Northwest Florida Ballet Académie bridges the academic and cultural divide
By Jennifer Kaplan
Northwest Florida Ballet Académie isn’t your typical dance school. Its teachers follow the Florida state-mandated syllabus and must comply with federal No Child Left Behind regulations. Each year the students submit to the FCATs—Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests. Why? Because it’s an Okaloosa County public school.
With textbooks and academic teachers’ salaries provided by the county and federally subsidized breakfasts and lunches served daily, there’s much about the second- through eighth-grade school that mirrors other public schools throughout Florida and around the country. Except, every day, students change out of their required school uniforms into leotards, tights, and ballet slippers for a 60- to 90-minute ballet class (depending on grade). It’s little wonder that parents in Okaloosa (and two neighboring counties that are permitted to attend Okaloosa schools due to a waiver agreement) clamor to get their children enrolled: Northwest Florida Ballet Académie consistently tests among the top schools—not just in the county but in the state.
“The Northwest Florida Ballet Académie is the perfect example of how the arts help students to achieve both academically and culturally,” says Florida Secretary of State Kurt S. Browning. “We are incredibly proud to have this school in our state and hope that other school districts around the state learn from their example.”
Yet, every year, at the open house and audition for incoming second graders at the Fort Walton Beach studio, the parents still ask spiky-haired principal Jeff Welsh and artistic director and founder Todd Eric Allen, “How much is tuition?” And after a tour and thorough orientation of the school, they remain incredulous when both reiterate: there is no charge. The academy is a public school, not a charter school that uses tax dollars but does not adhere to school district rules.
“We are a contract school, but still public,” says Welsh. “The contract is between the Okaloosa School District and the nonprofit organization, NFB. The district provides the public school educational program and the NFB agrees to provide facilities and the arts instruction.”
This one-of-a-kind partnership was the brainchild of former ballet and Broadway dancer Allen. A son of the Florida panhandle region, which he fondly calls the “redneck Riviera,” Allen found himself in ballet class as a 13-year-old after a football injury put him out of commission. His forward-thinking doctor, with a wife who loved ballet, prescribed ballet as part of his recovery.
“I just fell in love with it. My parents divorced when I was young and with myself and two sisters being raised by my mother, we struggled a lot,” Allen says. “Ballet helped me in more ways than just being physical: it helped me to express feelings, and that environment felt very nurturing to me.” He soon found himself on scholarship at the Joffrey Ballet School in New York, his dance career in the making.
“Dance was my ticket to getting out, having a career, going to college, and seeing the world,” Allen says. When it was time to leave the stage, Allen, now 43, and his wife, dancer Sharon Allen, decided to return to his roots and his home state. Back in 1995, he reconnected with his first ballet teacher, Bernadette Clements Sims, founder of Northwest Florida Ballet and its school; she approached him about taking over her school and modest company.
“There was a tremendous amount of work that needed to be done in the community with arts education, in the schools specifically,” Allen says. “When I went through the [Okaloosa] schools, except for the music teacher, very little art was taught.” To raise the profile of the ballet studio, the couple set out on the lecture/dem school circuit.
Then, determined to bring dance and the arts to the public schools, Allen went to the top. “I went straight to the school board to find out what they were doing and what they were interested in.” He told them his own story and about how in other cities, dance companies—like Eliot Feld’s Ballet Tech in New York, Boston Ballet’s Citydance, and others—offer in-school programs for public school students. “I told them how important it was that we expose children to the arts and to dance at a young age.”
With the school board on his side and a growing relationship with key educational and community decision makers, Allen took his next step. His first proposal, an enrichment program that would bus underserved students to the ballet studio for enrichment classes, didn’t fly. The travel time and capacity for the buses couldn’t be worked into the school day. While trying to ramp up the ballet studio that Sims had turned over to him and build it into a full-fledged regional company, Allen thought there was more he could do with the public school system. A change in superintendents gave him an in.
In 2001, tentative plans to open a public ballet academy began in earnest. Simultaneously, Allen was topping off a capital campaign to renovate a 13,000-square-foot building in the old downtown of Fort Walton Beach for the ballet company to rehearse in and offer evening and Saturday classes. By fall 2002, Northwest Florida Ballet Académie welcomed its first third-grade class: 32 students who were selected solely by audition.
The academy will educate 146 students for the 2010–11 school year. It rents space for academic classrooms across the street from the studios, and Allen has proudly watched as many students have been accepted into prestigious summer intensive programs in Houston, Boston, and New York.
The ballet curriculum was developed under the eye of Allen and ballet mistress Dorothy Lister, a Florida panhandle native and former Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo dancer, who developed the pre-ballet curriculum at the Joffrey Ballet School. Ballet classes are taught throughout the day, with the children dancing daily. “It’s classical ballet training,” Allen says. “We keep them focused on the classical ballet syllabus in the academy, so they understand the straight spine, right from left, and the very basics of technique and the discipline. We spend a lot of time on their posture, muscles supporting the spine, knees over the toes.”
