Omaha's Pear Tree Performing Arts Bears FruitJul 01, 2022 11:04AM ● By Sara Locke
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
"I still have the business plan I wrote in ninth grade,” Natasha Partridge-Butler reflected on her early realization that dreaming only works if the dreamer does. For more than a decade, she has taught movement to Omaha’s youth through her nonprofit, Pear Tree Performing Arts. These past 10 years are the product of a lifetime of learning and loving the fine art of serving.
“Arts have always been my thing. I come from a family that deeply appreciated them,” Partridge-Butler said. “My aunt Laura [then Partridge-Nedds] was a grassroots arts instructor, and she ignited my love of community. She worked with Emmy Gifford’s diversity program, teaching African folk tales, and started Ujima Youth Theater with my uncle. Ujima means collective work and responsibility, and they instilled those principles in us. They made us community activists at age 12, fighting for inclusion and diversity before they were buzzwords.”
Partridge-Butler’s curiosity and hunger for dance was fed by classes her aunt Laura taught in the basement of Trinity Church. She soon found herself yearning for the same studio lessons the other girls at school were taking. Her parents supported her enthusiastic pursuit of ballet, but the family’s budget kept her from taking the entire catalogue of classes available.
“I imagined building a studio where students could come to one place and explore all of it—drama, ballet, tap,” Partridge-Butler said. “Where kids wouldn’t have to show up feeling less than their peers because everyone has the same access, the same leotard, the same shoes.”
It’s not uncommon for children to have lofty plans for what they’re going to be when they grow up, but less common is for children to see a problem they know they want to solve, and to create a master plan to ensure the next generation doesn’t face the same setback.
“Initially, I couldn’t wait to graduate college, leave Omaha, pursue a career, work on Broadway,” Partridge-Butler recalled. Life, however, took her in a different direction. “It was really my experience at UNO that shifted how I saw this community. I was a teen mom going to college on a scholarship. I thought I was already outside of what the community deemed a success. But what I found at college was that Omaha is full of culture and compassion and opportunities. If you step just outside of what you know, you’re going to find so many chances to become part of a positive change.”
After graduating, Partridge-Butler took her talents to Girls Inc., where she served as a program specialist. “It was my job to design programs the girls would be interested in. They had a step and drill team, and I wanted to find a way to make ballet accessible. They didn’t think we’d have many students, but gave me the green light. We had so much interest that we had to offer three classes to accommodate everyone who wanted to join.”
Partridge-Butler continued to hone her skills at Girls Inc., developing relationships with local leaders, teachers, and community members who were as driven as she was to create opportunities for Omaha’s children. She took a leap and launched Pear Tree Performing Arts in 2010.
Now a thriving movement, Pear Tree welcomes children across the spectrums of income, cultural background, religious belief, and physical ability. “Working with children shows you the light,” Partridge-Butler said. “They’re compassionate; they don’t care about the things that divide them. They care about what makes them the same. They’re all here because of something they have in common.”
Partridge-Butler and her team offer creative movement, drama, ballet, tap, jazz, hip hop, lyrical, modern, and contemporary classes for students aged 2 to late teens. Pear Tree has stayed in close collaboration with many of Partridge-Butler’s connections from her storied history in the Omaha arts community, often hosting guest instructors and choreographers who help students develop a deeper appreciation of the science, culture, and history of movement.
Pear Tree has also maintained a close connection with nearby Girls Inc.
“Coming off the pandemic, we knew how hard isolation had been for kids and their mental health,” said Laura Bonnett-Murphy, program specialist for grades 4-7 at Girls Inc. Bonnett-Murphy was looking for a way to offer normalcy and bring more joy to the girls in her program. “Natasha created this amazing opportunity for our girls to get this positive attention, to attend a weekly class and perform in a real recital at no cost to them.” Bonnett-Murphy marveled at the space her girls were experiencing, and the generosity Partridge-Butler was showing her neighbors.
“The girls enjoy this time, but they’re also seeing this powerful woman who built this entire business," Bonnett-Murphy said. "She is from this same street, she is familiar with the same struggles, and she created this beautiful space that turns out these incredible competitive dancers. Natasha is an inspiring example in her leadership and her love for the community. She has so much to share, and we are so fortunate that she is choosing to share that with Omaha.”
Visit peartreeomaha.org for more information.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.