Leading the way in dance education in Louisiana
By Mary Ellen Hunt
It could be the warm family atmosphere and sense of camaraderie, or perhaps the strict discipline and rigorous training. Or maybe it’s the dedication of teachers who have been with the school for decades—whatever the reason, the 70-year-old Giacobbe Academy of Dance in Louisiana is an enduring success story. The school has built a reputation for quality training and has become a veritable dynasty of dance education in the Bayou State.
When the Giacobbe family held the first classes back in 1943, it probably would have been hard for anyone to imagine the longevity the small school would enjoy. At the time the school looked more like a pet project of two teenaged girls, Georgie and Maria Giacobbe, bolstered by the indulgence of their parents, Leona and Lawrence Giacobbe.
“When I look back on it, the story is like a novel,” says Joseph Giacobbe, younger brother to the enterprising founders of the academy and now co-director of the school. “But it’s absolutely all true. That’s the way it began.”
Then 13 and 14, Georgie and Maria had studied dance from childhood at the New Orleans studio of Gerry Fenasci. After 10 years of training, both received teaching certificates.
“Our teacher put the bug in our ears and said, ‘There are no studios out there where you live—why don’t you start one?’ ” says Maria, who at 84 continues to teach ballet and tap.
Joseph remembers his father as something of a traditionalist who wasn’t about to allow his daughters to move away from home to pursue a career. To keep them happy at home, he and his wife instead helped the girls open a dance studio in the space behind the family supermarket in Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans, located in Jefferson Parish.
You get out of your students what you expect to get out of them, and they have always expected the best from us. —Richard Rholdon
“My mother and father had this passion for dance,” says Joseph. Now 75, he directs the academy with his sister Maria. “They were involved every step of the way. They’d get neighborhood people to help, my mother would do the books, and her cousin would paint our scenery for recitals. My mother and father never studied any dancing, but it was in their blood. My parents would polka, waltz, jitterbug. It was a natural instinct, a gift that we all inherited.”
Joseph was one of the first to enroll in Maria and Georgie’s classes, which included a mix of ballet, tap, and acrobatics. The school’s first students included friends and neighborhood children—some older than the young teachers—who would show off their new skills in homegrown revues devised by Georgie and Maria.
From the beginning, Leona Giacobbe encouraged her children to consider dance as more than an amusing diversion. Each summer she sent them on trips to New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago to study ballet, tap, and later jazz with master teachers. Maria went on to earn a BS in physical education from Loyola University.
While Georgie left teaching in 1973 to raise her family, she continued to make costumes for the company for many years. Maria, however, has been teaching for seven decades. “To this day, her passion is just unreal,” says Joseph. “There’s an old-world discipline instilled in her. She doesn’t fancy the word ‘retire’—she’s at the studio every day. Maria has no ego about herself—always it was about the students. And that’s the way it should be.”
The school became a permanent fixture in 1948 with a new building on the original site behind the family market, later moving in 1970 to its current location in Jefferson Parish. Now, with the Metairie studio and another located across Lake Pontchartrain in Slidell—a third studio, in Mandeville, closed in 2006—the Giacobbes center the core of their training around classical ballet, but also offer jazz and tap classes.
As enrollment expanded, so did the faculty. Many of the teachers say they felt like part of the extended Giacobbe family, and indeed many of them are members of that family.
Joseph began teaching while in high school, and his wife, Gwen Delle Giacobbe, joined the staff in 1963, later taking over a satellite studio in Slidell in 1985. The youngest sister in the family, Lee Giacobbe Facenda, turned the training her siblings gave her into a career in theatrical dance. After running her own studio in New York for many years, she returned to New Orleans and the studio where she grew up, as did Maria’s daughter Toni Alessandra Lovejoy.
“The Giacobbes have spent their lives perfecting the art of teaching,” says Mary Monteleone, who started studying at the studios when she was 10 and now teaches ballet and tap at the academy. “They are dedicated to making sure their techniques and methods are working.”
