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ArtsATL > Dance > Legacy Series: Atlanta Ballet’s Sharon Story helps nurture a new generation of dancers

Legacy Series: Atlanta Ballet’s Sharon Story helps nurture a new generation of dancers

For all its ethereal aesthetics, wonder and whimsy, the ballet is no place for sissies.

Beyond the obvious gifts that only Mother Nature can bestow — a small head, long neck, long arms, long (straight) legs, beautiful feet with high arches that can articulate gestures (as might hands) and a slender physique — dancers have to work hard to make the most of their natural gifts. 

Prodigies can typically be identified by the age of five, and start training in earnest by the time they are nine years old. They must demonstrate musicality, charisma and presence — qualities that can be refined, but not taught. Athleticism, flexibility, a 180-degree turn out in the hip joints (ideally) and hyper-mobility are base requirements. Hyper-intelligence is also helpful because dancers have to think in the abstract, calculate angles and inches, learn combinations quickly, take direction, recognize patterns and perform all of the above at high speeds while in sync with other bodies in motion. Above all, in order to preserve the illusion that they exist in a realm that is not-quite-terrestrial, dancers are expected to make monumental effort to look completely effortless. 

Many are called to dance professionally, but few are chosen. And Sharon Story, the dean of the Atlanta Ballet’s Centre for Dance Education, is one of the chosen few.

Story has served as dean since the school was created in 1996. (Photo by Kim Kenney)

An accidental ballerina, she got her start at the age of 11 when tagging along to dance classes in Kennesaw with her big brother, who had been enrolled to correct his club feet. A self-described “active child who never took naps and was always on the move,” Story took to the physicality, discipline and rigor required at the barre like a duck to water, and she fell in love with her first teacher, Anne Burton, who was “like a little fairy” in the budding ballerina’s mind.

By the age of 14, Story was a full scholarship student with Robert Joffrey in New York City. One year later, she was sharing her first apartment in the city with a roommate. (“I’m not sure I’d let my daughters do that,” she says in hindsight. “But I’m glad my parents did!”) As a 16-year-old, her professional career began in earnest with Joffrey II Ballet. She studied with the School of American Ballet for three years as a Ford Foundation Scholar and was a member of the Stars of New York City Ballet and a guest artist with the Atlanta Ballet and Boston Ballet — where she toured with Rudolf Nureyev and danced for 10 years before taking her final bow.

“The last role I did with Boston Ballet was Queen Mother in Swan Lake with Dudensyka when I was five months’ pregnant with my son,” she says. “The costume was very big with a long train, and very beautiful.” She reprised the role at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre four months ago when the company staged “Act II of Swan Lake,” but she puts her foot down when asked if she misses wearing pointe shoes on the job. “No,” she says, with a laugh. “The ballet still gives me a lot of work and joy, but now it’s through teaching and coaching.”

Now in her 21st year with the company, Story originally served as ballet mistress under then-artistic director John McFall before focusing her energies on running the Centre when it was established in 1996. Their mission is to teach the art of dance to anyone who wants to learn: from toddlers to senior citizens. Community outreach programs are bringing the art form to Atlanta’s public and performing arts schools. Two years ago, the Centre introduced Atlanta Ballet Ailey Camp, a tuition-free, six-week summer program in partnership with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater that serves 100 middle school children.

This past year, the company launched Atlanta Ballet 2, a new program that will serve as a performing entity of the Centre and supplementary corps for larger ompany productions such Yuri Possokhov’s highly anticipated The Nutcracker that he has created specifically for Atlanta Ballet.

The Centre also serves as a training ground for students who aspire to dance professionally through its pre-professional, academy, conservatory, Atlanta Ballet 2 company and company divisions. Given the emotional, psychological and physical challenges that can come with the territory, a full-time health and wellness team is on site to offer guidance on nutrition and motion stability, help prevent injuries and flag eating and body dysmorphic disorders. 

“I’m happy to have Sharon on my side,” says Atlanta Ballet artistic director Gennadi Nedvigin. “Besides running the school, hiring staff on the creative side and working with faculty on the administrative end, she helped me create Atlanta Ballet 2 this year. She keeps so many plates spinning simultaneously while overseeing the development process of young dancers. She is very nurturing of our students and parents. Her deep involvement extends not only to teaching the right steps in class, but mentoring and developing students psychologically, and being a true friend and advisor when they need her.”

Story (center) dances with Atlanta Ballet in 1987.

After retiring from the ballet, Story coached Olympic ice dancers in Colorado for two years — two of whom competed in Lillehammer when Norway hosted the Winter Games in 1994 — before relocating back to Atlanta. Pregnant at the time, she says she learned a lot on the ice about movement, tracing and the physics of how the body propels forward. “You learn so much when you’re actually speaking instead of just doing,” she says. “You have to analyze it, and break it down until it all makes sense.”

