The word "recital" makes Sabra Logan's skin crawl.
Students, parents and choreographers at Iibada Dance Company all know this. But on the off chance someone accidentally lets the "R" word slip past their lips, Logan will quickly correct them.
"We don't do recitals," said Logan, affectionately known as "Mama Sabra" to students at her Indianapolis-based African and modern children's dance company.
"A recital, to me, is different levels of bad," she said, explaining her disdain for the word. "It's something that you do to show your mama what you've been doing in class. I have a thing about going to see a production. When I present something to a parent or an audience, I want to present a level of excellence."
For Logan, that includes stretching her dancers' (ages 5-19) abilities with material seen mostly on Broadway stages, in shows such as "The Color Purple," "The Lion King," "The Wiz" and "Dream Girls" -- as well as a few original works.
Most youth dance companies would shy away from having children who are still learning and perfecting technique take on award-winning productions and iconic musical theater numbers, but not Logan.
"It's almost as if she doesn't see a glass ceiling," said Destiny Casson, a sophomore at Howard University in Washington, D.C., who began taking classes at Iibada at age 5. "Technical barriers don't exist for Sabra. All she has is the vision and the goal to execute it, to give people a show, and to uplift the kids."
Logan said the demands she places on herself, the company and the youth dancers are all part of the ultimate goal to provide an entity where children can learn the basics, train in technique and develop into well-rounded dancers.
"I give them a jerk into reality. But their first experience will be the best experience," said Logan, who began her own training at age 3 in her hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, studying jazz, ballet, modern and African dance.
Dancers at Iibada are immersed in stage etiquette and presence, backstage rules and all of the nuances of presenting full-scale productions. During rehearsals and before each performance, dancers -- including the "babies," as Logan calls the younger students -- receive notes from the show's directors or choreographers to correct any mistakes in choreography, blocking and even behavior.
It's this notion of treating youth dancers like professionals that has helped to propel several of Iibada's former students into opportunities and careers with some of the most respected and beloved companies in the country -- including Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, Philadanco! The Philadelphia Dance Company, and Deeply Rooted Dance Theater.
Devin Baker, a first company member with Deeply Rooted Dance Theater in Chicago, said the expectation that youth dancers should be treated like professionals was also there when he was a member of Iibada.
"The same thing they expect from the adults, they expect from the kids," said Baker, now 28. "As a kid, you still had to work and were held accountable."
Baker, who graduated from Warren Central High School in 2004, spent four years as a company member with Cleo Parker Robinson Dance in Colorado before joining Deeply Rooted full-time in 2013. He said the training and experience he received at Iibada helped him transition into life as a professional dancer.
"Iibada definitely prepared me for the dance world. It was like a springboard for everything that I needed to train and become a professional dancer -- from the vocabulary to technique to auditions," said Baker. "With Iibada, I didn't go into the professional world blindsided."
Prior to Iibada, Baker said he didn't know much about dance genres outside of hip-hop, that a career in dance was possible, or even that he wanted to be a professional dancer. But, he said, "Iibada helped me find my passion for dance."
Logan's heart swells every time one of her students makes it professionally. "I'm ecstatically proud when my kids move on to professional companies."
Iibada (which means "worship" in Swahili) opened its doors in 1989 to offer students of all races, backgrounds, religions and dance levels an opportunity to learn and train in various styles.
Now more than 20 years later, Logan is working with her third generation of dancers.
Katie Thompson's 9-year-old daughter Mary has been with Iibada for almost two years.
"Mary is getting a lot of exposure and experience here," said Thompson. "I love how Mama Sabra pushes the kids, but how the kids embrace her like she's family. They see her as a second mom."
For Mary, a member of Iibada's Junior Company and a fourth-grader at Andrew Academy, Iibada is fun and nurturing.
"What I like most about Iibada is that they care for me and they help me with new dances. I also love performing on stage," she said.
Some of her favorite performances include "Stomp," a tap routine for Iibada's Holiday Showcase in December; a performance of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" on Halloween night at the JW Marriott; a jazz/modern piece called "Wonder" for PBS' Kids in the Park; and an original production called "The Dancing Magic Drum" at the Walker Theatre.
Iibada performs about 10 to 15 shows each year, culminating with its annual summer production in August. In addition to performances and weekly classes, Logan is always looking for other ways to expand her students' dance experience -- at times that might include attending dance conferences and workshops, lessons in dance vocabulary or requiring students to write reports on professional dancers.
"I'm always trying to figure out how to build opportunities for them to be exposed to something bigger, and to excite them about what they are doing," said Logan, a former teacher, "I want them to see something bigger than themselves and what's immediately around them."
Iibada, which takes up the third level inside Broadway United Methodist Church near Downtown Indianapolis, has a full roster of dance instructors and choreographers teaching everything from African and modern to jazz, tap, ballet and hip-hop. There's a creative movement class for ages 3-4, and even a few adult classes offered during the week.
Iibada provides several levels of training, but most dancers aspire to become part of the Junior Company or Senior Company because of the choreography they get to perform and the number of shows they present throughout the city.
However, the only way to get to "company level" is to audition, "just like a professional," said Logan. "It usually takes three to four years of training to get to company (level), and students don't go to 'senior company' until they are 14 or older, but that also depends on their skill level."
