By: Nicole Sergent
Photos By: Joy Rahat
Myles Downing first recalls the joy he discovers in dance while dancing with his family. He smiles and shares “Oh, we took dance seriously. There were dance offs. And the prize was even money.” If you’ve seen 19 year-old, Martinsburg resident Downing perform, you won’t be surprised that he often won that prize.
His love for dance and performance grew as he participated in South Spirit Show Choir at Martinsburg South Middle School and Good Times Show Choir at Martinsburg High School. Downing knew he loved the feeling of being on stage and that dancing was something he was naturally good at. He started learning harder dance tricks online via You Tube tutorials and eventually tried out for Martinsburg High School’s Velocity Dance Team. His teammates couldn’t believe he had never had formal dance training and drug him with them to class at Tari Jo’s Dance Studio in Inwood, WV when he was 16 years old. Owner and instructor, Tari Jo Butler took one look at Myles and knew he had a “God given gift.” She generously told him to come in and take as many classes and he could get to at no charge and Butler and her skilled staff including Raegin Domenico and Christine McNamara began playing catch up, blending harder choreography that met Downing’s athleticism and passion with essential fundamentals. Along the way, parents and students from the studio became a supportive second family to Downing – a family that believed in a future that would take him farther from Martinsburg.
Upon graduation from Martinsburg High School in 2017, with support, encouragement, and sponsorship from his dance instructors and family, Myles took a chance and traveled to New York City to audition for a spot at The Ailey School, the educational and often feeder component to the world renown Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. The Ailey company has performed for an estimated 25 million people at theaters in 48 states and 71 countries on six continents – as well as millions more through television broadcasts, film screenings, and online platforms. While Downings’ natural talents seemed to match Ailey’s trademark style of athletic, modern, and soulful performances, he was not accepted to the school.
He returned home and continued to train at Tari Jo’s. During the studio’s spring recital, while Downing was performing a contemporary solo piece, a parent of two of the students recorded a portion of his performance. Brent and Nicole Sergent, whose daughters also dance at the studio, are friends from their graduate school school years at WVU with Ailey’s physical therapist Dr. Sheyi Ojofeitimi. On a whim, Brent sent the video to Ojofeitimi through social media, simply thinking that she had met Downing while visiting Martinsburg to conduct a workshop and he knew she appreciated his talent. A few weeks later, when returning from vacation and sorting through messages, she saw the video and “had goose bumps everywhere.” She forwarded the video to co-director of The Ailey School, Tracey Inman, who quickly responded, “Who is this kid? Do you know him?” In the week following they met to discuss Myles and Inman requested a formal audition video. With the help of his instructors one was completed and emailed to Mr. Inman. One week later he called to deliver exciting news. He was offering Myles a spot in the school as a scholarship student with all tuition covered. Reflecting on the moment he heard the news, Downing shares, “when I first found out I was offered a full year’s scholarship I was in complete shock. It’s actually a dream come true.”
There was one complication with the offer. Because it was past the acceptance period, dorm space at the school was already full and Downing would be on his own to find and fund living expenses. Those that support him quickly mobilized raising funds. His story and need for housing was shared with hundreds of people, organizations, and non profits within a matter of weeks. Just 12 days prior to having to be in New York to start classes, Myles had no place to live, and while generous donations had been shared, they were not enough to cover even a few months of modest living in the expensive New York City market. Just when it seemed that he may not be able to take advantage of this incredible scholarship, a dance parent named Cecelia Mason set up a call between the Sergents and a New York resident working for NBC news named Andrew Springer. Springer, originally from Fairmont, WV, has parents who live locally and heard about Myles’ story and need. Emmy Award winner Springer had an acute awareness that his success in journalism was fueled by others believing in his own dream. He also had an open room in his apartment for a few months while his roommate was out of town working. Without even meeting Downing, he offered for him to stay the first few months at his apartment at a generous rate that Myles could afford and help him acclimate to city life.
The unexpected gifts didn’t stop there. The Sergents had contacted their pastor, Dan McCoig, from First Presbyterian Church in Winchester when the housing outlook was grim, to see if there were any churches with living opportunities in New York. McCoig connected them to his childhood friend, artist David Leslie, who has enthusiastically jumped in to help welcome Downing to the city and be a key player in the search for long term housing for the rest of the year. Brooklyn resident and pastor Marion Phillips and his family (who happen to be part time residents at the Woods Resort in Hedgesville) met with Downing to help plan for the move and city life and Ojofeitimi quickly formed a village of Ailey students, dancers, and alumni prepared to welcome him as he begins classes this fall.
While the number of people who have generously stepped in to provide the opportunity for Downing to chase this dream is great, the honest truth remains. Basic and modest living in New York City is expensive and Downing is not eligible for federal student aid because of his scholarship and won’t be eligible for student housing until potentially next year. His community of friends continue to fundraise on his behalf to help provide living expenses while he trains 40-50 hours a week. A Go Fund Me page and a UGift529 program have been established. Gifts through Ugift529 are tax deductible for WV residents and do not require Downing to claim the educational support as taxable income. To give to the Ugift529 plan, simply go to UGift529.com, and use CODE 65Y-522. Funds from Ugift529 will be appropriately allocated to a housing sponsor through financial mentorship. Downing reflects on the community’s generosity by sharing, “I would like to thank my family, friends, and community for helping me achieve my dreams. I could not have gotten this far without the love and support from those around me. For that I am truly blessed.”
Brent Sergent shares, “to have a front row seat to see an extended community rally to give Myles a chance to change his whole life has been incredible. We appreciate the generosity of so many helping him on his journey and hope that we will one day be able to take a group to New York to see him perform with Ailey.” Downing is overwhelmed by the support and opportunity but not by the task ahead. “I’m ready,” he says with a smile. “This is my chance and I’m ready to work hard.” It’s clear that a growing group of supporters and friends believe his chances of winning his next dance off are pretty darn good.
Learn more about the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre: at https://www.alvinailey.org/ More information on Tari Jo’s Dance Studio by calling (304) 263-7368 or finding “Tari Jo’s Dance Studio and Rick’s Karate” on Facebook. Follow Downing’s journey on Instagram at myles.downing
Nicole Sergent is a pediatric physical therapist, co-author of 1-2-3 Just Play With Me, dance mom, and believer in those that chase their wildest dreams passionately.