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25th Anniversary: Renee Chatelain – 2005 Angel Award Honoree

On Dec. 21, 1992, the Louisiana Secretary of State recognized the incorporation of the Louisiana Child Caring Foundation — the entity that eventually became the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation.

In recognition of our 25th anniversary, we’re catching up with grantees, starting with our 23 classes of Angel Award honorees. 

 

When the Leo S. Butler Community Center in Baton Rouge requested a ballet teacher to be a part of its afterschool programs in 1995, Renee Chatelain, then an undergraduate at LSU headed to law school, answered the call and the Mid-City Dance Project was born.

Chatelain set about her project in a somewhat unconventional way.  “In the early days – this is gonna sound super creepy – these are kids that are not aware of consistent anything, like having to be at rehearsal every Saturday – I found that to effectively get attendance, I’d have to drive around the neighborhoods, see kids and say, “Wanna be in the show? Get in my car! And I’d drive them to the community center.”

“I started there and I fell in love with the kids,” she recalls.  From unconventional beginnings, “people started to understand when we started doing the Inner City Nutcracker,” an annual dance performance that began with about 60 children and now includes hundreds.

“We’d move from neighborhood to neighborhood, then we started to move into the schools. Through the years of her involvement with Mid-City Dance Project before becoming executive director of the Manship Theatre in 2010, Chatelain practiced law, then founded the dance programs and taught history at two independent schools. “By the time I moved to the Manship we were in eight schools and the program expanded to include afterschool homework and tutoring.”

She didn’t stop there.  “I found a dance company in Cleveland that was completely wheelchair, so we started to expand into kids with disabilities – I wanted to be as inclusive as possible,” she says, “One year we had a Clara in our Nutcracker who was profoundly deaf, super smart, and very outdone if someone missed their cue.”

She could relate “a thousand stories” about the children she’s encountered over the years. The Mid-City Dance Project, she believes, “made them feel confident and empowered and they learned something about classical music and ballet. Now I’ll see these kids who graduated – where are they now? It’s extraordinary – one is in Mumbai doing international social work. There are engineers, attorneys, executives at IBM.  I feel very confident that those arts activities showed them the way. Without them, their world would have been so much smaller.”

While the Nutcracker is Mid-City Dance Project’s “big signature,” says Chatelain, more recently the spotlight has been on “The Fading Line: A Commemoration of the 1953 Baton Rouge Bus Boycott,” a multimedia dance interpretation which she created.

The grant money from the Angel Award in 2005 “helped make that happen,” she recalls, adding “The award was amazing – I was so humbled by it – I remember hearing everybody else’s stories and thinking, ‘Oh my gosh I don’t even deserve to be here.’ It was inspiring – there are such good people in the world.”

Now Chatelain is in her third year as president and CEO of the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge, where she can use her law background and indulge her passions for community service through the arts.  “This really is a job that pulls all my worlds together and I love it,” she says.

 

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