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Boston Ballet School and Walnut Hill Are Merging Their High School Pre-Professional Programs

Boston Ballet School students tour Walnut Hill School for the Arts. Photo by Igor Burlak, courtesy of Boston Ballet

Over the years, one thing kept Boston Ballet School director Margaret Tracey up at night. While she feels enormous pride in the training the school's pre-professional division provides, she worried about how her students are doing outside of dance: namely, in academics and residential life. "My sleepless nights happen when I think about a young student who's living on their own and struggling with something, or whose online school program is overwhelming them," says Tracey. "Those sit outside our core competencies as a ballet school, and, yet, I can't ignore that it's a huge part of their daily experience."

Though Boston Ballet School has provided housing and academic options to its pre-professional students, they haven't proved sustainable. That will soon change. Next fall, BBS will join forces with the dance program at Walnut Hill School for the Arts, a boarding high school in nearby Natick, Massachusetts. The partnership, called Boston Ballet School's Pre-Professional Division at Walnut Hill, seems like a win-win for both organizations: It offers BBS dancers college-preparatory academics and an on-site residential facility, and gives Walnut Hill an affiliation with a major ballet company.


A teacher watches as four female students in gray leotards \u00e9chapp\u00e9 on pointe.

Boston Ballet School students taking class at the school's downtown campus.

Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy Boston Ballet

Merging the two programs hasn't been easy, says Tracey. But when BBS reached out to Walnut Hill a little over a year ago, they found that the two schools' goals were quite complementary. "They were looking to expand their dance training," says Tracey. "So the timing was right in that we had a need and they had a need."

Starting next fall, high school students in BBS's pre-professional division will relocate to Walnut Hill's campus full-time, with their dance classes occurring on site and out-of-town dancers living in supervised dormitories. Although BBS initially felt the campus, about 30 minutes from Boston, might be too far away, they were encouraged by Walnut Hill's similar partnership with the New England Conservatory for its music majors. Tracey was additionally reassured after visiting the Paris Opéra Ballet School, located in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, while the company was on tour last spring. "We thought, ah, okay—this is how it could work," she says. "Knowing there were other successful models like this really helped shape the vision."

Antonio Vivo and Margaret Tracey, wearing jackets, pose standing next to each other outside a school building.

Walnut Hill's head of school Antonio Viva and Boston Ballet School director Margaret Tracey on Walnut Hill's campus.

Igor Burlak, Courtesy Boston Ballet

Much of that vision includes developing the whole student, beyond ballet. Dancers will devote part of their day to college-preparatory academics, in addition to classes in their dance major. Walnut Hill's Arts 360 program allows students to take classes in different art forms, and they will have other important requirements such as music theory. "Most pre-professional programs focus on the immediate step ahead, which is getting into a company." says Nicola Conraths, Walnut Hill's director of artistic studies. "But the idea here is to develop dancers who can look at the arts across a lifespan."

Three female Boston Ballet students pose in arabesque onstage, wearing long white tutus.

Boston Ballet School students perform August Bournonville's Konservatoriet.

Liza Voll, Courtesy Boston Ballet

There are other advantages, too. "Students can collaborate with other arts majors on different projects," says Conraths. And because Walnut Hill has several theaters on campus, BBS can offer more performance opportunities to dancers (who will still be able to audition for the company's Nutcracker).

This new partnership comes as Walnut Hill's current leadership is changing; Michael Owen, who has directed the school's dance program for 20 years, is retiring, although he will be involved on the school's development side and with its community dance division. Tracey will become the school's new director of dance and move to the campus full-time, along with Peter Stark, BBS's head of men's training. "We are planning on expanding our men's program to 20 to 30 students, with an entire curriculum for them," says Conraths.

"Most of our pre-professional division students are from out of town, so they're really looking for this type of program," says Tracey. "To have someone who can manage their community life and shape their academic aspirations is such a relief, and something these young dancers deserve."

News
Courtesy Russell

Gregg Russell, an Emmy-nominated choreographer known for his passionate and energetic teaching, passed away unexpectedly on Sunday, November 22, at the age of 48.

While perhaps most revered as a master tap instructor and performer, Russell also frequently taught hip-hop and musical theater classes, showcasing a versatility that secured him a successful career onstage and in film and television, both nationally and abroad.


