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Ballet Scene | Personality Cults

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An excerpt from Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear: Inside the Land of Ballet

By Stephen Manes

Chapter 36

The Barn.

Anywhere else, those two words could connote anything from a cowshed to a drafty auditorium. But in the Land of Ballet, they conjure up an old red building with a steep roof and tiny windows in sleepy Carlisle, Pennsylvania, seat of Cumberland

County. For more than 50 years, The Barn has been the home of a school called Central

Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, CPYB for short.

Image courtesy Stephen Manes

Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, founded in 1955, has a national and even international cachet of its own, thanks primarily to the tireless Marcia Dale Weary, a petite woman the great Balanchine dancer Violette Verdy, who has taught at CPYB, calls “a high priestess” with a “tremendous combination of will and devotion and love and intransigence.

Now in her 70s, Weary learned the hard way about ballet instruction. She

grew up in the ’50s taking dance at local schools in Carlisle and Mobile, Alabama.

“They had jazz, ballet, tap, Hawaiian. You take half an hour of each thing. But I thought

I loved ballet. And I wanted to be a ballet dancer. I was their best student, doing solos.

And I went to New York” in search of a dance job, “and found out I knew zero, had to start again. I was 18. I called home and said, ‘Mother, I don’t know. I have to start all over again.’ And I was crying. She said, ‘Well, are you staying, or are you coming home?’ I said, ‘I guess I’ll stay.’ ”

Weary tried several schools. “Not SAB, because they were very selective” and rarely took students her age. She studied with “great names. But I felt there was something missing.” She eventually presented herself at the School of Ballet Repertory, run by Arthur Mahoney and Thalia Mara, veteran dance stars with a strong interest in teaching. “I went there, and he said, ‘Tell me, how did you find this school?’ I said, ‘I just picked you out of the Yellow Pages.’ ” His response, according to Weary: “Boy, are you lucky! You don’t know anything!”

Then, she says, “he called people in to see what I didn’t know, all the other teachers. It was terrible. . . . But I learned so much there. Thalia Mara was so exact and so careful. As he said, I really was lucky.”

Weary would work part of the year at the Carlisle Sentinel selling classified ads. “Then I’d save all my money and go to New York and stay there until the money ran out. And I’d come back to my local school and help teach.”

Back in Carlisle in 1955, Weary started her own school, the Marcia Dale School of Dance, in the local Carlisle Band Hall. “I taught tap because it was hard to get people who just wanted to study ballet in Carlisle.”

Two years later, “my father and I went all over town looking for something that would make a nice studio.” An 1870s-era barn came with a house of the same vintage across the cornfield. “When I found this place, I remember sitting on the porch and thinking I know I belong here.” She and her sister Sandy pooled resources to buy it.

Room by room they set about transforming the barn into a dance studio. “My sister, Sandy, and my father and one of the students’ fathers made one room into a dancing room. It was very narrow. But it worked,” even though it had disorienting tilted mirrors, which it does to this day.

Weary taught both ballet and tap; tap was the draw. In typical tap shows, the kids would “come out in a line, do their little tap dance routine. I made mine into stories.

We’d have the train station and the little shoeshine boy and the businessman and the soldier and the sailors and the girls. Or I’d have the mountaineers come from the mountains. Then they’d put on their little high top patent shoes and they’d go to New York.”

Eventually she managed to train four girls who loved ballet, and “finally I won people over. Took me about seven years to change them from tap to ballet. They weren’t allowed to take tap unless they took ballet. But soon I was able to produce little girls who could dance well.”

From Thalia Mara, Weary learned that “you have to start at the beginning. If you don’t have a good foundation with the little ones, you’re not going to have a good school.” Weary is very familiar with Balanchine’s famous dictum about “First, a school.”

But she adds, “first the babies in the school. You’d better train them well. And not many people like to do that.”

Weary did. “Back then I knew that children could do more than people thought they could do, and I made them focus. I taught them things a little beyond them and I’d say, ‘I’ll close my eyes.’ They always thought they could do anything, children. They finally learned. You had to kind of close your eyes and say, okay, that’s not too good yet. I learned it from teaching tap” to 3-year-olds.

