If you ask Stacy Young, her life has been a collection of situations and experiences that paved the way to a perfectly laid plan she never saw coming. Opening a studio, for example, wasn't part of the future she first envisioned. "But dance was always a huge part of my life," she says. "Now, we just celebrated the studio's 10th anniversary."
Although creating well-rounded dancers is a must for any successful dance studio, Young knew from the start that her Auburn, Alabama–based Variations Dance Studio would take training a step further. "I wanted to create a place that supported students professionally but really valued what we call 'heart-shaping,'" she says. What she didn't know was that her original plan—shaping dancers who know the power and importance of giving back—would quickly grow to include a nonprofit foundation, Graceful Gift, that brings dance to the patients of Children's Hospital of Alabama, in Birmingham.
Creating a Community
The Huntsville, Alabama, native trained at Huntsville Ballet School and danced with Alabama Ballet in Birmingham. While earning an early-childhood-education degree at Auburn University, Young realized she wanted to open her own studio. Two months after graduation, she opened the doors of her one-studio school in Auburn. "I started out praying for 20 students just so I could survive," she says. But by the end of her first year, she needed to expand to two dance studios, then three. Now there are four, and an on-site boutique.
From the beginning, Young worked hard to instill a love of outreach in her dancers. In 2014, she created an annual performance series, Choreography for a Cause, inviting local artists and performers to join her students in contributing their talents. When she saw that asking her dancers to participate in activities like this had an immediate impact on their performance quality and the morale of the studio, she wasn't surprised. "In order to truly give a great performance, you must first learn to be giving," she says. "When my students take part in outreach, it instills in them how fortunate they are to be able-bodied and have the chance to dance." Over the past three years, Choreography for a Cause has raised more than $30,000 for local charities.
Twenty percent of Graceful Gift sales go toward the Children's Hospital of Alabama. Photo by Ashley Kickliter, courtesy of Young.
Performing With a Purpose
But it was an encounter at Children's Hospital of Alabama in Birmingham that inspired Young's biggest project. During a Nutcracker character meet-and-greet that Variations hosted at the hospital around Christmastime, she met a little girl who was battling leukemia. "She had so much life in her eyes, but her body was a different story," she says. "She asked me what it felt like to dance and be onstage, and she told me her dream was to be a ballerina." That's when Young's idea for a book was born—one that uses sensory details to relate the experience of dancing to those unable to experience it. For her, it was a culmination of everything she'd been working toward. It made sense to transition from using imagery to explain steps in the studio to creating actual pictures, in order to convey dance.
Three years after launching Choreography for a Cause, she published her book, Graceful Gift, as a personal project, but quickly decided to take it a step further by also establishing a nonprofit, the Graceful Gift Foundation. "We want to bring the full stage experience to children who are unable to have it on their own," Young says. Under the foundation, she's organized a performance fundraiser with Variations dancers, local guest artists and the local children's orchestra, which raised $10,000, and coordinated a day of costume meet-and-greets and arts and crafts (including pointe shoes to decorate from Capezio) for the kids at Children's Hospital of Alabama.
Young's next goal is giving a Graceful Gift book to each participant at every event. For now, 20 percent of the net proceeds from each book purchased are donated to Children's Hospital of Alabama through the Graceful Gift Foundation. She plans to keep the studio and the foundation working side-by-side to continue giving the gift of dance to others. "We're working on streaming our performances into Children's Hospital, so we can reach those kids even when we aren't actually there," says Young. "Now that our first Graceful Gift show is under our belt, we're really excited to expand and learn from these amazing kids."