The Art of Movement: Terence Greene and the Miracle of Dance

Welcome to a Day in the Life of Terence Greene...


By Paul Cox

Editor’s Note: Paul Cox is Dean of Creative Arts at Tri-C. For the past three years, he has overseen Mr. Greene's development of the highly regarded Creative Arts Dance Academy, which serves students ages 4-18.

Twenty-five students warm up in the mirrored dance studio at Tri-C's Center for Creative Arts. Music pulses as an apprentice leads the group through a series of "Horton" exercises and stretches drawn from techniques developed by Lester Horton, the legendary choreographer. The young women wear black leotards with white tights, their hair pulled back into flawless buns. The young men sport black tights and white tank tops. Their silent focus creates an atmosphere of intense anticipation.

Mr. Terence Greene enters the studio, strides purposefully to the front of the class and gazes over the dancers standing at attention. Bald and barrel-chested wearing a GreeneWorks t-shirt, black sweats, and stylish black Nikes, he's dressed to move. The mood shifts dramatically once the warm-up ends and work begins on a new ballet. Greene's eyes narrow on the students as he shouts out counts over the music.

“5-6-7-8, Demetrius! Keep your shoulders back," his voice booms while the dancers move rapidly through a set of steps and positions, leaving them breathless. A tough-love spirit pervades throughout the rehearsal. "Mr. Greene is like a lion. If you walk into a pit, he's going to come at you with everything," says Jeffrey Thomas, Jr., a Greene protégé who just received a full scholarship to study dance at Alabama State University.

For a peek into Greene 's world click here:

Greene’s strength as a teacher lies in his ability to establish solidarity and discipline within the company and a reputation for presenting top-flight performances. His own relentless work ethic inspires students, guest artists, teachers, theater techs, costumers, and parent volunteers to work extra hard. Students live for the performances when their families crowd into packed theaters to see (and cheer on) their work. Just moments before a performance a beautiful thing happens. Everyone—dancers, teachers, tech. staff, volunteers—gathers on stage behind the curtain to hold hands to pray and meditate. “Mother Char,” the etiquette teacher and surrogate mother of the group prays softly, "Please protect these young dancers from injury. Amen." When the curtain lifts and the lights shine, it’s the performance that completes the program’s uniquely rhythmic heartbeat.

Now in its third year, Tri-C's Creative Arts Dance Academy serves more than 130 students throughout the city with crucial support from a Cleveland Foundation Arts Mastery grant. It’s clear: The Academy’s reputation is on the rise with capacity classes and sold-out performances, featuring a breadth of dance that rivals any established academy. This includes classical ballet taught by Kay Eichman, a former principal dancer with the Cleveland ballet; tap, hip-hop and new works blending various cultural traditions from India, Africa and American popular dance taught by Jessica Spurlock and Mr. Greene.

In many ways, Greene's life as a dancer has come full circle. Thirty years ago, he followed a girl on a whim to her audition at the old Cleveland School of the Arts, then located in the basement of Jane Adams High School on East 30th street. Not intending to audition, he decided on the spot to take his first step—a pivotal decision that changed his life.

Raised by a single mother down the street on East 55th and Quincy, he attended Marion Sterling Elementary then Alfred A. Benesch Middle School. He was in his words a "class clown," and a "fabulous boxer," a welterweight who never let opponents “touch his face.” However, it was at CSA where he found his way off the streets under the direction of Eugenia Payne, the dance teacher who "saw something in a troubled child," Greene recounted. While at CSA, he seized on every available opportunity, taking dance classes at Tri-C with Christine Buster, who was "hard as a whip," Karamu House and the Cleveland Ballet, where he danced in West Side Story under the direction of Dennis Nahat, the company's iconic artistic director.

After seeing the Alvin Ailey Dance Company in 9th grade, he decided, “that’s what I want to do.” His dream came true soon after when he was accepted into Ailey’s rigorous summer dance intensive. "Takes your breath away," Greene says of meeting Ailey for the first time. Ailey pushed him to a new level of technique and discipline. Returning to CSA, he put in hours of practice, often working with his friends late into the night. The commitment paid off. By the time he graduated in 1986, he had earned a two-year scholarship to the Alvin Ailey Dance Center.

While at Ailey, Greene worked with dancers from across the globe and improved rapidly. Yet, living in New York was too expensive for a poor kid from Cleveland. Broke and surviving on rice cakes and peanut butter in a cramped apartment with three roommates, he auditioned and won a job performing in the Bahamas. For the next two years, he danced in a Las Vegas review show in both Nassau and Freeport.

His next stop was Washington D.C., where he worked with Mike Malone, founding director of Karamu House, on a range of productions, including Black Nativity at Howard University and Dream Girls at Karamu House back in Cleveland. Malone advocated for Greene and recommended him for an audition with the acclaimed Dayton Contemporary Dance Company (DCDC), one of America’s premier companies. The DCDC audition drew over 100 men. Greene won the job and spent the next ten years traveling the world teaching and performing in Korea, China, Russia, France, Germany and throughout the U.S.

