Boxing and ballet

Dalton Outlaw was eight-years-old when he first stepped inside the neighborhood boxing gym.

“I fell in love with the place,” says Dalton. “It was a place where I could let out all my energy. Plus, it was a place that accepted me.”

Punching bags and competition rings became his world. And, in 2011, Dalton opened Element Boxing and Fitness in St. Paul, Minnesota, after receiving training and technical assistance from the Neighborhood Development Center.

Here he trains competitive fighters and leads fitness classes. His business plan, however, is based less on cardio and more on community-building. He wants people to feel accepted, the way he did at his childhood gym.

“A lot of people will set up an organization and have one demographic. When somebody else, like an immigrant, comes in, that person doesn’t feel comfortable,” says Dalton. “Whether you’re an immigrant, whether you’re a long-term citizen, it doesn’t matter here.”

Element student Kor Zoua couldn’t agree more.

“The Hmong community, they’re just starting to become involved in boxing,” says Kor, a first-generation Hmong-American. “I came for class and it was like, ‘Wow. I don’t feel judged.’ It’s a mix of people working out.”

That mix includes everyone from Taiwanese kickboxers to Cubans looking for a spin class. Then there are the 300 ballet dancers.

In 2014, Element began leasing space to St. Paul Ballet.

Tutus and boxing trunks may seem worlds apart. But the organizations’ goals were a match. Both wanted to foster an environment where everyone could feel welcome.

Lori Gleason, the ballet company’s executive director, shares Dalton’s vision when it comes to creating community. And she’s made it her mission to reach out to new Americans.

“I think we have that responsibility,” says Lori. “If people really realized how many immigrants made contributions to this country, I mean, we wouldn’t exist as America today without all these people.”

The way Lori sees it, anti-immigrant sentiment is rooted in fear.

“The way to get past fear is to be around people that are different than you are,” says Lori. “And we’re providing a space for that to happen here at this gym.”

Both Lori and Dalton are adapting their programming to better reflect the surrounding neighborhood, where nine percent of the population is foreign-born. St. Paul Ballet added a Parent-and-Me class led by a native of Guatemala and conducted in Spanish. Element Boxing and Fitness hosts Taekwondo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu training.

“It’s great for us to see what we’ve done together, our two organizations,” says Dalton. “A lot of people talk about togetherness and diversity. It’s another thing to showcase it and to really feel it. I think that’s what we do.”

Some here are working on their uppercuts. Other are perfecting their arabesques. And, says Dalton, they’re all strengthening a multicultural community.

Lori Gleason, Executive Director at St. Paul Ballet, and Dalton Outlaw, owner of Element Gym.