Local dancer sets sights on New York City by way of Iowa
When Venezia Manuel was a little girl, she idolized iconic Alvin Ailey dancer/choreographer Judith Jamison. Now, at 18, Manuel is also larger than life. Literally.
For many months, her soaring image has graced SIUE billboards and promotional flags on both sides of the river. After a student was recently upset about the removal of one of the billboards, Manuel, 18, felt the weight of being a role model.
“She said, ‘I look up to you,’ and I was like, ‘Wow,’” Manuel said. “It really told me I have to continue doing this if I’m helping a younger girl seek out what she needs to keep on the right path.”
‘Just my baby on the stage’
Growing up in East St. Louis, Manuel’s first brush with dance happened at daycare, not in the classroom but in another room in the same building. The energy emanating from a dance rehearsal space piqued her 5-year-old curiosity.
“This guy -- his name was Sunshine -- said, ‘Come on in,’ and I just started dancing and moving around,” Manuel said.
Manuel’s first real class was in African dance. Next came ballet, jazz and tap at SIUE’s East St. Louis Center for Performing Arts program, founded by the matriarch of black dance, Katherine Dunham.
It wasn’t long before Manuel, her father’s youngest and her mother’s only child, saw that all the world’s a stage. During a family reunion in a Washington, D.C., hotel, a 7- or 8-year-old Manuel wanted to find out “who’s in charge” so she could make some special arrangements, according to her mom Venis Manuel.
“She told me, ‘Mama, I want to perform for the dinner,’” Venis Manuel said.
Manuel’s debut was a success, and soon her dancing, singing and piano performances became a regular part of family gatherings. Still, her mother thought it was “just a phase.” That is, until one of her daughter’s instructors told her to be sure and bring her back after summer break.
“He was like, ‘She’s a true performer -- watch how she lights up.’ And I was like, ‘Oh that’s just my baby on the stage,’” Venis Manuel remembered. “Then I started paying attention, and I thought, ‘He’s right.’”
By the time Venezia was in her teens, she’d appeared in a Muny production of “Annie,” was a member of COCADance and performed regularly with Afriky Lolo. So promising was her career, that her family moved to St. Louis so she could attend Central Visual and Performing Arts High School.
Next stop, Iowa City
As a new high school graduate, Manuel hopes to one day win a spot with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City. But first, she’s making a stop in Iowa.
In August, Manuel begins her freshman year at the University of Iowa, where she has a full ride including room and board. Initially wary about relocating to the Hawkeye State, the Land-of-Lincoln-born dancer demonstrated more of a Show-Me State attitude.
“At first I didn’t know if I wanted to go there because it’s Iowa and it’s corn fields, and I’m an outgoing person who likes to be around a lot of people. But when I went there, I knew this was where I wanted to go.”
The school’s friendly atmosphere and abundant performance opportunities sealed the deal. Plus she can always transfer to the more expensive California Institute of the Arts next year if Iowa doesn’t work out. Another bonus: UI is only four hours away from home.
“I’m going to miss my friends and my dance teachers,” Manuel said. “But if they need me to come back and dance, I can do that.”
Among those Manuel will miss, and vice-versa, is Katherine Dunham-certified instructor Keith Williams, who’s known Manuel since she was 10. Not only is Manuel gifted, he said, but her ability to use constructive criticism and overcome obstacles will serve her well in college and beyond.
“She’s resilient, and if you want to purse this as a career you have to be resilient because we deal with so much rejection,” Williams said.
She’s also a planner, and has already mapped out her second career: university dance instructor. Manuel’s teaching ability was quickly apparent to SUIE instructor Jamila Ajanaku, who’s taught Manuel since she was 9.
“What really made me start putting more energy and time in her is the way she worked with young children. They would just be all around her,” Ajanaku said.
In little more than a month, Manuel will be surrounded not by young children but other college students. Unlike most, who have no idea where their studies will take them, she’s certain of her choice to major in dance and education.
“I can’t imagine doing anything else. I used to want to be a basketball player, I used to want to play the piano,” Manuel said. “But dance is everything to me; it’s who I am.”