The Lion King is the highest-grossing Broadway musical of all time. Today, playing the role of young Nala the lion cub is a 10-year-old actress who until recently called Guilford County home. Ava Hailey Harris and her mom now live in New York while she performs in the show. And it took a village to get there.
The young Triad-area dancer and actress arrived in New York in December of last year.
"Of course, debut night I was super nervous, but even when the first song starts, I still get nervous," she says. "Because it's an amazing show. It's an amazing story. And I don't want to like make a dent in it."
Harris grew up in McLeansville, North Carolina, and she first arrived at The POINTE! Company & Technique Conservatory in Greensboro as a toddler. It wasn’t long before the tiny dancer began turning heads. When asked for her biggest takeaway from her eight years of study there, she’s quick to answer.
"Stay humble," says Harris. "When people compliment you, you say thank you so much. And you smile, and you're like, you're appreciative. Because they're saying that they enjoyed your work. Enjoyed your performance. So they say, 'Oh, you did a really good job.' You don't say, 'I know.' You say, 'yes. Thank you so much. I hope you enjoyed it.'"
Harris is the first to admit she’s had to work at it. For example, she says, while she excels at putting emotion into what the choreographer is trying to say, when it comes to technique, that's a different story.
"You know like arm placement," she says. "And just where your limbs are supposed to be. I don't think I'm the best at that. I will pay attention to it and apply it. But it still won't be what I know it can be because it's one of those things where it's like, okay, here we go [laughs]."
Harris’ mom, Sannyu, who moved to New York to be with her daughter, says through all the changes, she appreciates her daughter’s ability to stay grounded, and she credits Ava’s dance education.
"Creating this space for them to learn not only how to be professionals, but to really just be great artists and great individuals who also appreciate the work that goes into telling the story," she says. "What the creative director or the director or the choreographer is trying to relay at that moment."
In a large, well-lit dance studio at The POINTE!, eight young ballerinas — all Black girls — appear focused and serious as they work their way through warm up exercises. The POINTE! Executive Director Gina Tate says she was thrilled when Harris shared her Lion King news, which was celebrated in the parking lot on their way to her dance class — but she was not surprised.
"Well when Ava came in, the charisma and the personality, you can't teach," says Tate. "The technique? Yes. But I can not train her ability to get on stage and just ... people fall in love with her. And that's been since day one. So she's always had that 'it' factor."
Tate says that since the age of 5, that “it” factor has led to hundreds of audience members coming up to her following Harris’ performances and predicting that she would one day be a star. Tate says that her talents present themselves in a variety of ways.
"She’s extremely bright already," she says. "She picks up choreography from literally the first time she sees it. She pretty much can do anything you throw at her. Even younger than 10 she was doing this. She retains choreography better than most adults would. She's that one when you come in class you go ask her what the choreography was from two weeks ago."
Classical ballet, modern, African dance, tap, hip hop —students here are presented with all styles of dance. They’re taught by a variety of guest artists too, each with their own unique interpretations, and that’s by design. When POINTE! students take big auditions — like The Lion King — there’s nothing required that they haven’t already seen.
Dance instructor Morgan Jones sits in a half-split on the floor with a roomful of young dancers, where she demonstrates an elongated stretch, reaching for the ceiling. Jones herself attended The POINTE! as a high schooler, and says each student here brings something unique to the table.
"I don't want to think about the kids before them," says Jones. "I try to teach the kids that are in the room at the time to really focus on them and their personal growth and not comparing them to anybody else, not wanting them to be a different version of somebody else who came here before. Because this studio has a long legacy of great dancers, but the goal is for them to be individual artists and to grow as people as well as dancers."
That message resonates with 16-year-old dance student Rachel Rorie. She says she appreciates the broad impact this art form has had on her life and hopes to pursue dance education in college.
"Being with The POINTE! for almost ten years now, Miss Gina really does help me explore my creativity," she says. "Something else that she does is help us be prepared, not just for dance, not just for class, but for life in general. And even within the arts when you’re auditioning for things, and when you are going to speak somewhere, or even if you’re going to go sing somewhere, Miss Gina always keeps us prepared."
15-year-old dance student Kirsten Turner has been coming to The POINTE! since 2016, and hopes to one day pursue choreography as a career.
"It’s like a form of freedom," she says. "Like a hard day at school with a lot of work, I can just come here and just dance and just get away from everything, and just be myself and express myself."
Turner says she’s learned to accept the rejection that comes with auditioning, but she’s also seen dreams come true. Over the years, more than a dozen of her POINTE! classmates have gone on to professional performance careers, and they often return to teach.
Singer, actor, and dancer Avilon Trust Tate recently took a break from the national tour of Mean Girls to mentor students here, at his mother’s studio. And Turner says watching him share lessons learned from the biggest stages was inspiring.
"He expressed a lot of confidence like you have to have confidence and just be very open, open-minded, very open with their moves, your expressions, your interactions and stuff," says Turner.
Turner says while graduates like Tate come back to Greensboro from New York with more confidence, they’re still approachable and their same old humble selves. For Ava Harris, the journey continues.
"I’ve been in the arts, involved my entire life really," she says. "So, seeing the work from The POINTE! and the church community and just the community in general, the things that I’ve done that have helped me grow into this place; seeing it come into play and work as I envisioned it happening, it’s just really exciting for me."
10-year-old Greensboro dancer, actress, singer Ava Hailey Harris is the Young Nala the lion cub in the Broadway production of The Lion King. Her original contract runs through June and was recently extended.