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Tacoma's TUPAC tries to give back by hosting ballet in Hilltop neighborhood

The organization works to provide a space for the community’s youth to explore the arts and express their creativity.

TACOMA, Wash. — Olivia James Brieson loves to dance, and has been doing it as long as she can remember.

This weekend, Olivia will be able to display her skills at the Tacoma Urban Performing Arts Center, or TUPAC.

“It’s always been in my little heart to just dance,” she exclaims.

The community center will be presenting a ballet titled NOIR BLACK NOIR. The ballet features TUPAC’s students like Olivia, along with routines by Black choreographers, and music written by Black composers.

Klair Etheridge, TUPAC’s executive director, said the center gives residents in Tacoma’s Hilltop community an opportunity to explore the arts, and learn about past trailblazers. This is an education Etheridge believes is vital for the youth in the Hilltop.

“If children, and even the general population don’t know the wonderful things they can accomplish, then they’ll pretty much stay where they are,” she said. “You have to have an idea of what you can reach.”

Etheridge said the goal is to make the center and its programs as accessible as possible, offering scholarships to students, and putting price caps on event tickets.

Those goals can make funding the center difficult.

Etheridge recalled a grant she applied for that would require her to already have 40% of the center’s entire budget. Ethridge said the total budget to run TUPAC is $5 million, and raising 40% of that money before the deadline is almost impossible.

“To come up with 40% of $5 million in the blink of an eye?” Etheridge asks. “The application opened May 3 and is due June 23. Unless you’re a large non-profit, with a solid bank account, we’re pretty much going to be knocked out of the park. We’re working as hard as we can to get to 40%, but it’s a struggle.”  

There was a time when the center almost lost its crucial funding. However, after community members and city council members advocated to keep the center going, TUPAC is now getting the space it needs from the Tacoma Housing Authority.

“Tacoma has not invested in the Hilltop in the way that it could have and should have, historically,” said April Black, executive director for the Tacoma Housing Authority. “This is a time for us to step up and step in and fund this much needed organization, and continue to maintain the fabric of this community.”

As long as TUPAC’s doors stay open, Olivia will have a place to dance to her heart’s content.

“Here you can take risks, and kids growing up in this neighborhood can learn to take risks and find out what they love to do, what they want to do, and what they dream to do,” Olivia said. “When I was a little kid, I always wanted to be a Black ballerina and a Black dancer in general. And now that I’m here, I can accomplish being a little dancer.”

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