technique and we like to move as one," she says. "We're a family that takes it so seriously. The costumes will be interesting this year, the lighting will be great."

Her favorite piece to practice so far is a lyrical jazz performance.

"Jazz is more turned in. Ballet is a structure that must be sustained while jazz passes through and also sustains," she says. "I like how you can tell your story through contemporary and lyrical, it will be like a soundtrack you hear. It's going to be a great piece."

Like blood in the veins, dance courses through every aspect of Keys' life. When she walks out of campus the streets become her new stage.

"We all dance all day. When we're not in rehearsal we're literally dancing in the middle of the street with a boom box doing glissades. When we go out on weekends we go to dance clubs, it's all dance," she says.

For Keys, life moves in rhythm and her feet in step with dreams and emotions that carry her forward towards an ever brighter future.