Online appeal helps teens ballet dream come true

Jedidiah Harwood can take a flying leap better than any other boy around.

The 13-year-old from Oakland is a gifted ballet dancer. So gifted, that earlier this year he auditioned for and won coveted spots in two summer intensive programs with the Joffrey Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. One granted him a full scholarship, the other a 50 percent scholarship.

Just one problem: Even with financial aid, Jed’s parents, who homeschool their six children, still could not afford the costs associated with the programs.

Jedidiah participating in masterclass intensive in New York City

This looked like a job for the Internet.

In January, Jed’s family created a fundraising web page at GoFundMe ( They set what seemed to be a challenging goal of $10,000.

As of this week, their crowdfunding strategy had brought in more than $7,400, with one anonymous donor kicking in $2,000. The goal within reach, and thanks to the kindness of strangers, Jed can start packing his tights and ballet slippers for a summer of dance.

“This whole experience has been so humbling and overwhelming,” said Jed’s mother, Tamara Saunders. “I’m so touched by the generosity of people.”

Adds Jed, “I’m very happy and grateful for the generous donations. Though I was worried from time to time, I always had faith and somehow I knew it would pull through.”

That faith starts with the family’s Jewish observance. Saunders describes it as “Conservadox.” They attend services at Oakland’s Beth Jacob Congregation, keep Shabbat and open their home twice a month for a Shabbat mega-dinner that draws up to 50 people.

Jed is not the only member of the family with a flair for the arts. His twin sister, Leah, is a poet who has medaled at literary conferences; she’s also a jewelry maker who runs a small business. Younger brother Isaiah is a self-taught jazz pianist who attends the Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley.

Jedidiah Harwood

Their mom is a full-time piano teacher, while her husband, Ken Harwood, is a full-time stay-at-home dad.

“We wanted to have a tightly knit family and preserve some core values,” says Saunders. “It’s certainly not for everyone, but we had the opportunity to do it. Each [child] works at his or her own level, but we all sit together around the dining room table. My husband does 80 percent of the homeschooling, juggling six levels of math, science and reading. And they’ve done quite well.”

Though set to graduate from eighth grade this year, Jed and Leah are already on track to finish high school by next year, when they would take the state high school exit exam.

For Jed, that would open the doors of the ballet world wide open.

His parents remember him at age 2 pirouetting across the living room floor. That was their first clue.

“We thought, ‘That looks like ballet,’” Saunders recalls. “At that point I don’t think he had seen a ballet. We went to the local rec center, where they offered preschool movement classes. The teacher told me, ‘This boy can dance.’”

Jed’s parents enrolled him in a children’s ballet class for a time; by age 10 he was taking classes at the Conservatory of Classical Ballet in San Leandro, which offers a rigorous curriculum for serious ballet students.

“It started when I felt I needed to put my energy someplace,” Jed remembers. “There came a point when I really wanted to [study], so I told my parents. At first I felt nervous, but over the next couple of classes, I adjusted and embraced it. I practiced a lot over the years because I was determined to be the best that I could. I tried really hard and I’m happy to be where I’m at.”

Ann Fisher, who runs the conservatory and teaches Jed, is not surprised he was accepted into the programs. She says the fact that he landed scholarships indicates both programs really wanted him.

“He’s got a lot of flexibility,” Fisher says. “Jed worked hard to increase that. He’s very dedicated, always coming to extra classes, and now attends seven classes a week. He’s part of our student company. Jed has worked his way up very quickly.”

Saunders remembers those nervous days in January when Jed auditioned for the summer programs. Hundreds of hopefuls showed up to compete for only 150 slots nationwide. Jed sailed through the Joffrey audition and made the second level for ABT, which is based in New York but offers its summer program in Orange County. The Joffrey program takes place in Chicago.

“He will be dancing all day, five days a week,” says Saunders. “He’ll have classes in technique, variation, pas de deux, character. Both [programs] culminate with a performance.”

Now that it appears Jed’s online fundraising will pay off, he’s letting himself feel some excitement about attending the two intensives this summer.

“These programs are a great experience,” he says. “They allow you to be seen, so in the future if you want a job, the people will recognize you. I’m expecting to learn some different techniques.”

He’s never been away from home before, but Jed knows that this summer he’ll have a big cheering section waiting for him back in Oakland, led by his mother.

“All the drive really comes from him,” Saunders says. “I’ve never met a more dedicated child. He works endlessly, tirelessly, for his dream. He deserves all the credit.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.