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    Women to Watch: Dancer Elizabeth Mensah playing her part in new city

    Chicago native chosen for creative leadership study

    By Susan Snapp - The Commercial Appeal -

    Ballet dancer Elizabeth Mensah has lived in Memphis for less than a year, but she is committed to making a difference in her adopted city.

    "I really want to get more involved in the Memphis community," said the 22-year-old Chicago native and dancer with Ballet Memphis. "And through our community engagement program at Ballet Memphis -- Connections: Kids -- I've found that I really, really love working with kids. Obviously, we can't change their lives in an hour, but the experience still means something to the child."

    Connections: Kids brings dancers to 10 different community centers in some of the most economically depressed areas of the city. Participating children are exposed to dance, health and nutrition education, as well as question-and-answer time with members of the dance company.

    "Connections: Kids was such a learning experience for me, especially as a new resident of Memphis," Mensah said. "It gave me a glimpse of the way so many children in this city live, and reminded me how lucky I was to be raised in a community with ample access not only to the arts, but to proper nutrition and health education. Exposure to these things was such a necessity in my upbringing, and I wish they could be a bigger part of every child's life."

    After graduating from high school, and with acceptances to several prestigious universities, Mensah chose a scholarship to the world-renowned Joffrey Ballet School in New York City. She studied there for two years, then moved to Joffrey Ballet's new school in Chicago, where the professional dance company is now based.

    After auditioning across the country, Mensah chose Memphis to begin her career. She arrived in August 2011.

    This year, she was awarded an ArtsMemphis grant to attend the Urban Bush Women Summer Leadership Institute in July in New Orleans. The intensive, 10-day workshop incorporates leadership training for a carefully chosen group of 18-to 26-year-old artists with instruction in modern-based contemporary dance.

    The Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Urban Bush Women are a performance ensemble dedicated to exploring the use of cultural expression as a catalyst for social change. This year's annual conference will address the question of urban poverty, among other topics.

    "It will be way out of my comfort zone," the petite, classically trained ballerina said, "which will be really cool."

    At what age did you know dance was your passion and you would make it your profession?

    I was about 13 when I decided that I wanted to be a professional ballet dancer. From that time on, I've never doubted that choice. Having such a sense of purpose throughout my adolescence was actually a wonderful thing. I saw a lot of my peers struggling to figure out what their passion might be, and I felt lucky to already know that dance was mine.

    Of all your performances as a dancer, what experience stands out most?

    Performing the role of the Wicked Stepmother in Ballet Memphis' "Cinderella" at the Orpheum theater in April. It was my first time performing in a featured role with a professional dance company, and dancing alone on a stage as big as the Orpheum is alternately terrifying and exhilarating. That experience reminded me why I love to perform.

    What has been the biggest surprise for you about Memphis?

    How many interesting things there are to see and do in the city, and how large it is, geographically speaking. I generally learn about new places to go and things to do in Memphis by getting lost while driving through the city, which happens pretty frequently for me.

    What do you miss most about Chicago?

    My family, my best friend, the lakefront and deep-dish pizza.

    What was the last book you read?

    "Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear: Inside the Land of Ballet," by Stephen Manes. The author is a journalist who decided to write a behind-the-scenes book about the ballet world from an outsider's perspective. He spent a year with a professional ballet company in Seattle to research the book, which ended up being 900 pages long. It's so detailed and comprehensive, but fun to read. I think anybody curious about the life of a professional dancer would enjoy it.

    Know a woman we should spotlight? Someone who is successful, doing great things or making Memphis a better place? E-mail information to winburne@commercialappeal .com.

    Elizabeth Mensah

    Occupation: Professional dancer, Ballet Memphis.

    First job: The summer I graduated high school, I tutored elementary school children at a day camp in Chicago.

    Can't live without: Talking with my family and my two best friends on the phone and Skype. Being away from people I love is hard, but technology really helps minimize the distance.

    Favorite spot in Memphis to hang out with friends: The Beauty Shop restaurant in Cooper-Young. I love their Nutella milkshakes.

    In 10 years: I hope to have a healthy body, to be dancing in an organization where I'm being challenged and inspired, both personally and artistically.

    Folks would be surprised if they knew: I can whistle extremely accurately.