Ten years ago, Caitlin Lennon received a job offer from a “small startup.” Emily Hartka and Sara Clayborne, co-founders of what would become the Charlottesville Ballet, asked Lennon to join them as a company dancer. Lennon was training on full scholarship with the Richmond Ballet, had never visited Charlottesville, wasn’t sure about her salary and didn’t know how frequently she would perform.
“That sounded okay to me,” says Lennon, who is now company manager and still dances with the ballet. One of its first performances took place in the McGuffey Art Center hallway, where she and three other ballerinas danced up and down the space.
Today, 20 professional and international ballet dancers perform in the company, which is preparing for its 10th anniversary show in May 2018 that will feature more pieces, dancers and variety than the company’s previous shows.
Joining in are 200 students from the ballet’s outreach program, Chance to Dance, where artists teach free classes at all six city elementary schools, plus county schools Greer, Woodbrook and soon Agnor-Hurt.
The ballet provides free lifetime training to Chance to Dance graduates who show potential and interest. Lennon says 35 graduates have pursued this, though transportation can hinder a student from joining the academy.
“It’s sad to see kids get the scholarship, be excited about it and then, from things out of their control, they can’t take advantage of it,” Lennon says. “We’re working on it.”
The company’s vision of inclusivity and wellbeing extends to professional dancers, too. Rather than worrying about numbers on the scale, Lennon feels like an athlete and enjoys nourishing her body. Every dancer receives cross-training, physical therapy and mental wellness seminars, which Lennon says can’t be found in most mid- to large-size companies. While training, Lennon encountered her fair share of expectations that dancers should be “waif-ly thin, ethereal beings” who can dance with injuries. While the Charlottesville Ballet wants a healthy, diverse ballet, Lennon says, “the old school way of thinking” still prevails in many companies.
A quick guide to mastering ballet (or doing anything well)
Be tenacious. Being a professional dancer is an extremely hard and often tedious career, Emily Hartka and other dancers say.
Remember why you’re doing it. “Do you love movement?” asks Hartka. “Do you adore music? Whatever makes you dance, remind yourself of it daily, and bring that intention with you to every class and rehearsal.”
Improvise. “It’s live art, after all!” Hartka says, remembering a faux pas while performing in The Nutcracker. “I wiped out during a tricky turn section. So what did I do? I rolled out of the fall into a saucy pose on the floor—complete with fan wave and raised eyebrow—and finished the variation.”
Communicate and breathe. Ballet choreography can have sacré bleu-inducing moments. To avoid getting dizzy during repeated spins, she reminds dancers to breathe and practice “spotting”—looking at one spot while the body turns, then turning to find that spot again.
Have a life. Hartka encourages dancers to get out of the studio. “The more experiences you have in the world the more you bring to the plate as a dancer.” Explore every option, Hartka says, and you’ll enjoy yourself even more while dancing.
Love yourself. The company and Hartka emphasize health and wellness. “Don’t let anyone try and put you in a mold,” Hartka says. “You are you and that is special in and of itself.”