Steps Ahead

Artistic powerhouses Kirven and Antonio Douthit-Boyd are broadening and elevating the dance community at the Center of Creative Arts and in the St. Louis metro.

Culture

Story By Jacqui Germain
Visuals By Jennifer Silverberg

An hour before the school day began, 14-year-old Kirven Boyd (now Douthit-Boyd) was sitting in a classroom, getting settled in front of an early 2000s-era desktop computer. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s (AAADT) newly launched website was splayed across the screen. Kirven clicked on one of the company’s two-minute video clips and busied himself with his breakfast while the footage slowly buffered. He’d been taking ballet classes already, but he started renting VHS tapes of AAADT’s most venerated performances, like Dance in America: Two by Dove and four by Ailey, after seeing the Alvin Ailey company for the first time on a class field trip.

“It literally changed everything I thought about dance,” says Boston native Kirven Douthit-Boyd. “The next day I went back to school and I told everybody. I was like, that is what I’m going to do. And that day forward, that was literally what I lived for… I never knew that dance like that was possible.”

St. Louis native Antonio Douthit-Boyd (then Douthit) saw the company for the first time through a local outreach program. He didn’t start taking dance classes at the Center of Creative Arts (COCA) until he was 16 years old, but Alvin Ailey’s signature choreography, style, and presentation offered a version of male dancers that left a mark on Antonio, too.

“I wanted to be a ballet dancer, but these men were dancing,” Antonio remembers. “They got to dance, they got to lift. They were the most beautiful beings — like, muscular and strong, but still had grace and agility. It was so crazy.”

Kirven (pictured left) and Antonio Douthit-Boyd pose in silhouette at COCA.

In the years since then, they’ve each led individually accomplished professional dance careers for more than a decade, landing coveted spots and even principal roles in the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, Ailey II, Dance Theatre of Harlem, and more. The pair started dating after they both made it into AAADT and married eight years later in the summer of 2013, just a few weeks before the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act. But the story of their first impressions back when the two first met, is cheekily and teasingly disputed, which makes any written re-telling here only a fraction as entertaining. 

Today, the Douthit-Boyds are recognized, award-winning leaders in St. Louis’ dance community, and in the arts community writ large. Most recently, the St. Louis Arts & Education Council awarded them the Excellence in Arts Award in 2021, and they received the Dance Teacher Magazine Award in 2022. Antonio is the Artistic Director of Dance at COCA and a Professor of Practice of Dance at Washington University in St. Louis. Kirven is the Associate Director of Dance at COCA and Artistic Director of COCAdance, as well as the Artistic Director of Big Muddy Dance Company.

Antonio’s journey leaving his hometown to accomplish ambitious, artistic dreams in a bigger city — and then returning home again unexpectedly — is surely a familiar one for many St. Louis artists and creatives. In fact, it was Kirven’s suggestion to move to St. Louis, after noting the enviable cost of living when compared to their lives in New York City, and an art scene full of opportunity. During breaks from AAADT, Kirven and Antonio would travel back to St. Louis and teach kids at COCA. Seeing their impact as educators over just a few short weeks illuminated what their potential impact could be as full-time educators. 

“I learned very early on this is not a career,” says Antonio, who adds that his students “push each other to greatness” every single class. “It’s not a job for me. This is my calling. I truly love dance, but I think I love educating more than I do actually being a performer. Watching kids have those ‘aha’ moments of like, oh my God, I just did five pirouettes and all I had to do is this.”

Kirven Douthit-Boyd (pictured left) is the Associate Director of Dance at COCA and Artistic Director of COCAdance. Antonio Douthit-Boyd is the Artistic Director of Dance at COCA.

“And when you see that your students understand that you know them?” Kirven adds. “I know every single one of you, and I want to help every single one of you reach whatever it is that you want to reach. Getting them to trust us enough to show up as themselves and to try their best all the time — that, for me, was another golden moment about understanding valuable leadership… To leave the stage was hard. It was really like, understanding the depth of impact. Yes, dance is the vehicle, but we’re literally shaping lives, you know? I take great pride in being a steward of that.”

The Douthit-Boyds made the move to St. Louis — and to COCA — in 2015, and set about uplifting the wealth of dance legacy and talent rooted in the region. St. Louis’ Black community specifically is home to a rich cultural and artistic history the Douthit-Boyds are invested in helping to unearth and preserve. 