“Our mother instilled in us this desire to keep learning,” says Joseph, who danced flamenco and other ethnic styles in addition to ballet, tap, and jazz. “And I loved it. I studied the Cecchetti method, went to Bournonville seminars. At Harkness House, I watched David Howard teach, because I feel you really gain from seeing what other people do.
“Besides wanting our students to have good technique, we want them to be able to move,” Joseph continues. “It’s important they have a good mix of styles, that they can think Italian and move Russian. It doesn’t make much difference if that position is perfect if you don’t enjoy watching the person move.”
Ballet classes, Monteleone says, have a Cecchetti base, but much of what the Giacobbes teach has been refined by the experience they’ve accumulated over the years, buttressed by discipline.
“My own training with Miss Maria, Gwen Delle, and Joseph was very detailed and exacting,” Monteleone says. “I was only 10, but I remember that they were breaking down how to pointe your foot and how to do a glissade. Later, I came to appreciate that detail.”
Monteleone says the Giacobbes taught her to be a patient teacher and to pay attention to the building blocks of technique, but also instilled self-discipline. “They are very demanding,” she says. “They teach self-discipline. When there’s rehearsal, very few excuses hold up as a reason to not show up. I think younger students see that in older students and it reinforces it with each group.
“A good teacher has to know technique and method,” Monteleone continues, “but you also have to be able to motivate people, get the kids to commit and be there. The Giacobbes have that ability.”
The Giacobbes have helped many students move on to professional careers, among them Rosalie O’Connor, a former American Ballet Theatre dancer and now the company’s associate staff photographer; Aubrey Morgan, a former New York City Ballet dancer; and Janie Taylor, a NYCB principal dancer. In 1979, Giacobbe student Gretchen Newburger won a bronze medal at the first International Ballet Competition to be held in Jackson, Mississippi, before she joined Zurich Ballet (and later became a principal dancer).
Cincinnati Ballet principal Janessa Touchet started with the Giacobbes at age 3 and went on to be a semi-finalist at the IBC in Jackson in 2002. Her sister Jessica danced for many years with San Francisco’s Smuin Ballet.
Like many students, Laurie Volny, who trained with the Giacobbes as a very young child in the 1960s and ’70s, laughingly remembers being a little frightened of Mr. Joseph.
“My first teacher was Miss Maria,” Volny says. “As a little kid, she was like your grandmother. She taught us the basic positions and helped us put our hair in a perfect little bun. My first pointe classes were with Gwen Delle, who was so beautiful in her pink tights and chiffon skirts. She never wanted to be in the limelight, but she was the one who paid attention to the details, your ribbons, flattening out your hair. Once you got to the intermediate level, you got Mr. Joseph. He was a taskmaster, but he wanted you to do your best. He knew more about how far you could go than you did.”
Volny says her relationship with Joseph has evolved in the years since, but notes that the discipline he instilled served her well as a soloist with Houston Ballet and later as dance captain for Phantom of the Opera on Broadway.
“You learned to work your hardest so you could do well, not just for him but for yourself,” Volny says.
In the late 1960s the Giacobbes founded a professional ballet ensemble, which became Delta Festival Ballet in 1969. The list of guest stars for the company is a who’s who of ballet in the 1970s and ’80s, including Patrick Bissell, Karen Kain, and Gelsey Kirkland. Natalia Bessmertnova and Mikhail Lavrovsky performed with Delta Festival Ballet, marking the first guest appearance by artists of the Bolshoi Ballet with an American company. In 2009, the company’s Nutcracker season at New Orleans’ Mahalia Jackson Theater included appearances by American Ballet Theatre’s Irina Dvorovenko and Maxim Beloserkovsky.
Delta Festival Ballet, which is still directed by Joseph and Maria, sees around four dancers a year join the company from the academy, with about 20 of the top dancers from the New Orleans Youth Ballet performing smaller roles.