“People couldn’t believe what they could do. They said, ‘Oh, they can’t do a shuffle.’ I’d just take their little feet and brush them and spank them with my hands until soon they were doing it by themselves. And then I figured out you had to do it quick, quick, and soon the little 3-year-olds were going step, shuffle, and change; step, shuffle and change. People didn’t know that. When I saw Shirley Temple could do that,

I said, ‘Why not others?’ ”

Her students gradually became more interested in ballet. “Tap dancing is so much fun, but if you have to go over and over it, shuffles and all those things, it does get a little tired. But you can never get tired of ballet technique. You always have to focus so much to know where your knees are, what your inner thigh muscles are doing, what the muscles on the outside of your knees are doing. How you’re holding your torso. It’s so much, so much.” Ultimately, the students themselves decided for ballet. “The children found out that ballet was more challenging.”

Weary’s approach is simple: “You have to repeat and repeat and repeat and repeat. That repetition is what trains the muscles to be stronger. When you’re a baby, you can’t feel those muscles. But I feel them for them and I tell them what they have to do. Then they begin to feel them, and then the more repetition, the more you feel, the more you understand about your body. The kids don’t know that that’s from repetition, like physical therapy. Your muscles get stronger. Then you reach a plateau and then you have to go above that.”

Outsiders can’t always fathom Weary’s commitment. “They say, ‘How can you teach beginning classes every day? How do you do that?’ I say, ‘Because they’re different children.’ Boredom is in your head. You look at that child, and you say, ‘When is she going to understand me?’ Or you look up and say, ‘I’m not giving up.’ And you keep going, you keep going. Then one day, you say, ‘When did she learn to do that?’ ”

Maurinda Wingard, CPYB’s longtime executive director, who began her time at the organization as a young student and remained there until her death in 2009, said in 2008, “She has the patience of a saint. It’s just unbelievable. . . . She never had them do the little creative movement stuff or anything like that. They get ballet. She expects them to be able to do a pirouette by the time they’re 7. And do double pirouettes by the time they’re 8. And triple pirouettes on pointe by the time they’re 9. She really expects that, and they do it. And they do it well. But they do have the muscle strength, because they spend a lot of time there.”

Sometimes it’s a struggle. “We’ve had some stay in the beginner class for three years,” Weary says, “and I think it’s a wonder their mothers don’t take them out. But then they finally reach the top and even end up doing some of the leads in ballets. How’d they get there? I never thought they would.”

Some kids are at the other end of the scale. When one was just a year old, “she’d come and watch her sister and drink the baby bottle. When she was about 2, she asked when she could take ballet. I said, ‘Well, not yet, honey.’ So when she was 3, she asked. I said, ‘Well, you can take tap, but I can’t teach you ballet yet.’ She was amazing in what she learned to do in tap dancing. But then she didn’t want tap; she wanted ballet. So one day I said, ‘Well, you’ve learned your little tap routine today,’ and I had a little class. I said, ‘We’ll do a little port de bras to show you. You bring your arms front and you open them.’ She did this. She was 3. With so much feeling. The goose bumps came out. I thought, ‘Where did that come from? That was amazing.’” She didn’t stop there. “She was like a sponge. Everything you gave her, she could do. When she was 11, she did Sugar Plum Fairy. When she was 13, she did Swan Queen with the 32 fouettés. . . .

“Tap dancing is so much fun, but if you have to go over and over it, shuffles and all those things, it does get a little tired. But you can never get tired of ballet technique.” —Marcia Dale Weary

“She did all the leads. She did Giselle. She did it with a professional dancer. Nobody could top it. Everybody was crying. We couldn’t talk for a long time after. She did Sleeping Beauty, she did Coppélia, she did everything. This little girl inspired me so much, and I got her when I was young. I really didn’t know what I had there. She was a genius. Whatever you gave her, she could do.”

In ballet, alas, body is destiny. “Her career was over when she was 17. She only grew to be about 4′ 11″ and then she gained weight at the wrong time. But she was phenomenal.”

Weary often enlists older students like Carrie Imler to help her with younger students, another way of reinforcing what they’ve learned. “I started teaching here when I was 12,” Wingard recalled. In that role, “You’re not only breaking it down, but you’re trying to get somebody who can’t do it yet to do it. . . . So you really have to think about how you do each step.”

Weary believes in being flexible. “You have to teach what they’re ready for. Some years, you’ll have these great classes, and then it’s like crops. They grow. Some years you have nobody. The children are not talented. They’re not interested. They’re not focused. So it depends on the children.” Still, she expects advanced students to spend 22 hours a week in classes.

