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Remembering Damara Bennett, City Ballet School Founder Who Once Saved San Francisco Ballet

Joel Thomas, courtesy Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet

Damara Bennett, former San Francisco Ballet dancer, founder of City Ballet School and former director of the Oregon Ballet Theatre School, passed away on November 15 at the age of 67 after a years-long battle with breast cancer. She is survived by her husband, Michael Wallace, and her daughter, Eleanor Wallace, artistic associate at Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York City.

Bennett was born on May 6, 1953, in Munich, Germany, where her father, a U.S. Air Force officer and pilot, was stationed. The family returned to the U.S. a few years later; Bennett and her mother, a school teacher and elementary school principal, eventually settled in Laguna Beach, California. Bennett's initiation into classical ballet began there when she was 9; around age 12, she started training at Ballet Pacifica, the school founded by former American Ballet Theatre and Ballets Russes dancer Lila Zali, who was renowned for her rigorous Vaganova training. Having come to ballet at the relatively ripe age of 9, Bennett hurled herself into an arduous regimen to make up for lost time, taking every class she could.

The hard work soon paid off: As a teenager, she was awarded a Ford Foundation scholarship to study at the School of American Ballet for a summer program. In 1970, while still in high school, she performed in San Francisco Ballet's annual Nutcracker at age 17. At 18, she was hired and became the youngest member of the company.

Onstage, Bennett distinguished herself as a natural actress. She could do funny (the Duck in Michael Smuin's Peter and the Wolf was one of her favorite roles); she could do terrifying (the stepmother in Cinderella was another); she could do tragic (Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet). She had a passion for corps-driven Balanchine ballets, especially Symphony in C, Serenade, Concerto Barocco and Allegro Brillante.

"She loved the energy of working together, collectively carrying the ballet," says former SFB dancer and longtime friend Nancy Dickson.

A black and white shot of a young Bennett performing in a floral headband, long romantic tutu and pointe shoes, with a setpiece behind her that looks like a large picture frame

Courtesy Michael and Eleanor Wallace

"Collectively carrying the ballet" might also apply to a little-known piece of company history: a campaign spearheaded by Bennett, Dickson and three other corps members to rescue SFB from being shuttered.

The year was 1974, and SFB was $800,000 in debt. A meeting was called, where dancers learned that the board would decide in the next two weeks whether to fold the company altogether or turn it into a small touring company—the latter option, of course, spelling the end of the careers of most corps members. "Damara and I looked at each other and said, 'This is not happening,'" says Dickson.

Dickson and Bennett gathered with three other corps members and hatched a plan to raise the funds themselves. They sent telegrams and cold-called everyone they could think of who cared about the arts: Gene Kelly, Roy Bolger, Betty Ford—who was a dancer before she was First Lady—and dozens of others. Very quickly, and much to their surprise, the donations started pouring in (and a telegram from Kelly himself). Within two weeks, they'd raised $3,000. It wasn't enough to pay off the debt, but they brought it to the next board meeting to prove that getting the rest was possible. The board was furious and patronizing, according to Dickson, but artistic director Lew Christensen was pleased. "I don't care what you think," he proclaimed, "I'm proud of these girls!"

Bennett, in a red shirt and black pants and with her brown hair in a ponytail, leads a class on pre-teen ballet students

Courtesy Oregon Ballet Theatre

"From there," Dickson says, "we went crazy." They began to scour the Financial District, riding elevators to the top floors of big buildings and demanding unsolicited meetings with the president of whichever bank or investment firm's office they found themselves in. They borrowed tutus from the costume department and danced on street corners, demanding $10 for 10 échappés. Soon the press caught wind—Walter Cronkite even sent a crew to do a story on them. Eventually swayed by their efforts, SFB management stepped in to take over, recruiting several other company members to join in and dubbing the campaign "S.O.B.," Save Our Ballet. Within weeks of that first company meeting, San Francisco Ballet had raised enough funds to become solvent.

Bennett showed a similar fearlessness when it came to cutting her teeth as a teacher. While in the corps, she began subbing in for SFB school classes, and before long her talent had caught the attention of her peers. While company class was being taught on the stage of the Opera House, Bennett would sometimes give clandestine classes in the basement to friends who preferred her combinations. "She was an innate teacher," Dickson says. "She always had that calling."

Bennett retired from SFB in 1982, and began working as a guest teacher at several San Francisco dance studios. Her daughter, Eleanor, was born a year later, and grew up tagging along with her mother around the city as she taught. "I don't remember a time in my life where I wasn't in the studio," says Eleanor. There, Eleanor—who studied piano and composition—witnessed the scrupulous attention her mother paid to what her accompanists were playing. "She had such a dynamic relationship with her pianists," she says. "She wasn't afraid to challenge them: 'I want a polonaise, not a waltz'!"