Even as the academy grew in numbers and reputation, the family atmosphere and camaraderie remained important parts of the studio’s appeal. Former student Jerel Hilding, who danced with Joffrey Ballet and is now a professor at the University of Kansas, says he remains in touch with Joseph.
“I was almost adopted by the [Giacobbe] family,” says Hilding, who was one of the founding members of Delta Festival Ballet. “They showed you that you could have a professional attitude but also be a human being, and they had the knack of knowing when to push you and when to lay off the accelerator. Some of my fondest memories are from after a rehearsal, going to their home above the grocery store for dinner and to talk shop.”
Each milestone anniversary has been a chance for the family to reunite. Like the 50th-Anniversary Gala in 1993 and the Diamond Gala in 2003, the 70th-anniversary plans last June included a gala performance that put current students onstage with many alums, including Hilding, Volny, and Janessa Touchet. The milestone represents a bittersweet moment for Joseph because Gwen Delle passed away in February of this year.
Like any school, the Giacobbe Academy has had its share of ups and downs. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 hit Jefferson Parish hard, taking a toll on the academy. There was physical damage to the studios and the storage warehouse, and in the wake of the disaster many people moved away or lost their jobs, resulting in decreased enrollment. A few months after the hurricane, Georgie Giacobbe passed away, and in summer 2006 the Giacobbes decided to close a satellite studio in Mandeville.
In the year that followed, many long-standing connections to families in the area—some of whom had sent several generations of dancers to train with the Giacobbes—were broken. At its peak the academy enrolled more than 500 students. Today, the main studio in Metairie has an enrollment of 250 students, while the Slidell location, where classes are held four days a week, sees around 115 students.
Success despite obstacles
Unfazed by the post-Katrina challenges, the studio continues to bring ballet to new generations of students. The secret to the Giacobbes’ continuing success is not rocket science, says Richard Rholdon, who joined Delta Festival Ballet in 1986 and is now the 20-member company’s ballet master and resident choreographer. He is also a régisseur for the New Orleans Youth Ballet, a pre-professional troupe of about 60 young dancers that the Giacobbes founded in 1988.
“They do the right things, teach strong classical technique the right way—and the process works,” Rholdon says. “Ultimately, you get out of your students what you expect to get out of them, and they have always expected the best from us. That foundation in dance and discipline stands you in good stead the rest of your life. The students who come out of our program are valedictorians, doctors, attorneys, scientists.”
With such a successful recipe, the plan for the future, Maria says, is simply to continue. “I enjoy what I do; I love the children,” she says. “I intend to keep doing what I’m doing as long as I can and as long as I know I’m doing a good job.”
Gwen Delle Giacobbe, a versatile dancer who taught generations of New Orleanians to dance, died February 7 of cancer at Ochsner Medical Center, according to The Times-Picayune. She was 73.
A lifelong New Orleanian, Giacobbe taught ballet, jazz, and tap at the network of local schools her husband’s sisters, Maria and Georgie, founded in 1943 as the Giacobbe Academy of Dance, and her students went on to dance on Broadway and with the New York City, Cincinnatti, and Joffrey ballets.
Born Gwen Delle Bernadas, she attended Louisiana State University before heading to New York City, where she spent two years studying dance at several schools, including the Joffrey and American Ballet Theatre, and working as a United Airlines flight attendant.
She returned to New Orleans and studied at the Giacobbe Academy of Dance, where she met Joseph Giacobbe, the founders’ brother, whom she married. Giacobbe was part of the team that trained eight winners of the Miss Dance of Louisiana competition and one Miss Dance of America, and she and her husband danced in Teresa Torkanowsky’s flamenco troupe.
Giacobbe was a principal dancer with Delta Festival Ballet, which her husband and Maria Giacobbe founded, and she also danced in New Orleans Opera Association productions, and designed and created costumes and headdresses for Giacobbe students.