There is a long block in downtown Omaha that has become a full-service arts education and performance district.
From 69th to 72nd near Cass Street, you can:
» Learn to play the tuba or sing a tune
» Portray the lead role in a play or musical
And now study to be a prima ballerina.
This all became possible when the Omaha Academy of Ballet moved into its new location on 72nd Street a few months ago, joining the Omaha Conservatory of Music and the Omaha Community Playhouse in what some call an arts hallway. .
The leaders of all three groups are excited about the possibilities.
“There should be a great arts trio here,” said Catherine Demes Maydew, chair of the Omaha Academy of Ballet board of trustees. “Our goal is to collaborate with all these groups. We are delighted to be so close to them both.
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Katie Broman, the Playhouse’s new executive director, echoed that, saying she had scheduled a meeting this week with Ruth Meints, who has the same title at the conservatory.
“I’m not only open to collaboration, I’m hopeful,” Broman said.
She will also consult with the academy’s new executive director once the hiring is done. The dance school has been headless since Cheryl Lerner stepped down last year, and Maydew said the board hopes to have a new headmaster in place in February.
Meanwhile, students and faculty settle into their new 10,000 square foot space, which is exactly twice the size of the 54-year-old school’s former location near 49th and Dodge Streets next to the Dundee Theatre.
The new house is in a concrete building, former home of Mr. Kim’s Tae Kwon Do, which was designed and built in 1954 by renowned architectural firm John Latenser. It withstood the 1975 tornado – unlike many surrounding buildings, including the Playhouse, which lost its roof.
Maydew said the building needed minimal renovation, allowing academy leaders to be frugal when it came to converting it for dance classes. Workers moved a few walls and reinforced some to be more soundproof, and installed soft suspended floors that are raised on concrete, which is safer for the dancers. The wooden slat floor of the main studio upstairs is original in the field of martial arts.
The building now houses four studios, one at the front facing 72nd Street. Each has a piano and a sound system – the school has five pianists to provide live music for the dancers whenever possible.
To pay for the new location, the academy launched its first-ever fundraising campaign last year. The goal is $2 million: $1.5 million to purchase and renovate the building, $250,000 for program expansion, community engagement and scholarships, and $250,000 for the building maintenance. The campaign has raised $1.2 million so far and the leaders hope to reach their goal by September.
“We’ve been self-reliant for a long time,” Maydew said, so the campaign came as a surprise to some. The Omaha Academy of Ballet had an operating budget of $358,000 last fiscal year, including $260,000 from tuition.
The academy has approximately 330 students and offers a variety of classes Monday through Saturday in beginner and advanced ballet as well as modern, tap and Broadway dance and even pilates.
On a recent Thursday, the school opened in the morning for a private lesson, then came alive in the afternoon as children dressed in leotards – including toddlers – filled the studios with kicks, jumps and pirouettes. Students range from preschoolers to adults in their 60s. Motivations also vary: many adults simply want to move or try something new, and many children are there as occasional learners.
One of the main aims of the academy, however, is to train young dancers for potential careers.
“We are very much a professional dance school,” said Maydew, who grew up in Chicago and came to Omaha in 1983 to dance with Ballet Omaha, which was the academy’s professional company. It disbanded in the 1990s. “Students are trained in a proper dance program.”
This Imperial Society of Teachers of Dance program offers a systematic approach that won’t hurt children as they grow and calls for a dance examiner to come in every year to measure progress.
Parent Meg Dodge says she appreciates the academy’s thoughtful teaching style. The mother-of-four said each of her three daughters and one son had studied at the academy, two of whom – Laura, 13, and Isabelle, 12 – are currently enrolled. Dodge herself was a student at the academy for a short time as a child.
She said she started in school because it was convenient for her home at the time and because it was highly recommended, but her reasons for staying involved evolved.
“The friendships they made, the friendliness of the atmosphere, the obvious interest the teachers had in the children, the discipline of good alignment,” she said. “They also kept it fun and there was never any pressure to be a particular body type. We are happy that these people influence our children.
In addition to teaching the basics, instructors also teach students how to audition and how to work together in groups through the academy’s community outreach and performance arm, the Omaha Dance Project. It features an annual “celebration of the city” of dance featuring students from the academy and several other local dance groups such as Ballet Nebraska, the University of Nebraska Omaha Moving Company, and the Tbd. Dance collective. This year’s show will take place from Friday to Sunday at Creighton’s Lied Center.
And when the time comes, academy teachers help students plan their careers. Laura Dodge, for example, is very interested in a career as a dancer, her mother said, despite being only 13 years old. When children express such interests, parents usually have to find the right school to nurture their dream. Dodge said she and her husband were happy to know that Laura was already at this school.
“It’s really about figuring out what each student wants,” said Penny Michonski, the school’s acting principal. “Many want to take dance programs at universities. We help with auditions and with videos to send to (professional) companies.
Academy alumni are now at Butler University and the University of Missouri-Kansas City, among other schools. A few of the UMKC students return to perform their own tune at this weekend’s concert, along with vocalist Grace Heldridge and violinist Elizabeth Chouinard, both current students at the academy.
Academy students performed on the Playhouse stage, among examples of the links that already exist between artistic groups in the region. Broman is a board member of the Omaha Academy of Ballet. And Maydew is the Playhouse’s chief financial officer.
These ties will only grow stronger, say representatives of the three groups. Broman said she believes the missions and purpose of the three groups complement each other and will strengthen the area surrounding the arts hallway, especially given the other neighbors: UNO, Lewis and Clark Middle School, and Do Space.
“Think of all the educational and community opportunities that are just within a small range,” Broman said. “It’s nice that downtown is getting a little jolt. I really feel like this part of town is about to see a big revitalization, especially when Crossroads is being redeveloped.
[email protected], 402-444-1267
Omaha Dance Project
What: Omaha Academy of Ballet performance program open to dancers from across the community
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Creighton University Lied Education Center for the Arts, 2500 California Plaza
Tickets: $15 adults, $10 students and seniors 65 and over
Information: oabdance.org or 402-346-0469
The Omaha Academy of Ballet celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2012. Some highlights from the years:
Emmeline Skinner founded the school in 1962 to develop the talents of a civic ballet company.
Valérie Roche was the first director. Later, she started a dance program at Creighton University.
The academy launched its performing branch, the Omaha Regional Ballet, in 1965. It produced its first “Nutcracker” in December. The company became Omaha Ballet in 1974, when a full-time director was hired. The company dissolved in the mid-1990s.
In 2003, OAB moved to a storefront at 50th and Dodge Streets.
In 2005, she created the Omaha Dance Project, a performance and solidarity group. Juliette Henning is the current director.
In the fall of 2016, the school moved to its new home near 72nd and Cass Streets.