By Barbara Bradley: Features reporter for The Commercial Appeal
The big studio with its towering windows at Ballet Memphis must have looked like a new world to Ceniyah Dotson, 3, who arrived for dance class Thursday in Cordova wearing her new pink ballet costume.
Ceniyah was smaller and younger than most of the girls, and the only one who had never studied dancing. But quietly, shyly, sweetly, she got a handle on it. Attentive to the two young teachers and fascinated by the other girls, she mimicked their movements, saying nothing until the students, engaged in a stretching game, were asked to wiggle their fingers down their legs as if they were bugs. “I hate bugs!” she offered.
Barely detectable under her tights was the cruel scar left after she was impaled with a knife at the age of 2 months by her uncle, Jessie Dotson, in the worst mass murder case in Memphis history.
Ceniyah is the youngest survivor of the notorious 2008 Lester Street murders in which Jessie Dotson shot and killed her parents, Cecil Dotson and Marissa Williams, shot and killed two other adults and stabbed and beat to death two of her brothers, then ages 4 and 2.
Her brother “CJ” Dotson, then 9, and Cedric Dotson, then 5, who survived the attack, were also viciously stabbed and all three survivors were beaten.
Ballet Memphis scheduled the special, four-week, summer mini-course with Ceniyah in mind and is taking her on scholarship. The idea is to give her physical therapy in a way that will seem to her like play, said Eva Lynn Bishop, a founder of Tiara Tea Society of Memphis, which chooses one girl in dire need each year to assist. Her injured thigh needs strengthening. If she likes dancing, Tiara Tea will fund an additional 16 weeks of lessons, said Bishop.
Ceniyah and her brothers live with their maternal grandmother, Ida Anderson, and another granddaughter, Alandra Adrine, 12, in Anderson’s home in Southwest Memphis. Anderson turned her den into a bedroom for the boys, and Ceniyah shares her room. It’s cramped. “We have good days and stressful days,” she said.
Alandra is Ceniyah’s best friend, tends to her and takes her to the park. Ceniyah is a “girly-girl” who changes her clothes every time she spills a drop on them. At a recent visit to a dancewear store, she threw herself on the tutus, boas and other frilly things. But she also rough-houses with her brothers and dances with them to hip-hop music.
Her brothers are in summer school and making good grades, said Anderson. They will enter the 6th and 3rd grades in the fall. CJ loves computers and Cedric likes math. She hopes to interest them in swimming.
Ceniyah is still trailing glory from Tiara Tea’s March 20 tea party in which she was crowned a princess. She wears her crown around the house. She shows everyone who visits the framed photo of herself from the party that appeared in the newspaper. She is already media-savvy and knows, when a camera appears, it is for her. She does not understand why.
Ceniyah is like her late mother, Marissa, in her love for music and dancing, said Anderson. Marissa was a high-stepper majorette at 4 years old. When she was older, she joined her school’s marching band and learned to play three instruments. The family bought a piano for Ceniyah and individual women with Tiara Tea have offered her piano lessons as well as swimming lessons.
What Ceniyah is learning is not yet ballet, but more creative movement, said Janet Parke, Ballet Memphis School and Junior Company director. The children practice gross motor skills, simple concepts of movement, using their imaginations, working with props. Through ballet, dancers learn to express with their bodies feelings they can’t put into words, she said.
In one exercise, teachers Hannah Burton and Erika Holme paired the children and asked one to be the sculptor, physically changing the position of the other.
Here Ceniyah’s rough-housing paid off. While some girls were hesitant, she immediately took her partner’s head in her hands, gently tilted it to one side, and smiled. At the end of class, when the other students had left, Ceniyah raced back to the studio, coming out with a handful of colorful scarves she hoped to cart home. It didn’t work out. But the tiny dancer will almost certainly be back.