Steven Melendez never imagined he would see the world.
At 33, he cultivated a decadeslong career in dance that has taken him to such points.
Today, he stands in Albuquerque as the Hiland Artistic Director, ready to make a change.
It’s quite a long way from growing up in a homeless shelter in the South Bronx – a point where his life changed at the age of 7.
That’s when Diana Byer walked into his life.
She was the director of New York Theatre Ballet and went into the homeless shelter and said, “I have ballet classes if anyone wants them.”
“My mother goes, ‘Yeah, you go’,” as she pointed to me.
“I thought, ‘I’m not doing ballet. Are you kidding?’ I’m a Hispanic, 7-year-old boy in the South Bronx. I was not doing ballet. Then again, I couldn’t argue with my mother.”
He would ride the train from the Bronx to midtown Manhattan.
“I traveled an hour and a quarter from my community,” he says. “I’d pop out the other end, and there are these steel and glass skyscrapers, businessmen with their briefcases. That’s where my ballet studio was. It was like walking into another dimension. It was so far from what existed at home for me. It really felt like I was being plugged into this other world. Dance just happened to be the vehicle that got me there.”
A few months after taking the course with Byer, Melendez was cast in the New York Theatre Ballet’s “The Nutracker.”
“I was little mouse No. 2,” he says. “I scurried onto the stage for a quick moment with a big mask over my head. I got to take a bow at the end of the ballet. I took off my mask, and I thought that it was mind-blowing to have people clapping for me.”
Melendez spent long days practicing with the company, eventually becoming an apprentice dancer at 14.
By 16, he was a principal dancer and touring the world.
“I would do my math tables in the dressing rooms,” he says with a laugh. “I used to do my midterms and finals on tour. They would be mailed to the hotels and Diana or one of the other dancers would proctor my exams.”
At 18, he would leave New York to dance in Argentina and then in Estonia. Later he became director of the same program in New York that got him dancing.
At 33, Melendez is retired from dancing and moving into the next phase of his career.
He takes his position as artistic director seriously.
It’s his chance to give back and inspire younger dancers and make an impact through dance.
With these tools, Steven Melendez wants to help push the Albuquerque dance community to the next level.
Melenedez is responsible for directing the after-school program at The Hiland Theater. He will also lead the National Dance Institute New Mexico team of instructors in offering classes in ballet, jazz, tap, modern, hip-hop and musical theater.
“I’ve been learning how the organization works,” he says. “The other part of my time is figuring out what I want to do here. What are the steps it takes to get there? Because I’m working with students on an annual cycle, I don’t get to see the results until the spring.”
Melendez started at the Hiland Theater on June 17 and hit the ground running.
One of the first moves he’s made is creating the The Hiland Project Springboard Film & Lecture Series.
The first free event will be held at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 31, at the Hiland Theater, 4800 Central SE. It is called “Cowboys In Tights: Billy the Kid and Oklahoma!”
“The series is centered around dance appreciation and the culture of dance,” he says. “I think it’s important that when a young person is studying dance that they aren’t just studying the moves and the names. They have to understand what it means to be a dancer and how it connects you to those that have come before. My hope is that my students will come as well as the dancers in Albuquerque. More importantly, the community will attend, too so that we can begin to expand on the arts community.”
Melendez envisions the programming in the same vein as a TEDx talk. He plans to use the footage from Merrill Brockway’s “Dance in America” series to add a visual element to the talks. (Brockway donated the footage to NDI New Mexico).
“I’m reaching high with what I want to do,” he says. “I believe that working with the community will be a key element into making The Hiland a hub for dance in the region. There’s no reason that world-class dance shouldn’t be here.”
Liz Salgenek, artistic director for NDI New Mexico, says Melendez captured the attention of NDI New Mexico because of his vast professional and teaching experience. The search for the position was also conducted nationwide.
“He sees the value in the art form as well as in the mentorship,” Salgenek says. “The first thing was really seeing him as a remarkable educator. It felt like he was going to connect with the students.”
Salgenek also notes that Melendez began working as soon as he drove cross country to live here.
“He is so excited to go out into the community and meet other artists, educators and musicians,” she says. “He’s very interested and inspired by welcoming the Albuquerque community into the Hiland Theater. We want the Hiland to be a community and arts center.”
Melendez’s new mission and drive was pushed into motion by the death of his mother, who died at the age of 42 from cancer.
“There’s a chance that I’m going to die young. I need to do something and change the world in a way that is important. I have the opportunity to do so now,” he says. “Art shouldn’t be a passive experience. You have to be engaged in it. In order to understand it, you have to pay attention.”