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True to its classical heart: 1,600 students study ballet at Maryland Youth Ballet. Is one of them a future Julie Kent?

Classical ballet thrives in the second-story studios of Maryland Youth Ballet in downtown Silver Spring, a Washington, D.C., suburb. They have taught ballet here for more than 40 years, helping to launch the careers of ballerinas like American Ballet Theatre principal Julie Kent and former principal Susan Jaffe, now an ABT ballet mistress.

"MYB is successful in turning out professional dancers because it offers top-level training with top-level performance opportunity," says Jaffe. "That, coupled with an inspired love of dance, creates an atmosphere where young emerging artists can thrive."

Hortensia Fonseca founded MYB in 1971. A principal dancer with the National Ballet of Costa Rica, Fonseca emigrated to the U.S. in 1945, and danced in both New York and Washington, D.C. She is still the school's artistic director. Michelle Lees, now the school's principal and its day-to-day manager, also danced professionally with companies like the Chicago Ballet.

Currently, the school has about 1,600 students, split equally between young dancers (from 2 to 20 years old) and adults. Classes run seven days a week, year-round; advanced students dance every day. "We never close," says Lees.

All MYB faculty members are current or former professional dancers. The school wants teachers who have danced as professionals, says Lees, because they can inspire students. There are a dozen full-time instructors, 15 part-timers; usually the school has one or two guest instructors who are current or former dancers with nationally renowned companies. This summer the Advanced Ballet Intensive course will he taught by Ethan Brown, formerly a soloist who danced with ABT for 23 years; Olivier Munoz, a former principal with the English National Ballet and other companies; and Christopher Doyle, director of the MYB Studio Company--he danced with The Washington Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and the National Korean Ballet, and spent 11 years as artistic director for the Fresno Ballet.

Even MYB's costumes are created by an artist: The school's costume mistress, Judith Hansen, has designed for The Washington Ballet, the Washington Opera, and individual ABT artists (including Julie Kent). Hansen sews a small St. Joan medal in each of her tutus. It's a homage to Karinska, Balanchine's renowned costume designer, who did the same thing.

While the school's faculty play an important role in its success, the school has the added advantage of being located in an affluent area near the nation's capital, a city that regularly hosts some of the world's most renowned ballet companies. The school can boast a modern physical plant, too. MYB occupies the entire 12,000-square-foot second floor of a contemporary building on one of the busiest corners in Silver Spring's central business district. There's ample parking nearby in multilevel garages, important since street parking can be scarce.

Dancers practice in five comfortable studios arrayed around the perimeter of the floor, a layout that allows large windows in four of the spaces. All have Harlequin floors. Each studio also has a piano: all classes except for the smallest students (ages 2 to 5) are conducted with live musical accompaniment. (The school has three full- and nine part-time pianists on the staff.)

The downside is, with a large faculty and staff housed in a modern building, MYB's costs of doing business are high, too high for tuition alone to pay the bills. So how do they make ends meet? The school has long made aggressive fundraising part of its strategy. It holds an annual six-week giving campaign and special events, including a gala where donated items and services are auctioned. Each class donates a basket of items. The offerings are eclectic; for example, this spring five boys put themselves up as "slaves for a day." Lees regularly auctions a small role in the school's Nutcracker, and even teaches the buyer a couple of simple dance steps. And there's the always-popular Studio Sleepover, basically a pajama party at the studio--usually involving a lot of trying-on of costumes.

The school also has benefited from being in an Arts & Entertainment District, a special designation by the State of Maryland that opens the door to state-funded financial assistance for qualifying artists working in the district. The designation has helped to revitalize the area: Along with art galleries and individual artists working in small spaces, MYB's neighbors include Discovery Communications World Headquarters and the American Film Institute Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.

Lees says that MYB ends each year with enough money to fund some scholarships and outreach programs. The school offers a free ballet class once a week in public schools. And there's a Music in Motion program for children with physical disabilities, giving them a chance to enjoy some of the freedom of dancing.

The bedrock for Maryland Youth Ballet, however, has been the school's intense focus on classical training. To succeed at MYB, says Lees, a student must believe in classical dance, be true to herself, and not get sidetracked. And those students and parents who take those goals to heart feel a lasting loyalty. "This school," says Jaffe, "gave me a life."

Michael Smith is a Connecticut writer who often covers dance and business.


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Title Annotation:Maryland Youth Ballet
Author:Smith, Michael
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1U9WA
Date:Aug 1, 2012
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