With Iibada's full roster of instructors in various dance genres, the multi-tiered levels of training and yearlong performance schedule, Logan said she can proudly say that they are at the level of a full-fledged dance school (a training school and performing company).
Just as Logan has tweaked certain aspects of Iibada to make it one of the city's premiere children's dance companies, she also has changed some of her own roles and responsibilities.
These days, Logan finds herself spending less time teaching classes and more time maintaining the day-to-day business operations of her nonprofit dance company.
Logan now runs Iibada with assistant artistic director Nicholas Owens, who received his initial dance training at Iibada as a youth dancer. Owens is also a freelance choreographer.
But like any dancer, Logan always finds her way back into the studios. Sometimes it's the music that draws her from her office, down the hall and through the double doors into one of the studios. Other times it's pure curiosity.
She's watching to see if kids in the Academy (the training program for beginning dancers) are picking up on technique. Logan offers praise to these youngsters and often walks around the room to correct positioning of feet, arms and posture.
Other times, she's looking in as dancers in the company rehearse pieces for upcoming shows. With this group, Logan seems more at ease calling it like she sees it. One moment, she's criticizing what seems like every move they make, and the next moment she's screaming, "Yes! Yes!," as they nail a sequence.
Logan said her goal with Company members, many of whom have aspirations of becoming professional dancers, is to help them develop thick skin.
"It's all for their development. I want them to know what it's like as a professional dancer. There are times you'll audition for something and not get it," she said. "And directors and choreographers in the professional world will yell at you. I need my kids to understand and be prepared for that."
Even when Logan is being "harsh," she said her dancers know it's done because she expects the best. "When I'm criticizing, I always give them some positive. I've had many kids break down on me, and then take that direction and nail it. I'm requiring so much more from the company kids."
Some of Logan's former students, however, believe she has softened with age.
Casson, 19, who teach classes at Iibada when she's on college break, says Logan was much harsher on dancers when she was with the company.
"I don't recognize this Sabra," said Casson, laughing. "And I tell her that all of the time. (These dancers) get it so sugar-coated. Of course, with the times, you have to change."
Logan admits that she doesn't use some of the tactics she did with past generations to correct dancers. But she's still able to get a dancer's attention when needed -- even if that means raising her voice from time to time.
"My approach is not demeaning," said Logan, who's also a mom and a grandmother. "I criticize, but I light them back up. You have to have constructive criticism to grow."
The counterbalance to the tough love that Logan dispenses is her ability to bring out the best in dancers. Casson, who takes dance classes in Washington, D.C., while in school, said Logan has a unique ability to pull kids out of their shells.
Maybe it's the personal greetings followed by the hugs that she gives to each dancer as they enter the studio. Or it could be the affirmations she provides to students when they do well in school, or the words of encouragement she offers when they struggle with any aspect of their lives.
"I don't know what it is, but Sabra has this ability to pull you out of yourself," said Casson, who remembers how Logan took the time to help her come into her own as a young child and dancer. "And the fact that she can still do that after all these years blows my mind. She has had a really big part in who I am today."
What Casson does know for certain is how after more than two decades in business, Iibada continues to nurture dancers and keeps audiences coming back for more.
"With Iibada, it's never been about her -- it's never been the 'Sabra Logan Show,'" said Casson. "For twenty-something years, it's never been about that. That's what keeps Iibada pure. There's no ego."
Making “Mama” Proud
Iibada Dance Company was the training ground for several Indianapolis dancers who are making a name for themselves across the country. Here's a quick look at their dance history.
Baker, a 2004 graduate of Warren Central High School, said the training he received at Iibada (from 2002 to 2004) helped him develop his passion for dance.
After graduating from Warren Central, Baker participated in training programs with Deeply Rooted Dance Theater in Chicago. He was also a member of the first company with Cleo Parker Robinson Dance in Denver, Colorado, for four years. Since October 2013 Baker has been a member of the first company with Deeply Rooted Dance Theater.
Hazelwood, a 2009 graduate of North Central High School and 2013 graduate of Indiana University, began her dance career with Iibada at age 5. She later danced with Kenyetta Dance Company in Indianapolis as a featured dancer. Hazelwood made her professional debut this fall with Deeply Rooted Dance Theater in Chicago.
A graduate of North Central High School, Oglesby started his dance training at Iibada when it was located at Zion Hope Baptist Church in the late 1990s. A singer and dancer, Oglesby later studied at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City.
Gregory Manning II
Manning is a 2009 graduate of Broad Ripple High School Center for the Performing and Visual Arts and Humanities. His dance career started at age 11 at Shortridge Middle School's dance magnet program, under the tutelage of Kenyetta Johnson-Brasher. Manning also performed with Footworks Modern Dance Company.
In 2004 Manning joined Iibada Dance Company. "Iibada Dance Company was the first dance company I joined outside of my school," said Manning, who is currently on the West Coast auditioning for shows. "Although I had already begun my dance training, Iibada really helped to advance it. Aesthetically, it was where I belonged and what I needed at the time. … Mama Sabra has been that other mother figure in my life. She has seen me grow up."
After Iibada, Manning joined Kenyetta Dance Company and was a featured dancer. Professionally, Manning studied at the Ailey School in New York for three years and was a student/school performer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.