Neal Burks was a promising young dancer in 2013. Ten years on, that promise is being fulfilled.
But for fate, Neal would be pursuing a career in the performing arts while seated.
Pre-teen Neal was attending a performing arts school in Jacksonville, Fla., focusing on piano. His instructor for a required dance class suggested he audition for an upcoming production of The Nutcracker that was short on boy dancers.
Neal passed the audition and performed in the holiday perennial.
“I found it interesting,” Neal said. “I started taking classes after that. And then that’s when I fell in love with dance over time.”
The piano became more of a hobby. Neal’s performing arts career would be spent in ballet.
Neal won a partial scholarship to Patel Conservatory’s Next Generation Ballet® Summer Intensive, which prompted him to try out for a slot in the dance program – it got him a full scholarship to NGB’s Trainee Program.
Neal, then 13, was profiled in the very first issue of the Straz Center’s INSIDE magazine in 2013.
“I like the atmosphere here,” Neal said of Patel Conservatory in the article. “It’s big and you get a lot of space to work with. I like the teachers and the classes.”
Peter Stark, who was then the chair of the dance department and artistic director of NGB, praised Neal’s “work ethic and ambition” and said the teen had “a real shot at a career in classical ballet.”
That assessment proved to be spot on. Neal now dances with Houston Ballet. This summer he returned to the Patel Conservatory to work as head resident assistant, overseeing other resident assistants and accompanying students on outings to sites such as Disney World.
“It’s just monitoring the dorms (located at the Barrymore Hotel) and going on excursions on the weekend and stuff like that,” Neal said.
“They’ve been a great group of kids. You just have to remind them about things once in a while,” Neal said with a laugh.
He also taught during one week of the intensive.
“I haven’t been back since I originally left in 2017,” Neal said. “It’s been great to be back. It’s nice to see all my old friends and teachers and just everyone around the building.”
Neal took a summer session at Houston Ballet Academy in 2016. He later took the academy’s six-week summer intensive, which he said he loved.
Neal moved to Texas in 2017, He attended the Houston Ballet Academy for two years. Then spent the next two years as part of Houston Ballet II before being promoted to the main company in 2021.
The 2013 INSIDE article noted Neal’s discipline, punctuality and focus. Neal credited this to his mother and grandmother who provided the structured environment in which he grew up.
Neal’s mother, Mikeda Oates, is a military contractor who has been stationed in Afghanistan and Iran, and currently is working in the African nation of Djibouti. Day-to-day structure was provided by Neal’s grandmother, Ingrid Lee. She relocated from Jacksonville to Land O’ Lakes so Neal could attend the Patel Conservatory, and then moved with him to Houston when he began attending the academy.
Neal has his own place now, but he plans to hold on to the discipline he learned early on.
“It definitely helps growing up in that structured environment,” Neal said. “I think that’s something that I pride myself on, being very organized and structured as well. I keep it and plan on keeping it forever.”
“It’s really great to be able to share that story of a student who has really benefitted from our program and is still willing to give back to where he started,” said Alice Santana, vice president of Education and Community Engagement for The Straz.
“It’s just been a joy watching Neal continue to grow in his art form from when he started here to where he is now,” Alice said.