Bennett, with short grey hair, glasses on her head and a velvet red shirt, smiles and leans down towards a teenage girl at the barre, whose back is to the camera

Joel Thomas, courtesy CPYB

In 1987, Bennett and another former SFB dancer founded City Ballet School, staking out the third floor of the now defunct California Culinary Academy on Polk Street in the Tenderloin district. When her partner left in the fourth year to get married and move to the South, Bennett kept the school going by herself, eventually moving the studio to a former Druids' Temple on Page Street not far from the San Francisco Ballet headquarters. Her husband stepped in to help with operations. She hired another teacher and invited several of her SFB friends to guest teach and choreograph.

One of these friends was Christopher Stowell, who had a 16-year career dancing with SFB and is currently associate artistic director of The National Ballet of Canada. His parents, Kent Stowell and Francia Russell, were founding artistic directors of Pacific Northwest Ballet. "Damara gave me my first opportunities to teach more seriously and to choreograph," Christopher says.

City Ballet School churned out dozens of professional dancers, among them Sascha Radetsky of American Ballet Theatre, Joanna Mednick of San Francisco Ballet and Dutch National Ballet, Samantha Mednick of Dutch National Ballet, and Maya Collins of New York City Ballet and Miami City Ballet. Radetsky, who is now artistic director of the American Ballet Theatre Studio Company, wrote in tribute: "Damara was tough but nurturing, hilarious but professional, a total badass but a total softie. She had an enormous heart and the ardent soul of an artist."

Adrian Danchig-Waring, a principal dancer with New York City Ballet, spent a brief time training with Bennett in San Francisco before leaving to join the School of American Ballet. But his relationship with her continued to develop until her death. He describes her teaching brilliance as a "magnetic physicality" that gave way to "the clear communication of her every gesture." She had a way of emulating movement to hold up a "magnified mirror" that allowed dancers to understand their corrections.

Bennett, wearing a tan sweater, adjust a young student's fifth position at the barre, looking stern. A row of girls, all in pink leotards, are in the same position, tightly packed at the barre.

Ellyett Photography, courtesy Michael and Eleanor Wallace

The success of what was a tiny ballet school just a few blocks away from one of the most prestigious company schools in the country might seem baffling. But many alums say it was precisely the small-scale, intimate atmosphere of City Ballet School that was key to their success. Bennett taught every level of students, from pre-ballet to pre-professional, so that for those who, like Maya Collins, were with her from the beginning, Bennett not only formed their technique, she also became a second mother: "She was there for every career decision I made, from the time I was 4 until I retired." Joanna Mednick echoes this sentiment, recalling Bennett saying, "I know all of you better than you think, just by the way you dance."

Still, keeping City Ballet School running was a struggle. "The school didn't make money for its first 11 years," her husband, Michael Wallace, says. This may have been in part due to Bennett's casual generosity—she would hand out full or partial scholarships to any students who wanted to dance but couldn't afford to. She also insisted on having a live pianist for every class. The costs that surely didn't make it onto paper were those invisible labors performed by Bennett herself—vacuuming the floors, cleaning the bathrooms and dressing rooms—in addition to teaching and rehearsing seven days a week.

When Stowell took the helm as artistic director of Oregon Ballet Theatre in 2003, he invited Bennett to join him as director of the school. She sold City Ballet School and threw herself into this new collaboration with Stowell, which he deemed "a partnership that I will never experience again."

Bennett kneels beside a young student who is in coupe at the barre, smiling up at her

Courtesy Oregon Ballet Theatre

"The thing I've never seen anyone else do as well as Damara," Stowell says, "and the thing that is so imperative in ballet, is that she taught little kids to be their own best teachers. Of course her steps were brilliant, but she taught the students to be their own eyes and ears." He praised her system of often asking students to assess themselves and each other, which nurtured their critical faculties as much as their physical capabilities. "It gave them a voice; it turned them into intelligent, articulate, reflective creatures who could carry their training with them inside the studio and out."

Indeed, as a mother of a student recounted on OBT's recent tribute, Bennett's students carried with them much more than technique. Finding her young daughter making her bed one morning, she inquired what had inspired this bout of responsible behavior. Her daughter replied that "Damara said in class, 'I hope not one of you lets your mom make your bed.'"

This admonishment—along with another one of her favorites, "Don't dance like a Republican!"—encapsulates the joyous intersection between relentless discipline and uninhibited artistic expression that defined Bennett's ethos as a teacher. "One thing is for sure," Stowell says. "When this pandemic is over, we're having a huge party in her honor."

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.

Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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