Moving our bodies isn’t just about physical health, it has mental health and wellness benefits. In fact, according to a 2021 study, the practice of “free dancing” was shown to help de-stress and improve one’s mood. For Nedra Ward — dancer, community leader, and teacher — dancing is not only her passion, it’s the way she helps those around her. “Being able to change one kid in the community, one parent in the community, I feel like that’s my calling,” Ward shares. Recognized for the work that she’s doing within her community, Ward is being highlighted as one of McDonald’s “Future 22.” The campaign celebrates 22 young and dynamic Black leaders who are taking us into the future with their activism and leadership.
At 19 years old, this Chicago native who is trained in ballet, hip hop, modern and jazz, is an accomplished dancer. She’s performed for the mayor of Chicago, at Bulls’ halftime shows, and even at New York Fashion Week. So, it came as no surprise to her friends and family when she channeled her life-long passion and desire to help others into her own non-profit by the moniker of CommUNITY, providing no-cost dance and fitness classes to predominantly underprivileged areas.
After graduating from Southern Illinois University where she studied dance, Ward tapped into the hustle spirit of her hometown to launch the dance-based organization. Armed with determination and a Bluetooth speaker, she went out and found the people who needed her the most. “We went to different parks in New York, we brought a speaker and a megaphone, and we taught dance classes,” says Ward, reflecting on how she began her work within the community.
Ward also shares her talent as a gymnastics teacher, citing it isn’t just about dancing for fitness; it’s about showing up for people who are too often an afterthought, including those in communities like hers, where mental health services and programs are often few and far between. She says, “Growing up, I definitely didn’t have any outreach programs or mentors who came into the community to help it, so why not change the community [myself]?”
Igniting that change is why the dance mentor often jokes that she puts the “Unity in Community” — her focus is helping others and being of service to the people around her. She credits her mother with being that catalyst early in her life, spurring her to pursue her dreams. She says, “My inspiration comes from my mother, she’s not a dancer, but she still told me, ‘Whatever you love, do it. Whatever you want to do, be the best at it.’”
Though she has been dancing since she was 11 years old and taking dance classes since she was 14, Ward still finds herself contending with what the image of a dancer looks like through the lens of the media. She says, “Sometimes as dancers, we always feel like we can’t do it because I don’t look like this … if you love to do it, just kill it and be the best.”
Ward believes dance is more than just how you move your feet or keep the rhythm; it comes from the inside. She says, “My hashtag would be #danceinsideout. A lot of people think dancing is just an outer expression, but I always feel like it starts within.” What’s within this young leader is a passion for service, a love for dance and a desire to help others. That’s a song anyone can jam to.