Nicole De Weever’s Art Saves Lives Foundation: From St. Maarten to the World

Arts Saves Lives Foundation Alumni Natorii Illidge is now performing in the Tina Turner Musical in West End, London (Natorii Illidge Photo)

PHILIPSBURG, St. Maarten – When Nicole De Weever was 14, she got the opportunity to move to the United States to pursue her love for dance. Her Art Saves Lives Foundation is encouraging Caribbean talent to take their creative passions globally.

Founder of Arts Saves Lives Foundation, Nicole De Weever is a former Broadway Dancer (Rachel Neville Photo)

De Weever is a recipient of the Fred and Adele Astaire Award for Best Female Dancer on Broadway. She’s appeared on numerous shows including The View, Stephen Colbert Report, 64th Annual Tony Awards, The BET Honor’s Awards, West Side Story World Tour, and many others. Her biography is now part of the Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography, an Oxford Reference book being used in a course offered at Harvard, John Hopkins, and Yale University.

The Art Saves Lives Foundation will host its ninth summer intensive on St. Maarten from July 4 to 9, 2022 but the impact of a week with the who’s who in music and the arts is being felt all year round and far beyond the Caribbean Island.

Started in 2013, the program allows for young creatives on the island and adults who wish to strengthen their skills in dance to learn from professional instructors. Expanding each year, this year’s program will include orchestra, more visual arts components, and even more dance genres. There will also be a record 180 creatives participating from St. Maarten/St. Martin, St. Kitts & Nevis, Florida, and The Netherlands.

“Dance was always the way in which I was able to express myself and I understood at an early age it was my calling. Most of all, I knew it would play a significant role in what I would consider my life’s work,” shared De Weever, who is based in New York City.

A torn ACL and being diagnosed with Graves’ Disease ended her career as a dancer but not before she appeared in Fela! Broadway Musical as an original cast member. This musical took her to Nigeria, Amsterdam and across the United States. She performed in the musical as a singer on the New Zealand tour where she made the decision to walk away from performing professionally.

On her regular visits to St. Maarten, Nicole would teach classes and encourage young people to pursue their dreams in the arts. “I would tell them no matter how overly ambitious it may seem it is possible. I tried to show them by using myself as an example that their goals are attainable and not so farfetched.”

Closing – Class of 2022 Art Saves Lives Foundation Summer Intensive at the final show on Saturday, July 9, 2022.

This is how Art Saves Lives came to be.

“I wanted to provide the opportunity for young people in St. Maarten and the region to have access to some of the most respected artists and teachers in the industry. Going to New York to attend programs is very expensive.”

Clara Reyes, St. Maarten Government’s Head of Culture and a long-time supporter of ASL believes the week-long program is a complement to the high level of training dancers and other artists get through local programs after school.

“ASL is more about being a better person than a better dancer…more about humanity than having the highest kick. They learn camaraderie, humility, working together, building bridges, connection, and collaboration. It gives them a level of self-confidence when they walk into the best studios in the world. They are driven and know how to dig deep and deliver,” Reyes said.

Be a Triple Threat

ASL alumni like dancer Natorii Illidge understand this.

Attending ASL in 2014 gave her access to Afro Soca classes with Shakira Marshall and contemporary dance with Anthony Burrell. At ASL 2016, working closely with choreographer Luam Keflegy, who has worked with Beyonce, Alicia Keys, and other major artists solidified Natorii’s decision to pursue a career in performing arts.

After moving to New York City, Natorii met with Nicole on several occasions for additional guidance and support. Although visa challenges forced her to shift her career to Europe, she was undeterred. This move gave her access to cruise ship dance contracts, performing in Thriller Live UK and international tours. She can be seen in James Bond: No Time to Die as a Cuban dancer.

Knowing firsthand that injury can derail an artists’ career, Nicole encouraged Natorii to add other skills to her mix.

“Nicole has always encouraged me to train my voice as she saw more than just a dancer in me. It took me quite a long time to commit to pursuing singing and acting, as I first thought I might have been too late. But I faced my fear and did it anyway. During the pandemic, I completed my Masters in the Arts in Musical Theater Performance, then experienced the most challenging auditioning process which will lead to making my debut in London West End performing in the Tina Turner Musical which opened on June 29, 2022.

“ASL has opened my eyes to limitless opportunities outside of SXM. I’m forever grateful for all of Nicole’s guidance, support, insight, and words of wisdom.”