The exercise taught her the difference between lecturing and imparting wisdom. She came to understand that cookie-cutter approaches to teaching were a waste of time. She learned how to look at individual dancers, work with their body type and maximize any natural talents and abilities to bring out the best in them. She learned patience, and how to inspire her students. She developed zero tolerance for bun heads — dancers who only think about tiaras and tutus — and encouraged her pupils to travel, visit museums, read books, listen to music and watch movies. “The only way you become an artist is by observing and synthesizing what you’ve seen and experienced in life beyond the studio,” she says. And she has come to believe that the only thing more important than taking a giant step is all the little, in-between steps that separate good dancers from great dancers. 

On her ascent, Story encountered a range of famous teachers and performers whose personalities covered a gamut from cold and austere to demanding but present, to downright warm and cuddly. Now that she’s the one whose mere presence can cause students to straighten up and fly right when she enters a room, she believes generosity, approachability and openness make for the best policies in her quest to keep the AB culture as noncompetitive as possible. 

Story, shown here when she danced with Boston Ballet, is both nurturing and demanding with her students.

Which is not to say she’s a pushover.

Debbie Necessary’s three daughters, Kristine, Courtney and Abbie — all of whom studied four hours a day, six days a week as conservatory students starting in the 1990s — looked up to Story as a role model who was loving yet strict and unafraid to set boundaries. They thrived under her high expectations that they behave, be on time, be prepared for classes and bring their A-games to rehearsals. As a result, the skills they acquired over 20 years ago at Atlanta Ballet helped them transition into careers as a dance teacher, a corporate consultant and a doctor, respectively.

Story was also a voice of reason for parents at a crossroads.

“Our oldest daughter, Kristy, was 13 years old the summer she danced at [the School of American Ballet in New York city], and they wanted her to stay,” says Debbie Necessary. “My husband and I vetoed the idea, in spite of the headmaster’s promise to take care of Kristy and treat her like their own child. And some of the parents up there actually accused us of ruining our daughter’s life for turning down such a coveted invitation. But all I could think was who’s going to sit on the edge of her bed when she’s going to prom; or tell her what to do and what not to do; or take her to buy a dress; or let her cry on their shoulder if somebody breaks her heart?” 

They called Story from New York, and she talked them through the situation. She reassured them that their daughter could get all the training she needed in Atlanta. 

Robert “Bobby” Barnett, Atlanta Ballet’s artistic director from 1963 to 1994, mentored Story when she was a student and has watched her subsequent evolution as an artist, educator and administrator. He says that every step of the way, she remained elegant, forthright, caring and fair.

“Sharon is ideally suited to guide and mentor young dancers and cultivate good human beings,” he says. “I think her balanced approach as a den mother and disciplinarian is the exception to the rule. She looks after the art and the child. Few are born with a gift, are super-talented and destined to succeed, and she can visualize where such potential can take a child. But she is just as keen to advocate for the needs of a child who may not go on to dance professionally because they are all important to her.”

Story has a soft spot for the fledglings when she sees them marching down the halls in their little pink leotards at the start of every school term. She admires their unbridled enthusiasm, vivid imaginations and the way they don’t give a hoot about executing a perfect tendu or plié. And she takes equal delight in alumni who have come up through the ranks, flown the coop and distinguished themselves far from the nest. 

Always on the lookout for undiscovered talent, Story doesn’t second-guess her instincts when someone special crosses her path. After watching 19-year-old Keith Reeves take a summer intensive course four years ago, Story offered him a full scholarship on the spot, then supplemented it with a bus pass to help him with his daily commute from his family’s home in McDonough. That he’d only started dancing at 15, lacked the formal training of his peers at Atlanta Ballet and doubted himself was completely immaterial to Story. Where he saw problems, she saw raw potential. And she never let him forget it. 

Story came out of retirement last season to dance in Atlanta Ballet’s Black Swan. (Photo by Gene Schiavone)

Reeves says Story has evolved into a mother figure for him, always encouraging him to be fearless and not care what other people think. “She has been telling me, keep the monkeys off your back from Day 1,” he says. “And now that I’m getting older, everything’s starting to click. When I was cast as a lead in Beauty and the Beast this past season, her encouragement —  telling me I could do it and not to second-guess myself — set the tone for the rest of my season. I started carrying myself like I believed in myself, and the director started to trust me more because he saw that I trusted myself.”

And just like all good mothers, Story is just as comfortable administering medicine as she is a spoon full of sugar.

“If Sharon sees me doing something I’m not supposed to be doing, like giggling in class or rehearsal, she will definitely stop and check me,” says Reeves. “There was an incident when a choreographer was making me do the steps over and over and over. I felt like it was fine and we should have moved on. She saw that it was stressing me out. After rehearsal, she told me that even though the situation was not the best, and that she was totally on my side, I couldn’t let that show in rehearsal. Ballet is life: hard things will be thrown at you, but you have to keep it moving. You can’t just sit there and sulk and be sad. You have to take it, and run with it, and let that motivate you and keep pushing you.”

Story says the life of a dancer is hard. “The physical demands, low pay, constant struggle to make a living and long hours are taxing,” she says. “But the rewards of giving yourself a challenge and meeting it make the effort worthwhile. And there are no words to describe the feeling of having struggled and then, all of a sudden, the planets align and it just works in performance. Now, remembering where those planets were so you can make it happen again is another thing. But when everything clicks at the right time? Wow!”

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