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Traci Lester putting her best foot forward at the National Dance Institute

Cyril Josh Barker | 9/14/2016, 11 p.m.
Newly hired executive director of the National Dance Institute, Traci Lester, wraps up her first week in her new position. ...
Traci Lester and students with the National Dance Institute National Dance Institute photo

Newly hired executive director of the National Dance Institute, Traci Lester, wraps up her first week in her new position. In an interview with the AmNews, she said she’s looking to expand the nonprofit’s reach to give more access to the arts to city youth.

“The first week has been great,” she said. “I’ve been meeting with a lot of people and listening and hearing. What’s really clear is that passion that the staff has. It’s tremendous. The passion they have for the children and the NDI model.

A former education, nonprofit and human services executive, Lester is assuming the role as executive director of the Harlem-based NDI, not only as a lover of the arts but also as a parent with a child in the program. She watches as the other parents do as her child dances onstage.

A native of New Jersey and now living in Harlem, Lester is the daughter of famed jazz saxophonist Conrad “Connie” Lester and she plays the flute. Although not a dancer herself, she said the arts has always been part of her life.

Now she is lending her hand to one of the city’s foremost dance programs, which reaches more than 6,000 public school children per week throughout the city and reaches thousands more through 12 NDI-associate programs across the country. NDI was founded in 1976 by legendary New York City Ballet principal dancer Jacques d’Amboise and has been at its Harlem headquarters on 147th Street since 2011.

NDI is free, and every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., kids from across the city are learning routines, perfecting their craft, preparing for performances and enriching their lives.

“My goal is to really help position NDI so that it can spread its wonderful message far and wide,” said Lester. “There are still many schools that could use NDI, where families come and make sure that they know we are there and that we’d love to work with their kids.”

Lester's background includes working as a New York City public school teacher and running two large nonprofit organizations: LSA Family Health Service, a human services agency and Reach Out and Read of Greater New York, an early literacy, school readiness program.

Being a leader to both organizations combined with her teaching background prepared her, she said, for her current position because she knows what’s going on outside of NDI.

“I’ve been in New York City since the 1990s, and I know that having NDI here has been tremendous for the community and it adds to the cultural richness of Harlem,” she said.

Joining an already stellar team, Lester supervises a staff of nearly 60. She’s also oversees NDI programs across the nation. Like directors of other cultural institutions in the city, Lester seeks to find resources to put NDI in places where there’s a need.

“The need is to make sure that this program is in as many schools as we can reach,” she said. “My goals are to figure out how to do that. At the end of the day it’s not just for kids’ access, but access to resources to help us broaden our message. A lot of people reach out to us. The agency is open and accessible for expansion.”

Although she’s a parent of a child who is part of NDI, the main focus is the many children the organization influences. Lester knows firsthand how art transforms the lives of children, which is why she’s so adamant about expanding NDI.

“When you see kids at school they carry themselves differently, and then when they are in the studio dancing or onstage, they just light up in a way that maybe their parents haven’t even see,” she said. “The kids are superstars. Often times people forget the ways you can reach children to help them grow. Dance, music and art education is one way to do that.”

To get more information about participating in NDI or to have it in your school, go to nationaldance.org.