Following the death of his mother, Sue Ann Greene, in 1995, he took a break from the company to mourn and settle her affairs and to reflect. The break gave him a new perspective on his career and his future as a choreographer and teacher. When he returned to Dayton, he focused on choreography, creating new dances for DCDC's second company at the Geraldine School of Dance. In his last year with DCDC, he choreographed a new dance for the main company called Phases, with moves that explored time’s impact on humanity set to a score of gospel music by the group "Sounds of Blackness." Highly physical and fast-paced, hallmarks of Greene's style, the dance was risky to perform. In the debut performance, one of the female dancers took a knee to the head and was dazed. Stylistically, Greene's choreography continues to explore the themes of our existence and the power of faith in ballets that are both lyrical and athletic.

After retiring from DCDC, he returned home to Cleveland to teach students at Karamu and his alma mater, the Cleveland School of the Arts (where he taught for almost two decades). Inspired by his earlier work with Mr. Malone, he created the Coming of the King, a nativity dance-drama that has become a can’t-miss staple of the Christmas season. His commitment to education is evident in every one of his classes. Greene always emphasizes the importance of academic achievement, deportment, and responsibility to his students. If a student is not doing well in school, they cannot dance. If they’re late to rehearsal, they have to sit out until there’s a break. If late or absent from a dress rehearsal, they’re out of the performance. The boundaries are clear, something students from challenged backgrounds crave.

In 2015, Tri-C brought Greene on to launch the Creative Arts Dance Academy to provide intensive dance training. Fifteen students made up the first class. Enrollment steadily swelled to more than 120 by the end of 2016. The growth reflects Greene’s aspirational mission to save kids and rebuild our city through dance. His mission is catching fire: The Cleveland Foundation recently selected the Tri-C program as part of their Arts Mastery initiative to bring high-quality arts instruction to kids living in Cleveland neighborhoods where arts programs are scarce. With new programs up and running at St. Luke’s Boys and Girls Club (Buckeye), The Family Ministry Center (Clark/Fulton) and CMHA’s Heritage View (Kinsman), Greene and his faculty and apprentices are reaching another 100-plus kids and discovering new talent in the most neglected neighborhoods in Cleveland.

To fully understand the growth and new grants requires a closer look at Greene’s rehearsal techniques, especially with large groups of kids of varying ages, say 12-18. His rehearsals are best described as high-energy master classes. In between working out a choreographic sequence, Greene peppers the students with historical facts about the subject of the dance, be it “Hidden,” the latest ballet about the African American women who crunched numbers for NASA or a dance inspired by Rosa Parks. Rehearsals always feature a call and response between teacher and students intended to underscore key points.

“Ago?” The Swahili word is pronounced “ah-GO,” meaning do I have your attention?

“Ame!” the class answers in unison, meaning, yes, we understand!

For a large ensemble sequence requiring the dancers to be in perfect unison, he has the group sing the music then dance and sing at the same time. If one student has trouble, he has one of the senior students teach the steps slowly, describing each movement in detail, often with references to the great dancers—Martha Graham, Horton, and Ailey.

What’s fascinating to watch is that through their bodies these dancers are internalizing a vast range of stories; however, the more profound story here is that each dancer is on a quest to rise up to greater heights in all aspects of their lives, artistic, academic, and social. They have a sense of community that’s evident in rehearsals during breaks when they hang on each other the way teenagers do; or when a solo dancer nails a routine and the whole group claps and cheers. In essence, these rehearsals represent the perfect blend of learning, love, and labor. There’s talent here. There’s hope here. Maybe, just maybe, Greene and his crew of teachers and dancers can save this city’s children, one step at a time.


Paul Cox, Ph.D., currently serves as Dean of Creative Arts at Cuyahoga Community College, where he oversees eight academic programs, an extensive arts preparatory academy, and a performing arts series. He previously taught at Oberlin College, the Cleveland Institute of Music, and Case Western Reserve University, where he was a SAGES fellow and Director of the Case Percussion Group. From 2012-13 he was the Director of Sitka Fest, a summer-long arts and culture festival supported by an NEA "Our Town" Grant that featured a TEDx conference, theater, music and dance performances, exhibitions, lectures and classes for all ages in Sitka, Alaska. In 2011, he earned a Ph.D. from CWRU after completing his dissertation, Collaged Codes: John Cage's Credo in US." From 1996-2005, he served as the Assistant Curator of Music at the Cleveland Museum of Art, where he was also the co-director of the internationally acclaimed Aki Festival of New Music (three-time winner of the CMA/ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming). A graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory, Cox was a fellow at Yale's Norfolk New Music Festival and completed additional studies at the Aspen Music School, the Royal College of Music (London) and Rice University. He lives in Cleveland with his wife Kirsten and their two strapping boys Benjamin and Sebastian and two cats Stefano and Atticus.