Campus & Community

GSE dancer Stewart tangos with art, academics

4 min read

Robert Stewart knows he doesn’t exactly measure up in his chosen line of work. He is small by the standards used to judge a man in his profession.

But he’s powerful, and he can jump, and he can, as they say in the industry, “press the girl.”

“Performing as a guest artist, one of my big strengths was that I could partner,” said Stewart, an accomplished ballet dancer. “I could lift. And in a lot of the small regional companies I danced with, the women weren’t always typical, tiny ballerinas.”

Today Stewart wants to make sure that neither height nor weight nor even money will stop any child from experiencing the wonder and joy of dance and other arts. With his new master’s in education, he is intent on finding new and inventive ways to make the arts an integral part of every school’s curriculum.

“I’ve never been to a school that offered arts as part of the curriculum that didn’t have a very healthy student population,” he said, adding, “It’s hard sometimes for me to justify the question, ‘Why give kids art?’ It’s almost like asking, ‘Why give kids water?’ The arts are an essential element of the human experience.”

Throughout his career, Stewart has reached out to the community, running everything from a combination gallery/art supply store/community center in Chicago for struggling artists and anyone in need of a performance space, to dance programs for disadvantaged youth in Texas. He realized early on that the arts are for everyone, and that their rewards are especially valuable to children.

“When you teach kids arts, they all succeed. There’s that self-confidence, that freedom, that comes from expression. Art gives you a way to express emotion, thoughts, and feelings. … It enables kids to find a deep aspect of themselves.”

Stewart knows firsthand about the challenges of combining academics and art. A bright student who loved to read and who was also blessed with a natural talent for dance, he found it difficult to find a school that offered both a strong curriculum and the type of dance program he wanted.

He was accepted into the prestigious Chicago Academy for the Arts but dropped out because they didn’t have a laboratory science program. “I didn’t think I would be able to go to college,” he recalled.

Unable to find a program with the perfect balance of academics and art, Stewart decided to focus exclusively on dance. But it is rarely a remunerative profession, so he had to rely almost entirely on grants and scholarships. Although it kept him dancing regularly, he missed the academic world. He finally returned to school and eventually graduated from college at the age of 26.

As a teacher, Stewart says, he particularly likes persuading skeptical boys that dancing is “cool.”

“The nobility and grace and beauty of ballet is there of course,” said Stewart, “but when you are talking to a fifth-grade boy, you want to talk about the strength, you want to talk about the fact that football greats Walter Payton and Emmitt Smith took ballet because it is one of the absolutely best forms of physical exercise.”

To demonstrate his leaping ability he casually rises from his chair, and in the blink of an eye jumps dangerously close to the ceiling in his apartment on Memorial Drive, completing two full rotations in midair before landing like a cat.

The move is called a “double tour,” and it’s something Stewart loves to see his young students master. While studying at Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), he also taught classes at Boston Ballet where he is the principal of its Citydance program, a 20-year-old effort to engage third-grade, inner-city children from the public school system with a variety of dance forms.

Recently, one of his students told him, “When I started Citydance I didn’t have my 3-point jump shot and now I do.”

“That,” said Stewart, “was awesome.”

The dancer is also part of a dancing couple. He met his wife Melinda, who also teaches at Boston Ballet, while working on a production together in Dallas. Initially, they didn’t get to dance together because “she was the smallest one in the company.” But when they did, sparks flew. They were married last fall.

Stewart, who will continue to work with the Boston Ballet and its Citydance program after graduation, also hopes to work more closely with Harvard on his outreach efforts.

“I’d love to get Harvard students involved in our dance program, and I’d like to [become] involved with Harvard’s CityStep program — which helps bring the arts to Cambridge public school children — and explore ways in which we might partner together.”