“Miss (Katherine) Dunham used to be at COCA, Eddie Clark trailblazed the pathway for me to get to the Ailey company, Pelagie Wren! — there’s just so much richness here,” says Antonio, adding Raymond Parks, Redd Foxx, and Tina Turner to the list of local legends as well. “We have such a history here that I think people glaze over because it’s not the thing that is shining. I feel like that’s why we’re here. We’re here to expose the beauty and the culture. We’re invested in this community and we’re invested in seeing young people see their possibilities.”

Kirven and Antonio agree that cultivating a more expansive, inclusive, dynamic local artistic future means more resources and more seats at the table, more collaboration, and more exposure. It means supporting more entry points into dance for young kids and nurturing world-class opportunities for homegrown dancers to come back. Often, it means asking more of our institutions and pointing out ways to grow and improve. 

Antonio Douthit-Boyd (pictured left) is the Artistic Director of Dance at COCA, and Kirven Douthit-Boyd is the Associate Director of Dance at COCA and Artistic Director of COCAdance.

“I don’t believe I would be half of the leader and educator I am without having my husband on the side of me,” Antonio says. “I think he pushes me in ways and challenges me in ways of how I think, whether I like it or not… You want a better outcome for the kids, then you have to be that change. You have to be that catalyst for the institution to think outside of the box.”

The Douthit-Boyds use their work at COCA, Big Muddy Dance Company, and Washington University to grow access to dance, nurture a more expansive understanding of the benefits of the artform, and bring the medium’s generative possibilities to other area art scenes across the St. Louis metro. Under their leadership, COCA now offers almost 30 dance classes for children and adults, ranging from Little Happy Feet for four to seven year olds to Ballet Advanced for students 14 to 18 and Hip-Hop Adult Beginner. Big Muddy Dance Company’s 2023 season saw multiple collaborations with the Pulitzer Arts Foundation thanks to Kirven’s direction, and Antonio’s guidance at Washington University is pushing the dance program’s expertise forward while encouraging students to challenge tradition.    

“There are a lot of world-class arts organizations here in St. Louis, and a lot of them are collaborating on art in artistic ways that are really dope,” Kirven says. “The world doesn’t know that. And some of those things are quintessential to this area. As an artistic director of a dance company, I’m making sure that every single year I am in this seat, that there is some cross pollination between us and one of these other organizations. (I’m) helping other organizations understand what it takes to put dance in their space, and understand how these worlds can live together.”

Kirven Douthit-Boyd (pictured left) is the Associate Director of Dance and Artistic Director of COCAdance. Antonio Douthit-Boyd is the Artistic Director of Dance at COCA.

“When we don’t push that envelope, we’re not helping ourselves,” Antonio says. “We’re not helping the next generation. We’re the ‘Show Me’ state, and if you don’t show them that they can be something different, then we’re always going to stay in the same rat race that we’ve been in — especially in the arts. (Kirven is) the biggest thing that keeps me challenging how we push — not just push the envelope, but push the art scene forward here in St. Louis.”

For Antonio and Kirven, reflecting on their past 10 years in St. Louis naturally springboards them into a conversation about the next decade. The passion that continues to fuel Antonio’s career was made possible by the access and exposure to dance through COCA, and it’s the same force behind his dedication and pride as an educator in St. Louis. Kirven’s commitment to building the city’s arts infrastructure and community connections through dance remains a testament to the beauty, value, and opportunity he found inherent in the place he now calls home. And both men know they are uniquely positioned to foster that homegrown vision to their students and St. Louis.

“The dance nugget is, I feel like, the last piece of rounding out our arts ecosystem as a major thing,” Kirven says. “Once we do that, then we literally make St. Louis an artistic hub. When folks think about why they should come here — school, medicine, and art, right? People think St. Louis, they think about what’s happened in Ferguson. They think about all these things that are not so polished in terms of how our city should be seen. But if we can get this going in a really impactful way, I feel like we kind of tip the needle the other way.”

Pictured from top to bottom, left to right: Antonio (pictured left) and Kirven Douthit-Boyd check in with staff at the COCA front desk. The exterior of the Center of Creative Arts (COCA), located in University City.

Join the Story

  • Learn more about COCA and explore its classes on its website.
  • Connect with COCA on Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn.
  • Watch video of previous COCA performances on YouTube.
  • Keep up with Big Muddy Dance Company’s schedule on its website.
  • Follow Big Muddy Dance Company on Instagram and Facebook.
  • Explore the dance program at Washington University in St. Louis on its website.