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From left: Joseph Gatti, Zoica Tovar and Andres Estevez of the United Ballet Theatre Academy. Javier Vladimir, Courtesy UBT

Injuries can be a turning point in any dancer's career, but for Joseph Gatti, it was the catalyst for creating his own ballet company, United Ballet Theatre. Since its launch in 2018, UBT has been centered on cultivating "athletes of art," with an emphasis on daily cross-training and physical therapy to prevent injuries and increase career longevity. Now, Gatti is expanding that mission further with the launch of United Ballet Theatre Academy, which opened February 1 in Orlando.

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Left: Cruz and Dec in rehearsal at PNB, photo courtesy PNB. Right: Cruz teaching at the couple's new studio. Photo courtesy DeCruz Ballet

Despite everything 2020 has brought, former Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Lindsi Dec and Karel Cruz still managed to experience three milestones this year.

In February, the couple welcomed their second child, Kailer. In July, Dec retired from PNB, deciding to move on to the next chapter of her life rather than wait out the pandemic. And in September, they opened their first ballet studio, DeCruz Ballet, in San Antonio, Texas.

Dec and Cruz—who fell in love with teaching during season layoffs from PNB and through organizing their own summer and winter workshops in Seattle—had long dreamed of one day opening their own ballet school. Opening in the middle of a pandemic, however, wasn't in the plans.

After several years of looking at studio spaces in the Seattle area, the couple had recently shifted their focus to Texas, where Dec has family. While visiting San Antonio in July, they found out that a studio where they'd guest-taught was available to lease. "It was ready to go with marley floors, mirrors, barres, furniture," says Dec. "We were very lucky and felt that we should take the opportunity."

At the time, the family had been residing in Oklahoma, where Cruz was teaching at the University of Oklahoma and Dec was on maternity leave from PNB, with plans to return to performing for the 2020 season.

Once Dec and Cruz decided to take advantage of the studio space in San Antonio, they packed up and moved their family from Oklahoma to Texas in three weeks to open the studio on September 8.

"It was really hard to pack the whole house with the baby and the 4-year-old and not only move, but start classes right away. I can't think of any challenge bigger than that," says Cruz.

Dec leans back into Cruz's arms extending her leg straight up in the air. She wears a short black dress and point shoes; he is shirtless and wears black pants.

Cruz and Dec in Crystal Pite's Emergence at PNB. Photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB

A Pre-Professional Focus

With over 40 years of combined teaching experience between them—from countless guest-teaching slots and Cruz's training at La Escuela Nacional de Ballet en Havana, where he earned the title of bailarin profesor (dance teacher)—Dec and Cruz knew exactly what they were looking for in a studio of their own.

"We really want to help students prepare for auditions, reaching teens who are figuring out whether they want to dance professionally or not," says Cruz. This entails helping pre-professional students understand the many avenues a dance career can take and exposing students to the benefits of college dance programs through one-on-one sessions and guest speakers.

They also want to instill confidence amongst teens. "We really want to focus on ages 12 and up, since that is a really crucial time for these kids to feel high self-esteem," says Dec. "We noticed that when we were teaching that age group, they don't have a lot of confidence because of all the social media out there."

Pandemic Silver Linings

Though COVID-19 restrictions have limited in-person class sizes in DeCruz Ballet's first months, the couple's experience teaching virtually at the beginning of the pandemic gave them a student following for the studio's virtual program.

"We offered some free classes when we first opened and people were joining from Brazil and Canada," says Dec. "We did a virtual master class for students in Mexico this past summer and now some of them have been joining our current Zoom classes."

Zoom master classes have also helped them diversify their offerings. "Pre-COVID, you just hired whoever was in the city," says Dec. "Now you can have other people teach and offer students exposure to wonderful artists." So far, they've employed virtual master teachers for styles such as contemporary, hip hop and Pilates mat, with goals to hire for ballroom, character, flamenco and other guest ballet teachers.

"It has been a wonderful way to connect with dancers from all over the world, and we will continue online classes after the pandemic," says Dec. "All of us coming together, whether in person or online, sharing this beautiful art form, has been a blessing."

Growing DeCruz Ballet

DeCruz Ballet's in-person classes are on track too, at least partially thanks to Dec and Cruz's star power. Two out-of-state students have even moved to San Antonio recently to join the pre-professional program, says Dec, which currently has five students due to COVID-19 restrictions, and others asking to reserve spots for next year. Even in normal times, the program will be capped at 12 students to ensure one-on-one attention. (The pre-professional program is also offered virtually.)