Dance Like You Want It

Jamaican Dancer Junior “Jay” Mills says being selected to participate in the Arts Saves Lives Foundation changed how he viewed himself as a dancer. He is now working as a choreographer in New York City. (Jay Mills Photo)

Jamaican national Junior Mills grew up on St. Maarten and participated in the ASL week for the first three years. At the end of the week, 20 students are selected to go to New York City as part of the cultural exchange. Being chosen for the trip was a gamechanger for the young dancer.

“Before that moment, I really didn’t think I was good enough, nor did I think anyone really saw me as someone worthy of being chosen, so that really gave me a lot of confidence. Being exposed to the level of dance in NYC was mind blowing to me. I’d never seen that many talented/hungry dancers in a studio before, and it just made me want to push harder and prove that I can hold my own. I didn’t really have a clear path on what I wanted to do with dance, I just wanted to be the best version of myself, and everything fell in place.”

Since moving to NYC in 2017, he has trained under Luam, who he also calls a great mentor. Known professionally as Jay Mills, he is currently a faculty dance choreographer at Broadway Dance Center, which coincidentally was the first studio he visited on the cultural exchange trip. He also works at Brickhouse, another popular studio and is currently on a US tour with artist Becky G.

“My ultimate is to continue building my craft as a choreographer and capitalize off of my own brand, and of course still dancing for major artists in the industry, and also venturing into other areas such as acting and modeling,” said the 28-year-old.

Naomi’s Ballet Dream

The precision and grace of ballet captured Naomi Warsop from the first day she stepped into Arlene Newhouse’s class at Motiance Dance School in Philipsburg.

“Growing up in St. Maarten, I had many opportunities to travel abroad for dance, from competitions to workshops. As a Jamaican national, it was difficult to simply pick up and leave. In some cases, I had to get a visa and in others, I had to be grateful for being selected.”

Initially rejected for her Dutch Citizenship, Naomi continued to prepare for a future in dance with the guidance of Nicole and two other women, Jacquelyn Allsopp and Nikeva Stapleton.

“They encouraged me to apply to the University of North Carolina: School of Arts. Applying to school in the US was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life,” shared Naomi.

With the help of the Department of Culture, Naomi was able to travel to the US to audition and take the SAT exam. Things quickly sped up when she got the news that she would receive her Dutch passport in 2022. This then allowed her to apply for local study financing for which she was approved.

“The next step is to conquer this upcoming stage and achieve my ultimate goal, to be a dance teacher and blossom into creating my own technique and dance company.”

Dancer and Deejay Bianca Dijkhoff says the Arts Saves Lives Summer Intensive artists and mentors have helped to push her out of her comfort zone. (Bianca Dijkhoff Photo)

From Dancer to DeeJay to Life Coach

Dancer and Deejay Bianca Dijkhoff with her iconic bright red hair and energetic moves is front and center in music videos from Sean Paul to Chris Brown and on stage with Afro B and Davido. She credits De Weever and the connections she’s made through ASL for helping to push her out of her comfort zone.

“Every (ASL) teacher I’ve connected with has tried to help in numerous ways from advice to helping me find apartments in New York City to sending me audition opportunities and overall rooting for me along my journey,” shared Dijkhoff.

“After six years of dancing full time in New York, I returned to St. Maarten because of the pandemic which is how I met (online business coach) Leslie Samuel at ASL 2021. He offered me a one-on-one coaching session which was life changing. He challenged me to post my first inspirational talking video on Instagram and offered to be my mentor. It’s great to have someone believe in you and invest in you. Thanks to Nicole and Art Saves Lives I have connected with a lot of great people who want to see me win!”

Make Art

“Truly witnessing the young people accomplishing their goals, excelling and thrive in their various fields keeps me going. I look into the faces of the children, and I see myself; the kid that wanted to do something out of the box.

“It is important to create safe spaces for our young people to explore and nurture their talent. I had the privilege and support from family that allowed me to dream proactively. This is not the case for many young people. They are usually discouraged, especially in our region, from pursuing creative careers. I want to provide that opportunity for every child to explore and tap into what excites them in life. We all deserve to honor our passion and desires to be whatever we want to be in this life,” DeWeever said.

Learn more about Art Saves Lives Foundation at


About Art Saves Lives Foundation

Art Saves Lives Foundation is a cross-cultural exchange between youth in need and experienced practicing artists who seek to use their talents for positive change. Each summer the foundation coordinates a Summer Intensive which caters to over 100 children. This collaborative project selects renowned artists from around the world who use the arts to introduce participants to global and local traditions and empower them with the life skills necessary to effectively deal with the demands and challenges of everyday life. The Summer Intensive also provides guidance for young artists with aspirations in pursuing a career in the arts.


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