“There was a tremendous amount of work that needed to be done in the community with arts education, in the schools specifically. When I went through the [Okaloosa] schools, except for the music teacher, very little art was taught.” —NFBA founder Todd Eric Allen
All academy students are able to take additional afterschool classes in modern, jazz, pointe, variations, African, hip-hop, and ballet at the supplemental school of Northwest Florida Ballet. When children reach sixth grade, they are encouraged to take these classes three to four evenings per week because, realistically, one daily technique class isn’t enough. (The school sets up homework and snack times to make the school-to-afterschool transition easier.)
Ideally, between ages 11 and 13, the students dance about 15 hours a week, including their daily in-school technique class, plus afterschool supplemental classes and weekend rehearsals. Three-quarters of the middle-schoolers participate in the Trainee Program, which allows them to learn repertoire and perform corps de ballet roles in some of the professional company’s performances.
The academic curriculum, too, draws on the ballet orientation of the school. As in studio classes, where students perform a reverence and applaud at the end of class, in their academic subjects the students file out and thank the teacher personally, often shaking hands and making eye contact. The curriculum, Welsh says, is modeled on one for gifted children, with the goal of pushing every student to attain the highest academic achievement. Depending on the grade, the school day is 15 to 45 minutes longer than a regular public school in the county.
By the time students reach middle school, Allen and Welsh expect some attrition. Some children realize they aren’t interested in pursuing dance as a career; some find the schedule and academics too rigorous; others, whose families are affiliated with the region’s military bases, move because of parents’ jobs. Some parents find transportation their biggest challenge, since the school district does not provide buses. In the 2009–10 school year there were 10 students in the eighth grade, 14 in the seventh grade, and 20 in the sixth grade.
While many outsiders and public school employees believe the academy receives additional funding preferences or operates as a charter or private school, none of that is true. Allen’s school receives the same standard per-student allocation that every public school receives; last year it amounted to approximately $4,000. The school district pays for the academy’s academic teachers’ salaries and benefits, along with one-third of the salaries of a custodian, school secretary, and bookkeeper, plus Welsh’s entire salary.
“We started with one academic teacher/academic director [Welsh],” Allen says, “and we hired adjunct faculty in French, music, and art.” Allen and his company members taught the third-graders ballet each day for an hour. All academic teachers are hired on a teachers’ union contract from the school district and Welsh, as principal/academic director, complies with all public school curriculum standards and requirements.
The ballet company, a nonprofit organization, must pay the ballet and other enrichment teachers, including art and music specialists and a part-time French teacher, who visit weekly. The school is one of the few in the region, Welsh notes, that offers music, art, foreign language, and dance in the regular curriculum. Whatever is left over from the total $400,000 school budget can be allotted to these specialists, who teach on a part-time or adjunct basis without the same benefits and union contract as the county-hired teachers.
While naysayers not familiar with the student body complain that the academy selects only the highest-achieving students, Allen dispels that myth, noting that in auditions he looks for physical characteristics suitable to dance—high energy, flexibility, good feet, a straight spine, creativity, even a little ham. And, to those who grumble that the school attracts an economically and socially elite population, Welsh counters by pointing out that 29 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-priced lunches due to the low-income status of their parents.
Outside of the enrichment classes and the ballet-centered curriculum, in English students might study the story of Coppélia; in science they’ll learn the physical principles of momentum and how it relates to pirouettes; and in art they’ll explore concepts of positive and negative space and how those relate to both painting and choreography.
The biggest difference between the academy and other public schools is that it has the skewed girl/boy ratio of a typical dance school. With just 17 boys enrolled this year, many of the classes are virtually single sex, which, Welsh observes, often allows girls to excel, particularly in math and science, and cuts down on some of the typical middle-school shenanigans. Both Allen and Welsh note that the grounding in ballet technique calls for its own style of discipline, and that transfers to the playground, the lunchroom, and the academic classes. There’s rarely a reason to discipline a child or call parents due to behavior problems.
As Allen well knows, success and mastery in the dance world are two distinct goals. Once students leave for high school, their paths vary. From Allen’s first third-grade academy class, three dancers remain at the studio, he reports, while two have moved away but continue to dance. For those who don’t make the cut or find that ballet isn’t what they want, Allen remains pragmatic: “The goal is to expose them to this art form and try to nurture them along, and then if they choose to do something else, we’ll support them. We let them know we need as many people out there spreading the word about ballet as possible.”
In conceiving of this unique public–private partnership, Allen studied ballet success stories of past decades and centuries. “I looked at the Royal Danish Ballet, the Kirov (Maryinsky) Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet and how they identify and audition large numbers of students at around 8 years old for intensive ballet training,” he says. “I wanted to do the same thing, but I wanted this ballet program to be very American.
“American,” he emphasizes, “means that the opportunity is there for anyone of any economic background. I believe that ballet training should be accessible to anyone. The kids are out there. It’s our job to find them.”