Pre-professional students dance for around four hours a day in classes such as ballet technique, contemporary, Pilates, cross-training, variations, pointe and men's class. Most in-person classes are taught by Dec and Cruz, and the couple plans to hire more teachers as the school grows.

In addition to the pre-professional program, DeCruz Ballet offers creative movement classes, intermediate and adult classes, and private lessons both in-person and virtually.

The couple's goal for the coming month is to continue to generate visibility (most of the marketing has been done through Instagram and word of mouth). They are also looking for a more permanent studio space, as their current lease expires at the end of June 2021. Dec and Cruz will continue working on their dancewear line, Solu, and are preparing for the launch of their new styles.

They look forward to growing the school's enrollment, but for now, the smaller class sizes have not only helped with maintaining safety during the pandemic, but also afforded students more attention to fine-tune their technique.

While San Antonio does have a professional company, Ballet San Antonio, which also has an affiliated school, Dec says they have never envisioned DeCruz Ballet focusing only on local students. "We positioned it as a studio where kids could join us from around the nation," says Dec. "We wanted to be that smaller school with really intense training."

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Courtesy Soul Arts Productions

Isaac and Esteban Hernández are two of ballet's leading men, working as principal dancers at the English National Ballet and San Francisco Ballet, respectively. Fans may be familiar with the brothers' humble beginnings, learning their first pliés and tendus alongside their nine other siblings in their backyard in Guadalajara, Mexico. But many may not know about their first teacher, their father, Héctor Hernández. Now 74, he has worked diligently to promote ballet's benefits to the masses in his country.

Hector opened the first free ballet school in Jalisco, Mexico, in 2013, the Escuela Municipal de Ballet Tlajomulco. It drew more than 300 students, with 700 on the waiting list. He now has six free ballet schools throughout the state, with a total of 600 students and eight teachers. His mission goes far beyond creating great artists: His work has helped deepen ballet's popularity in Mexico while enriching his students with valuable life skills.

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Courtesy Dance Maker Academy

Maria and Marjorie Tallchief. Moscelyne Larkin. Rosella Hightower. Yvonne Chouteau.

These world-famous Native American ballerinas, referred to as the "Five Moons," became trailblazers in the ballet world beginning in the 1940s, when much of the industry was dominated by Russian and European dancers.

Today, Indigenous ballet dancers are few and far between, but Jenna Smith LaViolette, who is part of the same tribe as the Tallchief sisters—the Osage Nation—is working to keep the legacy of the Five Moons alive as the director of Dance Maker Academy, located on the Osage reservation in Pawhuska, Oklahoma.

A black and white shot of Tallchief and several men stepping off an airplane, luggage in hand

Maria Tallchief returning from a NYCB tour in 1953. Photo courtesy Dance Magazine Archives

Since 2014, the school has taught ballet, tap, jazz and drama to students representing 20 different Native American tribes, with about half of the students being of Osage descent (roughly one-fourth of the students are non-Indigenous).

But despite the popularity ballet gained in Osage County due to the Tallchief sisters—Maria is widely regarded as the first American prima ballerina and was a star at New York City Ballet, and Marjorie was the first Native American dancer to become a première danseuse étoile at the Paris Opéra Ballet—when LaViolette was first choreographing her Wahzhazhe: An Osage Ballet back in 2012, she was hard pressed to find any Indigenous professional dancers, let alone Osage dancers.

It was LaViolette's mother, Randy Tinker Smith, who is of Osage and Cherokee descent and directed Wahzhazhe, who first had the idea of capturing their history through a ballet. While working at the Osage Nation Museum in 2009, she heard music written by her colleague and fellow Osage Lou Brock and was inspired to set a ballet to it.

"One of the main questions we get is 'Why ballet to tell our story?'" says LaViolette. "My mom watched me grow up dancing, so that was her immediate thought. Also, every Ovsage around my mom's age had taken ballet because of Maria and Marjorie." (Wahzhazhe also features some Osage dancing during the opening and closing numbers.)

Dancers in traditional Osage attire are seen from the side of a brightly lit stage, leaning forward towards the camera

A scene from Wahzhazhe. Photo by Geneva Horsechief Hamilton, courtesy Dance Maker Academy

Though LaViolette's grandfather was raised in Fairfax, Oklahoma—the same town as the Tallchiefs—LaViolette grew up in Georgia, where she studied ballet. Every summer, her family traveled to Pawhuska to participate in their Osage ceremonial dances called Elonshka. Her family moved to the Osage Nation reservation in 2006 and LaViolette continued her training at the Tulsa Ballet Center for Dance Education, and then at Oral Roberts University.

