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Darla Hoover Is Working to Meet Legendary High Standards at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet

Photo by Kyle Froman

Darla Hoover was at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet's studios running a rehearsal in 2014 with director Marcia Dale Weary. Hoover had just returned the day before from staging a ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia. Jet-lagged, she mixed up her words when giving a correction.

Weary took Hoover's hand and gently said, "Honey, you work too hard."

Hoover, and the students, had a good laugh.

"Are you kidding me?" Hoover replied. "You're the one who made this monster. There is no off switch!"

Weary founded CPYB in 1955, and it quickly became an internationally known school that has produced countless principal dancers. Famous for her high standards and tough work ethic, Weary instilled those qualities in Hoover, who served as associate artistic director at CPYB under Weary, as artistic director at Ballet Academy East's pre-professional division in New York City and as a répétiteur for the Balanchine Trust.

Hoover took over as artistic director at CPYB in the spring this year after Weary died suddenly, and while she's committed to continuing Weary's legacy, students have begun to see some of Hoover's vision as well.


Succession Plan

Though Hoover was groomed for the job, Weary's guidance could not prepare her for the prospect of Weary being gone.

"The idea of her not being here just rattled me to the core," Hoover says. "I personally could not talk about succession with her."

But it was clear that Weary wanted Hoover to take over as artistic director, and Hoover told the board in January of this year that she would take the job. But in her mind, that day was "20 years away."

Yet on March 4, Weary passed away at age 82, leaving generations of dancers who trained at CPYB without their mentor. Hoover was devastated, but quickly got to work. "You don't have time to mourn. There's lots to do," she says.

Hoover was determined that Weary's passing would not disrupt operations at CPYB or BAE, yet she would have to figure out how to balance more responsibility at CPYB.

Julia Dubno, founder and director of BAE, was not worried about Hoover's ability to handle leading both schools. For nearly 25 years, Hoover has successfully split her time, usually spending weeks at a time at each school and sometimes shuttling back and forth multiple times per week. "Darla assured me of her equal commitment to both organizations," Dubno says. "She's always been efficient and smooth at sharing her time. We've never known any other way."

For Hoover, driving between Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and New York City is second-nature. She's been going back and forth regularly for more than 40 years—since she moved to New York from Carlisle when she was 15 to study at the School of American Ballet. "I always came back to teach classes. When I was at SAB, in City Ballet, and after," she says, "it never occurred to me that I couldn't make this work."

But that doesn't mean she has it figured out just yet. "It's going to take a full year before I really piece together the puzzle of the ebb and flow of each organization and see where my time is best utilized," she says.

Both organizations are a substantial size. BAE has 160 students in the pre-professional division, with 14 teachers. CPYB has 300 students and 12 teachers. Hoover teaches 10 to 13 classes a week at each school on alternating weeks.

Her main focus is stability for the students, but she has a few ideas for what she'd like to accomplish, including making sure Weary's syllabus is implemented properly at CPYB.

She described how Weary would often leave sticky notes in the studio saying what she'd taught in each class. "We don't have her to leave those notes anymore, so we need to streamline how we implement the syllabus," says Hoover.

But the syllabus is more than Weary's pedagogy. It's born of Weary's spirit as a teacher. "What people don't fully understand is you can have the best syllabus in the world, but unless it's accompanied by her little stories and her values and high standards, it's meaningless," says Hoover.

Those stories include a tradition Hoover plans to continue: inspiring students with anecdotes about alumni working hard in their training. For example, Weary would often share with students that when Hoover was 8 years old, she broke her arm—but didn't miss any classes. Hoover simply didn't hold the barre on the side of the broken arm.

"Marcia often said, 'No glitches. I don't like glitches,' like falling out of a pirouette. It can be hard to meet those standards," Hoover says. "When you're trying not to glitch, it helps to have stories of students who did it before."

Some teachers might find that in today's climate, it's difficult to push kids as hard as Weary did. But Hoover says she finds that children respond to being challenged and find satisfaction when they reach whatever goal is set for them. "The key is to set the right standard for the class," she says. "Every child can do a tendu back with a straight knee if they keep working. Set achievable milestones."

Photo by Kyle Froman


Embracing a Broader Approach

Hoover also plans to broaden the training by adding new styles to the classes offered at CPYB. The 2019 summer course featured hip-hop classes for the first time. Hoover believes offering classes such as that and modern dance is a vital part of being prepared for the diverse repertoire of most ballet companies. "I want them to embrace it, to find the joy in other styles, not just endure it," she says.

She also plans to bring in choreographers who work outside of the classical style. "I might have a more current vision for choreography coming in. I'm looking forward to sharing that with the kids," she says.

New choreography has also served to unite CPYB and BAE in recent years. Through their choreographic exchange program, student choreographers swap schools to restage a work they created at their home school. Hoover wants to build on that to find ways for students at the schools to perform jointly in each city, perhaps in new work. "We should embrace this unique situation of one artistic director at two schools," she says. "It's not just a challenge; it has benefits."

Achieving a Long-Held Dream

What Hoover is most excited about for the school, however, is the realization of a decades-long goal of Weary's: construction of a new theater for CPYB's students. The students currently perform in Harrisburg at the Whitaker Center a few times per year, but they will soon have an additional performance space in Carlisle: a black-box theater at the CPYB studios that seats 200 people and is slated to open in 2020.

"That moment when I'm sitting in the theater, watching CPYB kids dance, I will finally feel more at peace with her passing," Hoover says. "This was her dream for a long time."

Nicholas Ade, CEO of CPYB, says that having a theater in Carlisle was important to Weary, to share performances with the local community. He says the theater will give them a space to program new work, student choreography and contemporary work.

While Hoover is focused on passing on Weary's legacy, she also draws on the influence of her other legendary teacher: George Balanchine. Hoover danced with New York City Ballet from 1980 to 1991, dancing under Balanchine for three years before he passed. She introduces some classic Balanchine-style elements in advanced classes, such as turning from a straight back knee, faster speed and stronger attack.

Such teaching of the Balanchine style to advanced students is still in line with Weary's syllabus, however, because she left it more open for advanced students. "She often brought in other teachers of different styles for the older students," Hoover says. "She'd say, 'Whoever is in the front of the room is right.'"

Hoover started teaching her own class at CPYB when she was 12 years old. She says that Weary's style of motivating students by setting the bar high has worked since then, even if she remains flexible in her approach. "Each generation is different," she says. "So I need to find new and better ways to explain something or motivate people."

For instance, she says teaching younger students has been more challenging in recent years. "I find it's more difficult to get them to focus, but it's not that I can't succeed," she says with a grin. "I'm not lazy. Thank you, Marcia."

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