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Re-enter, dancing 

At 25, Ballet School of Chapel Hill calls professional ballet--and modern, and tap--dancers back home

Over the long run, there are several ways to assess the contribution that a dance school makes. For one, try asking the survivors--the students who've been there:

"I would go there every day for four hours," remembers Jessica Harris. "There was no competitive vibe, and I had a really good time with my friends I would dance with. Just having been to other dance schools in the area, I always felt there was no sense of exclusivity, no passive aggression, no underlying pretense. It was what it was, and it was solid; their intentions were really clear." Harris pauses on the phone. Then she says, "I would go away to train in the summers. And I would always be so happy to come back to such a sane environment."

Another method? Check where the students go once they leave. If your students wind up dancing for the New York City Ballet, the Joffrey and the American Ballet Theater, that says something. If others are presently with modern dance avatars Bill T. Jones and Shen Wei, that makes a different statement--one involving diversity as well as depth.

And if still others have danced with Savion Glover, you're probably talking about the Ballet School of Chapel Hill.

Wait a minute. Professional-grade modern and tap dancers. Coming out of a ballet school?

Don't let the title fool you. There's a bit more going on here than plies and entrechats.

For 25 years, the school has been something of an omnibus: a center for beginning to advanced classes in fencing, ballet, tap, jazz and modern dance, for pre-schoolers to adults. An affiliation of pre-professional and emerging companies, including Whirlwind Dance, Chapel Hill Dance Theater and the N.C. Youth Tap Ensemble, a group of young professionals praised by the Independent--and the New York Times--who've performed in New York, across the United States, in Europe and South America. It also houses the Artgarden, a Montessori preschool program.

To celebrate the school's first quarter-century, they invited their alumni back home for the weekend. Oh, and a concert, if they weren't too busy.

Here's the result. On the same stage, this weekend only: Aaron Severini with the New York City Ballet will dance with Ashley Bouder, formerly of American Ballet Theater. On Sunday only, Ayo Janeen Jackson will reprise her knockout version of Power/Full, the one that transfixed audiences when Bill T. Jones played the American Dance Festival in 2003. Jessica Harris, currently with Shen Wei Dance Arts, uncorks a new work, Play on Metamorphosis. And the Carolina Ballet's Robert Weiss sets a section from Balanchine's Who Cares? on Tanner Martin and Attila Bongar.

No, wait, there's more: Michelle Dorrance, who studied here with tap impresario Gene Medler and went on to work for Savion and Barbara Duffy, returns with a new work. And Killian Manning debuts "Sweet Suite," a contrasting set of duets for two powerful couples: Ballet stars Tyler and Julie Janis Walters (formerly of Joffrey Ballet) will trade different takes to "Our Love is Here to Stay" with Gene Medler and modern dance instructor Diane Eilber.

Tap dancer Robert Perera returns from Elon. Hana Ginsburg and Jessica Cook, dancing now at SUNY/Purchase will be back for Sunday's show. And dance faculty will show what they're up to with the students of today.

Sounds like a show.

C arol Richards remembers that it started with one dance teacher--and one administrator. "M'Liss Dorrance was teaching all the classes, and Gretchen Vickery was doing all the administrative things, and then some. Gretchen sewed the costumes, made the cement signs. She could do everything, it seemed, and she did for quite a long time."

Richards stops for a moment, as she looks out the window of her second story office. "We probably have the nicest dance studio in the whole world. And it probably wouldn't have happened without Gretchen. She was the one who said, 'You guys, we can do this. We can really do this.'"

Under her leadership, a quartet--Dorrence, Vickery, instructors Jennifer Potts and Richards--bought the land and the house at 1603 East Franklin. It took a while to get the financing--"partly because we were all women," Richards recalls--but a loan from the Small Business Administration sealed the deal. "But we wouldn't have taken the plunge without her," Richards says. "She was fearless, and the rest of us were young."

The faculty and the student body both have grown over the years. 600 students are presently enrolled for classes with a core faculty of 9 and 17 adjuncts. "Though there are more of us, we still have the same attitude," Richards says. "We've never had to vote on anything. If there's an issue we try to talk it through.

The school itself strives for a different kind of balance than many programs. "We do offer really high-level training in ballet, tap, jazz and modern dance," Richards says. "But we want to be the kind of school that welcomes all kinds of students.

"We give people a really wide look at a lot of different things that dance could be," she notes. "We try to help them follow their dreams in different ways."

  • At 25, Ballet School of Chapel Hill calls professional ballet--and modern, and tap--dancers back home

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