His resumé reads like an encyclopedia of popular culture. Russell worked with celebrities such as Bette Midler and Gene Kelly; coached pop icon Michael Jackson and Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane; danced in the classic films Clueless and Newsies; performed on "Dancing with the Stars" and the Latin Grammy Awards; choreographed for Sprite and Carvel Ice Cream; appeared with music icons Reba McEntire and Jason Mraz; and graced stages from coast to coast, including Los Angeles' House of Blues and New York City's Madison Square Garden.

But it was as an educator that Russell arguably found his calling. His infectious humor, welcoming aura and inspirational pedagogy made him a favorite at studios, conventions and festivals across the U.S. and in such countries as Australia, France, Honduras and Guatemala. Even students with a predilection for classical styles who weren't always enthused about studying a percussive form would leave Russell's classes grinning from ear to ear.

"Gregg understood from a young age how to teach tap and hip hop with innovation, energy and confidence," says longtime dance educator and producer Rhee Gold, who frequently hired Russell for conferences and workshops. "He gave so much in every class. There was nothing I ever did that I didn't think Gregg would be perfect for."

Growing up in Wooster, Ohio, Russell was an avid tap dancer and long-distance runner who eventually told his mother, a dance teacher, that he wanted to exclusively pursue dance. She introduced him to master teachers Judy Ann Bassing, Debbi Dee and Henry LeTang, whom he credited as his three greatest influences.

"I was instantly smitten, though competitive with him," says longtime friend and fellow choreographer Shea Sullivan, a protégé of LeTang. "Over the years we developed a mutual respect and admiration for each other. He touched so many lives. This is a great loss."

After graduating from Wooster High School, Russell was a scholarship student at Edge Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles, where he lived for many years. He founded a company, Tap Sounds Underground, taught at California Dance Theatre and even returned to Edge as an instructor, all while maintaining a busy travel schedule.

A beloved member of the tap community, Russell not only spoke highly of his contemporaries, but earned his place among them as a celebrated performing artist and teacher. With friend Ryan Lohoff, with whom he appeared on CBS's "Live to Dance," he co-directed Tap Into The Network, a touring tap intensive founded in 2008.

"His humor, giant smile and energy in his eyes are the things I will remember most," says Lohoff. "He inspired audiences and multiple generations of dancers. I am grateful for our time together."

Russell was on the faculty of numerous dance conventions, such as Co. Dance and, more recently, Artists Simply Human. He was known as a "teacher's teacher," having discovered at the young age of 18 that he enjoyed passing on his knowledge to other dance educators. He wrote tap teaching tips for Dance Studio Life magazine and led classes for fellow instructors whenever he was on tour.

In 2018, he opened a dance studio, 3D Dance, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he had been living most recently.

Russell leaves behind a wife, Tessa, and a 5-year-old daughter, Lucy.


"His success was his family and his daughter," says Gold. "They changed his entire being. He was a happy man."

GoFundMe campaigns to support Russell's family can be found here and here.

Teaching Tips
@jayplayimagery, courtesy Blackstone

Zoom classes have created a host of challenges to overcome, but this new way of learning has also had some surprising perks. Students and educators are becoming more adaptable. Creativity is blossoming even amid space constraints. Dancers have been able to broaden their horizons without ever leaving home.

In short, in a year filled with setbacks, there is still a lot to celebrate. Dance Teacher spoke to four teachers about the virtual victories they've seen thus far and how they hope to keep the momentum going back in the classroom.

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News
Betty Jones in The Moor's Pavane, shot for Dance Magazine's "Dancers You Should Know" series in 1955. Zachary Freyman, Courtesy Jacob's Pillow

An anchor of the Humphrey-Limón legacy for more than 70 years, Betty Jones died at her home in Honolulu on November 17, 2020. She remained active well into her 90s, most recently leading a New York workshop with her husband and partner, Fritz Ludin, in October 2019.

Betty May Jones was born on June 11, 1926 in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and moved with her family to the Albany, New York, area, where she began taking dance classes. Just after she turned 15 in 1941, she began serious ballet study at Jacob's Pillow, which was under the direction of Anton Dolin and Alicia Markova for the season. Over the next three summers as a scholarship student, Jones expanded her range and became an integral part of Jacob's Pillow. Among her duties was working in the kitchen, where her speedy efficiency earned her the nickname of "Lightning."

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