Local Hero: Karisma Jay Brings the Healing Power of the Arts to Her Community

Dancers of all ages and backgrounds take center stage at this nonprofit studio.

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Born to Inspire

Karisma Jay was just 2 years old when she began dance classes. She then went on to graduate from New York City’s famed Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts at 16 and perform in the off-Broadway musical Stomp. Still, Karisma often felt like she didn’t fit in. “I’m an African American Latina girl with thick curly hair. I have a butt that’s not going away and I have thighs,” says Karisma, 29. As a kid she never saw girls like herself in the musicals she loved, but the beauty and energy of ballet and African dance quieted her insecurities. “The arts are healing,” Karisma says. “They healed me, and they should be accessible to everyone.” So she founded AbunDance Academy of the Arts, a Brooklyn nonprofit with sliding-scale fees and scholarships for families in need.

Seven days a week, tiny girls in pink leotards, teens and adults in vibrant African wrap skirts and seniors as old as 92 in workout attire converge on AbunDance to study ballet, tap, hip-hop and more. “There is no one color, hair texture or gender here. We teach that we’re all a family,” explains Karisma. “I named the school AbunDance because I wanted something that could spark change and impact lives.”

Safety Net

Between Stomp tours, Karisma was teaching at another nonprofit when its owner, who was retiring, suggested she open her own dance studio. “To leap and hope for a net to appear was audacious,” says Karisma, an NYU arts graduate with little business experience. In 2012 family, friends and parents spent six months helping her renovate a leased storefront. “It felt like years,” says Karisma, who plowed through her Stomp savings and continued touring to bring in more needed cash.

Support Team

The following spring AbunDance Academy opened with 38 students and just enough funding for a few months. “Strategic financial planning goes into making sure that the lights stay on,” says Karisma. “Finally, I just said to myself, ‘Girl, get the grants going. We need help.’ ” Local arts organizations responded with donations. And when Karisma won $5,000 in 2015’s The Stars of New York Dance competition, the prize money went toward AbunDance scholarships. Word spread and now 120 students pay a modest fee for three hours of weekly classes, with about 10 kids on scholarship and a few others on payment plans. “I did not want to go above what my mom could have afforded,” Karisma emphasizes. Her mother, Sandi, helps with the bookkeeping, and a loyal parent network volunteers to assist Karisma’s 12 teachers during the school’s showcases.

Light the Lights

So far Karisma has adapted and directed The Wiz for her pupils, and in 2015 she mounted her version of Annie—titled Annie AbunDantly!—at Brooklyn’s Kings Theatre. “We’re creative about making our productions look like big bucks on a small budget,” says Karisma, who is proud to help her shyest pupils conquer their performance fears. “My goal is to create outstanding citizens of the world,” she says. “It’s not about dance; it’s not about acting. It’s actually about life.”

For more information or to donate, visit abundancearts.org.