As directors of The Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia, Bo and Stephanie Spassoff run not just a ballet academy but an all-encompassing campus that includes dorms and an academic program. The married couple, who often teach together and share two children, have trained an impressive list of alumni. Michaela DePrince, Beckanne Sisk, Isaac and Esteban Hernandez, Christine Shevchenko, Taylor Stanley and Derek Dunn all attended The Rock School, which also has a large number of international students. Their students have regularly competed in the New York Finals of Youth America Grand Prix, and The Rock has been named Outstanding School in the YAGP Philadelphia semifinal for 14 years in a row.
But beyond these accolades, at the heart of their training is compassion. "Bo and Stephanie have a very warm and caring energy," says Dunn, now a principal dancer at Boston Ballet. "They push students to do their best, but they use positive reinforcement and crack jokes to break the tension. It takes the fear of failing away and gives students a chance to try new things and push past their comfort zones."
Developing a kinder, gentler way of teaching was very important to Stephanie, The Rock's artistic director. She felt timid in her own ballet classes growing up, even after landing her first job in the corps of American Ballet Theatre. "It was very strict, and it was harsh, and that's one reason I was so afraid as a dancer," Stephanie says.
Catherine Park, courtesy The Rock School
The Spassoffs met at ABT, where Bo landed after dancing with the Dutch National Ballet and the Royal Danish Ballet. They later joined San Francisco Ballet, where Bo danced and Stephanie prepared to have their first son, before running Savannah Ballet and Ballet Oklahoma and their affiliated schools.
They moved to Philadelphia to join Pennsylvania Ballet, where Bo was a ballet master and Stephanie a soloist. Eventually they took over the school and saw it through a split with the company in 1992, when it looked like Pennsylvania Ballet might go bankrupt. In 2007, Pennsylvania Ballet moved out of the building.
This, the Spassoffs found, gave them freedom. They now had more studios, so they could hire more teachers, beef up their summer program and retain more students year-round. They set out to establish a home where dancers could live and learn both ballet and academics.
Now there are dorms across the street from The Rock, an on-site cafeteria and Rock Academics, which includes both online education and in-person teaching. (Students also enjoy a prom and a graduation ceremony.) The school has a costume shop, an outreach program that teaches 20,000 schoolchildren and the satellite campus Rock West in suburban Chester County.
The Spassoffs' teaching methods were influenced by Stanley Williams and David Howard; their own training style is a mix. "It's an anatomical and kinesthetic approach to 'how do you most effectively take a specific body, look at what it needs and give it what it needs, as far as a ballet career is concerned?'" says Bo, who serves as The Rock's president and director.
The pair have surrounded themselves with faculty hailing from the U.S., Cuba, Europe and Russia, which Dunn says is another reason for the school's success: "The teachers expose the students to all styles of technique." And it shows—throughout the years, dancers have earned awards at YAGP, the Moscow International Ballet Competition, The World Ballet Competition and the USA International Ballet Competition. Many incoming students have been drawn by the 2011 documentary First Position, which featured DePrince and others competing at YAGP. ("We still get recognized in airports," Stephanie says.)
After more than 30 years leading The Rock, Bo hopes their legacy will be, first and foremost, that they were kind directors who happened to produce wonderful dancers. And according to Dunn, they're right on track.