By Ameera Steward
The Birmingham Times
Renowned dancer, model, and actress Kat Files loves to give back to her hometown. Files was in town this month to celebrate local young talent through the FILES Arts Project at the Carver High School Theatre.
Founded by Files in 2014, the FILES—Future Inspired Leaders Exemplifying Success—Arts Project began as a one-day master class, where students were taught a modern dance style to improve their physical limitations so they can pursue any form of dance.
The Birmingham native returned to home to teach 14 students at Carver, and that grew into a weeklong dance-and-music workshop with more the 100 students participating. During the week, students rehearsed for four days (Monday through Thursday) and presented the showcase performance on Friday.
“I actually don’t feel like I have words to fully encompass my feelings right now,” Files said after the show. “I’m still trying to let it all soak in, but I am just so proud … because I understand how it is to not know about a dance technique, musical note, or something and to learn it in four days. [The students] gave us their all, and that’s what we asked for. They had fun, and I’m extremely proud.”
The showcase included 21 performances with dance and musical numbers, as well as a question-and-answer session with Files; her brother and FILES Arts Project co-founder Christian Files; and global contemporary dance artist and instructor Germaul Barnes, who is based in New York City. The finale number featured all the participants dancing and playing their instruments to Beyoncé’s version of “Before I Let Go.” The audience got into the act, too, by standing to dance and celebrate the performance with Kat Files and her students.
Files knows what dance has done for her, and she wants others to experience the same benefits.
“I was very uncomfortable with who I was, and dance is what made me come out of that,” she said. “[I had] teachers, instructors, and mentors who were like, ‘No, look at you. This is what makes you stand out, this is what makes you special, and this is what makes you unique. This is what you need to do.’
“Nothing [else] gave me that feeling, that gut feeling you have when you’re enjoying everything you do, … putting your full heart and soul into something—dance was it. … Nothing [else] gives me the feeling that dance does.”
The FILES Arts Project is a 501(c)(3) organization that provides dance and music training at no cost to young people in Birmingham.
“Birmingham—the hospitality, the love—this is my city,” Files said. “So, to me, coming back wasn’t even a thing. … This is home. This is my foundation.
“I knew Birmingham had talent, [but if] … the opportunity is not available, how will they ever know? To do that master class in 2014 was everything; it’s how this project came to be what it is today.”
As much as Files loves dance, she never saw herself teaching ballet.
“I fell in love with it because I actually teach ballet in Brooklyn, N.Y.,” she said. “To come back home and teach my ballet style … and see how [the students] were able to maintain that as well was great,” she said.
Receiving so much love from Birmingham’s students leaves Files speechless.
“It hits me in moments,” she said. “I see the audience. I see my students’ faces and just them coming up to hug me every two seconds, saying, ‘Ms. Kat! Ms. Kat!’ … It’s truly one of those ‘Wow!’ moments because I never imagined this project would be what it is today.
“When you start teaching young people at an early age to respect themselves, to fully commit, to focus, … you see over and over again how they’re standing up straight in the end, … [how] they’re learning and picking up things. … I love it!”
For Files, returning to the Magic City also meant being around family. Her brother Christian, a senior financial analyst who has a Master of Business Administration degree from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisc., is a co-founder of the FILES Arts Project. Her oldest brother Royce is also a co-founder; he is a professional classical saxophonist pursuing a Doctor of Musical Arts degree at the University of Southern California. And their grandfather, the late Curtis Files Jr., was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame as a Legendary Blues Artist.
“No matter what I do, no matter where it takes me in this country or in the world, coming back home is extremely important to me because none of this would have been possible if it were not for my family,” said Files. “For them to support me the way they have and even allow me to have the thought process that I could be a professional dancer for my career—it all began with them.”
She added that with her brothers having backgrounds in music and business, they were able to combine their talents and knowledge to create the FILES Arts Project.
“Everything from the artistic side is great, but you also have to merge it with the business side to promote yourself, to sell a product, to sell a dance camp, whatever it is. It’s all encompassing,” said Christian, who has been involved with the organization for the last three years.
Getting the Word Out
Twenty-six-year-old Kat Files was born and raised in Birmingham and attended Homewood Middle School before transferring to the Alabama School of Fine Arts (ASFA). As a child, she ran track, played basketball, played piano, and also played the flute. Dance, however, has always been her favorite activity.
“[There’s] something about being on that stage, … something about the performance, something about knowing my family was out there, something about being able to express myself through my body—it just was everything to me: the musicality that was involved with it and the way … I could express my personal opinion through dance,” said Files, whose love of dance has earned her several accolades and opportunities.
At ASFA, she received the Prix de Excellence de Dance Award, the highest award given in dance at the school. After graduating, she was the first ASFA graduate accepted to the Ailey/Fordham Bachelor of Fine Arts program, which enables students at New York’s Fordham University to receive professional dance training at the distinguished Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, as well as get a liberal arts education.
While pursuing her degree, Files still wasn’t sure what she wanted to do until her junior or senior year, when she realized she wanted to be a professional dancer. She’s trained in various dance techniques, including ballet, Horton, Graham, jazz, and West African, as well as ballet partnering and modern partnering.
During her senior year in college, Files applied to modeling agencies and did background work: “I fell in love with that in a different way. It was a different type of stage for me,” she said.
Files has walked in fashion shows benefiting charitable organizations, such as Susan G. Komen, renowned for its efforts to increase awareness about breast cancer, and the Alzheimer’s Association, a leader in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease. Files was also a member of the Ailey/Fordham Student Dancers (AFSD), which presented dance performances at inner city schools.
She also continued growing as a dancer, particularly with the support of her mentor Alicia Graf Mack, a principal dancer with the Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Last year, Mack was named director of the Dance Division at The Julliard School.
“She’s tall, long, and lean like me, so when I was able to see her dancing professionally, I was like, ‘Woah, she looks like me. Maybe I can do this.’ For me, that was like, … ‘This is it,’” said Files, who enjoys sharing the art of dance.
She has taught ballet, modern, and jazz classes at the Youth Arts Academy in Brooklyn, N.Y., and choreographed dance pieces for end-of-the-year performances for each of her classes. Recently, she conducted a dance master class at the University of Connecticut, where students also had the opportunity to sit down with Files and participate in a lecture and demonstration.
Now, Files serves as a mentor for students at the FILES Arts Project, which is growing by leaps and bounds—and making her heart proud.
“I love it,” she said. “The main thing for me now … is to make sure we are giving the students a well-rounded program, so they’re not dancing on top of each other and they’re truly learning and being able to explore to their fullest abilities.”
The FILES Arts Project began when younger members at St. Paul United Methodist Church in downtown Birmingham wanted to learn from Files, so she reached out to area programs, such as those with the Birmingham Ballet and AFSA.
Files could have focused only on dance, but she also wanted to include music.
“I started beginning with music. I played the flute [and] the piano,” she said. “To cultivate a well-rounded artist, you [should] introduce them to all of the arts. It’s not just about zoning in on your one focus area because you never know how you can incorporate that into what you’re doing. You never know how you might fall in love with another area of the arts, like I did, and then find a way to … mesh the two.”
The FILES Arts Project is about exposure, Files said.
“We want to expose you to what we know and let you decide. You might not want to be a professional dancer [or] a professional musician, but we teach you about things like respect. [We teach you] about knowing who you are as [an artist], finding something deep within yourself, and presenting that to an audience or even doing it for yourself.”
To read more stories about local Birmingham talent, click one of the links below.