Though the original idea was to have local choreographer Roman Jasinski create the ballet, there wasn't enough money to pay an outside choreographer. So LaViolette, who was in her first year out of college and teaching part-time at Tulsa Ballet Center and at Jasinski's local ballet school, choreographed it herself. "It kind of fell onto my lap to choreograph the ballet," she says. "My mom said it was the right thing to do because an Osage should choreograph our story."

Casting the ballet was challenging, but after holding an audition at Jasinski Academy and running advertisements to fill additional roles, LaViolette was able to fill the cast with 21 Indigenous dancers from the Osage Nation (most of whom did not have any dance training) and 11 non-Indigenous professional dancers.

Around 12 young dancers in Osage attire huddle together onstage, smiling at one another

A scene from Wahzhazhe. Photo by Geneva Horsechief Hamilton, courtesy Dance Maker Academy

Wahzhazhe (which is the name of the tribe—"Osage" is the English pronunciation) premiered at Holland Hall Walter Arts Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in August 2012. It immediately received acclaim and went on to be featured at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC, in 2013 and at the Festival of Families in Philadelphia for the visit of Pope Francis in 2015. It continues to tour to various cities across the U.S. but has been put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic.

With the national success of the ballet came another, unexpected, success: a renewed interest in ballet on the Osage reservation. "Most of the younger kids who danced in the ballet had never had any formal dance training," says LaViolette. "So their parents kept asking if we would open up a studio."

The idea for Dance Maker Academy was born, though it, too, didn't come without its challenges. At first, when Tinker Smith shared the idea of the dance school with Osage elders, they were not entirely convinced it was a good idea.

"There were a lot of questions about how real this could be in our rural town in Oklahoma," says Geoffrey StandingBear, current Principal Chief of the Osage Nation.

LaViolette was not deterred. "I knew it was the right thing to do to help our children have some stability," she says. "If we aren't going to do it, then who is?"

An adult woman in all black leads four young girls in tendus

LaViolette teaching at Dance Maker Academy. Photo courtesy Dance Maker Academy

Eventually, LaViolette earned the elders' support. "Once they heard why I wanted to do it, they were on board," says LaViolette. "I think they were just concerned at first about my sanity trying to open the school, because our town was so small."

So in 2014, with the help of numerous community donations, Dance Maker Academy opened its doors on the Osage reservation with 44 students. Today, enrollment has expanded to nearly 100 students, 60 percent of whom are on scholarship. Last year, Dance Maker Academy became the only nonprofit organization in the state to partner with a school district (Pawhuska Public Schools) to offer dance instruction at no cost to all middle and high school students. And with help from fundraising events and business donations, the academy has been performing an annual Nutcracker since 2017, along with, of course, an annual performance of Wahzhazhe.

"When we do Wahzhazhe, it is important for the kids to know where they come from," says Penny Adair, a former Dance Maker student and now a teacher (and a distant relative of Yvonne Chouteau). "I try to tell them the history of the ballet and their lineage so they can communicate that in their dancing."

While the Osage have their own history of dancing, Chief StandingBear says there has never been any concern with ballet overshadowing those traditions. (LaViolette plans the studio's schedule around the Osage Elonshka dances that are held every June.)

In fact, the Osage's strong relationship with dance has boded well for Dance Maker Academy. "At one point, we had 10 boys attending our academy because Osage and native people dance," says LaViolette. "A lot of Osage elder men also took ballet because of the Tallchief sisters. It wasn't frowned upon, as it usually is, for men to dance."

Like most studios, Dance Maker Academy had to close for four months this year and hold classes through Zoom. The school reopened in June, with social distancing measures in place, and was able to hold its postponed spring performance in August.

Community support has kept the children of Osage dancing: The Osage Nation Foundation paid for every child who participated in the school's summer camp, and the Oklahoma Arts Council gave Dance Maker two grants to help weather financial challenges caused by the pandemic.

As it turns out, LaViolette was right about Dance Maker Academy being a needed source of stability for the community. Faith Rackliff, for example, had been dealing with domestic violence at home when a youth pastor mentioned that she might audition for Wahzhazhe as an outlet.

"We went through a rough time," explains her mother, Dena Cosby. "Ballet gave Faith something to look forward to after school, so she didn't have to worry about what was happening at home. It helped her build confidence." Now, seven years later, Rackliff is a 15-year-old scholarship student with dreams of becoming a professional dancer.

Though Maria Tallchief passed away in 2013 and Marjorie, now 94, resides in Florida, their legacy lives on in Osage County thanks to LaViolette.

"We have this studio and the ballet because of the Tallchief sisters and their legacy," says LaViolette. "If it weren't for them, we really wouldn't be here."

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