Ballet Guild of the Lehigh Valley
Fact: everyone secretly wants to be a dancer, even if they don’t know it. Imagine a life of not needing proximal seating to the open bar at a wedding reception to fuel your creativity on the dance floor. A world where your children don’t default to “Look, I’m Dad!” dancing pantomimes for guaranteed laughter during family get-togethers. An existence where people don’t wonder if you’re trying to be ironic when you explain that “the shopping cart” is both a movable grocery carrier and your signature move. Still not convinced? Then explain why Dancing With the Stars has sailed through 13 seasons—that’s more than Seinfeld or Cheers—and Step Up—the 2006 movie with a 19% rating on the popular rating site Rotten Tomatoes—had four sequels. People love dance.
This truth was obvious to Marjorie Berlin Fink, who founded the Ballet Guild of the Lehigh Valley in 1958. Now celebrating its 58th season, the nonprofit organization is dedicated to fostering the art of theatre dance, primarily classical ballet, through education and performances. Perhaps what the organization is best known for is bringing The Nutcracker ballet to life in Christmas City for more than six thousand audience members, a tradition they’ve kept for the past 48 consecutive years.
Today, Jennifer Altemose serves as the organization’s president, a role she has held for six years, as well as the president of its board of directors. For her, one of the most rewarding aspects of her job is introducing children to the world of ballet, an important initiative of the Ballet Guild. Several years ago, the nonprofit began pursuing grants and donations to bring Title I schoolchildren to see The Nutcracker. (Title I schools are schools where children from low-income families make up at least 40 percent of the student body.) Thanks to these funds, one thousand of the 4,000 students who see The Nutcracker each year are able to do so free of charge.
Altemose says she’ll never forget ushering one group of first-grade students to their seats one year and hearing an excited little boy say, “I can’t wait to see this movie!” When Altemose told him that it wasn’t a movie, but a performance on a stage with real people, his expression changed. “He looked at me like I was crazy,” Altemose recalls, laughing. It wasn’t until weeks later that she received his thank-you letter. He loved it.
The Ballet Guild is much more than its annual beloved holiday performance, however. The nonprofit is also a school with four full-time teachers and 150-200 students ranging from ages 3 to 70. Need-based scholarships are available for all students who provide proof of their need, with the Ballet Guild often paying full or partial tuition. The school offers both community classes, which are open to anyone, as well as pre-professional classes for students who are serious about incorporating ballet into their professional futures. In fact, the Ballet Guild’s current artistic director, Karen Knerr, was originally a student there. After high school, she attended the renowned Julliard School for dance and danced professionally, but she decided to return to the Ballet Guild – this time, as an instructor. In addition to its regular class offerings, the Ballet Guild runs a six-week summer program with highly acclaimed visiting teachers. One year the visiting teacher roster included Sarah Lane, who was Natalie Portman’s body double in the award-winning 2010 film Black Swan.
While most of us might see ballet as entertainment or a spectator sport, Altemose explains that participating in the dance arts, particularly ballet, can have an enormous positive impact on children’s lives.
“Ballet is one of the very best things to have a child do,” Altemose says, whose three daughters are dancers. “From the physical benefits of daily conditioning to the discipline, research also shows that kids involved in classical ballet and who listen to classical music do better in school.” It also teaches them true commitment and responsibility: “It’s a year-long endeavor unlike some sports that are seasonal, and it’s a beautiful art form,” Altemose says.
Altemose would also like to clear up one misconception about ballet: despite the serious faces, it’s actually fun. More than that, she stresses that it’s great for women, men, girls, and boys alike. In fact, boys receive free tuition to any of the Ballet Guild’s classes. “During The Nutcracker intermission, we usually bring two boys up on stage to try ballet with some of our best dancers,” she says. “We want them to see that it’s not athletics—it’s art—but it’s just as hard, if not harder, as the sports they play. It’s certainly not for sissies, let’s put it that way.”
This season’s Nutcracker public performances at Lehigh University’s Zoellner Arts Center will be Saturday, December 17, at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. and Sunday, December 18, at 2 p.m. Tickets are available at zoellnerartscenter.org or 610.758.2787. To learn more about the Ballet Guild of the Lehigh Valley, visit bglv.org.