“They have to,” said Wingard. “If they miss, they have to make up. . . .” And, Wingard pointed out, Weary teaches seven days a week. “She sets the tone for all of us. You can’t really complain about working too much, because you know she’s there from nine in the morning until seven-thirty at night on Saturdays with two half-hour breaks.” In the mid-’60s, Weary started a satellite school in Harrisburg, about half an hour away, which serves in part as a starter school to widen the recruitment pool and gives kids who live near it a way to get more studio time.

“She’s brilliant,” says teacher Bruce Thornton, a Seattle native who studied at CPYB and returned there to teach after a soloist career at Edward Villella’s Miami City Ballet. “She knows how to challenge. She knows how to pat on the back. She also knows how to discipline.”

“Just put your blinders on and do the work,” is how Wingard said Weary looks at teaching ballet. “Don’t worry about all that other stuff. Even in a situation where enrollment is down or people are complaining that her school is too strict or whatever. She never listened to any of it. She just put her blinders on and did her work.”

Weary is proud of what ballet can do for students. By the time she’s finished with them, “Ballet has done them so much good. It’s been good for their bodies. It’s been good for their minds. . . . It’s not just to become a ballet dancer. They learn to use their time well because they have to get their schoolwork done. Most of them are honor students in school. They do have to be intelligent. It just takes so much focusing to understand what’s happening to your body. . . .”

Wingard added that “CPYB is different in that Marcia has always felt that performance is . . . a very important part of their education. Not a recital, but a performance as close to what the professionals do as possible.”

Weary rues that finding males for the school is an ongoing problem. “It’s hard to get little boys, because their daddies don’t want them to do it.” The flip side is that “often talented little boys get very lazy, because they’re given everything and they don’t have to work at it. If they’re very talented and they’re in a school like this where you don’t have many boys, they’re given the leads before they’re really ready. Then they think, ‘Oh, that was easy. I don’t have to work at that.’ ”

“We try to get a stronger preschool and beginning ballet enrollment from the boys,” former public relations director Donna Lynch says, “but it’s just hard to attract them. Over the summer last year, we actually had five boys in our preschool program, in the one class. And we were completely shocked by this. We were crossing our fingers that they stuck with it.” Boys do tend to get scholarships, and, in summer, a housing stipend.

Weary finds today’s kids a particular challenge. She blames TV. “They just are not as active as children used to be.” Years ago, “they’d go out and play in their woods, so they had good muscles. I could teach a 5-year-old to do an assemblé during that year. It’s so difficult today to teach a 7-year-old to do it. A 7-year-old is like a 5-year-old was about 40 years ago.”

And today, says Weary, “it is harder to make them find out that hard work is so rewarding. If you can get them past the first year and sometimes the second, and they begin to find they can do a pirouette on a straight knee. . . . It just is exciting. I get excited, and they get excited. But it is hard, because I think schools entertain them too much. Because they can’t focus: You can look them in the eye and talk to them and say,

‘Your shoulders have to be down, your tummy in. Okay, now what did I say?’ And they don’t know what you said.”

One thing that sets CPYB apart, said Wingard, is that “you don’t always come in and see these perfect bodies, because” Weary “believes in the heart and the mind,” and “she will train anyone who wants it enough.”

Weary’s initial success spiraled. Notable students included Leslie Hench, who danced with London’s Harlequin Ballet and returned to teach at CPYB; Lisa de Ribere,

New York City Ballet corps member, American Ballet Theatre soloist, School of

American Ballet teacher, and accomplished choreographer; Michael Owen, who had a long career at American Ballet Theatre; Sean Lavery, a Frankfurt Opera Ballet principal and New York City Ballet principal and ballet master; Tina LeBlanc, a Joffrey Ballet and

San Francisco Ballet star; and Darla Hoover, a New York City Ballet dancer who brought Weary’s syllabus to New York’s Ballet Academy East and became CPYB’s associate

artistic director. These alumni inspired and helped younger dancers in part by example, in part by returning to teach. As Weary puts it, “It just becomes like a family that goes all over the world.”

Copyright 2011 © Stephen Manes. All rights reserved. Edited and reprinted with permission. Read more at  http://wheresnowflakesdanceandswear.com/

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