Stiffened tulle rustles. Ankles flex and point, occasionally dipping into a powder box. Hair pulled tight into Fibonacci spirals, doesn't move, immobilized by layers of hairspray and bobby pins lest a strand escape during quick turns. The hush backstage at a ballet is a collection of small, staccato sounds--point shoes scraping on wooden floors, giggles from young corps members, reminders from choreographers that their arm positions are not suggestions, but laws.
But that symphony of sounds ceases when the first strains of violins and cellos begin. Focus hones in. This is more than a dance routine. It's a piece of art, executed by athletes at the top of their game. While the audience only sees grace and fluidity, muscles tremble, and tendons stretch as classical ballet dancers push their bodies to the brink of their abilities in the search for a perfect performance.
For many, ballet seems elusive; the art form most frequented by the blue hairs with money. But in the Northland, there's a new crop of dancers studying the classical techniques from professionals that have trod the boards at esteemed ballet companies. Luzicka Ballet in Liberty is one of the newest but is taking its approach to dancer training seriously, drawing on the Vaganova method, with a dash of the Royal Academy of Dance thrown in.
If those terms don't sound immediately familiar, don't be alarmed. While dance in America is on the rise with studios offering classes in tap, jazz, hip hop, modern and more, new studios focusing on classical ballet are still relatively rare. Luzicka is a homegrown studio, rooted in the Northland.
Founders Hannah and Luke Luzicka have both been dancing since childhood. Luke's mother, Laura Luzicka Reinschmidt, founded Laura Luzicka Classical Ballet in 1977, renaming it Ballet North in 1994. Ballet North continues to work to perform and tour with full-length ballets such as Romeo and Juliet, Coppelia, and The Nutcracker, bringing a classical art form into the lives of public school children in the area.
Luke started dancing under his mother's tutelage at the age of 4. He excelled and found that he loved the opportunity to be athletic without being competitive.
"I've never been the guy that wants the trophy. I just enjoyed something collaborative rather than trying to conquer another team," says Luke.
That commitment to collaboration served him well as he went on to excel as a dancer, teaching at Ballet North, dancing with the Boston Ballet for six years, and completing his performance career with five years as a company member at the Kansas City Ballet.
Likewise, Hannah enjoyed the ability to push her physical limits while still expressing herself artfully.
"In high school, my friends would tease me, saying that I could never hang out because I was always doing ballet. Then they came and saw a show and were blown away. I could show them that yes, I was an athlete, but I was also an artist. It's a unique thing to be able to say that," says Hannah.
Now that their performing years are over, Reinschmidt encouraged her son to check out the Liberty area when he and Hannah were interested in opening a school of their own. Now in their fifth year and a permanent space off South 291 Highway, they've created a home for the kids (both boys and girls) that want to hone a craft.
Hannah says that collaborating is one of the essential parts of the ballet.
"There's this energy that happens once you're on stage and all the people that are involved, from the scenic designers to the live musicians to the dancers--there's a high that you get from being a part of something like that. It's a real sense of community--a camaraderie when you're sweating it out in class and seeing it come to life on stage," says Hannah.
In addition to classical technique and choreography, Luzicka Ballet focuses on dancing safely as well.
"We are so much better informed about our bodies, nutrition, how to dance safely, and for a long time now than we used to be. Yes, a dancer's career is relatively short, but they aren't all ended by injury anymore. Good technique does a lot to help," says Luke, who retired at age 31, simply because he was ready for a change of pace.
Karen Snyder, whose daughters, Dylan and Lucy, attend classes at Luzicka, says that they found ballet via Netflix.
"Lucy, my youngest, really loved the movie Leap. She wanted to try it and found she had a lot of natural ability. After watching her sister, Dylan tried a summer camp and fell in love with it, too," says Snyder.
Snyder says that while Dylan had always been athletic, she was a tomboy. Trying ballet became a way for her to be graceful and artistic as well. Plus, she's in a very positive, collaborative environment for several hours a week.
"Giving them a chance to work on skills and techniques is great for them. They love what they are doing, and they get to express themselves in a safe and nurturing environment. As a parent, it's an ideal situation," she says.
Snyder also says that she appreciates the end product.
"I like that they don't do a recital. They don't do competitions. They put on a ballet. They are focused on an art form rather than a hobby." says Snyder.
The school produces an original piece as well as a classical ballet each year. These pieces are preparation for advanced students that are interested in pursuing dance as a career.
Hannah says that they try not to sugarcoat the potential difficulties of a life in the dance world--low pay, intense competition, the potential for injury--but also encourage students to pursue their dreams. In the meantime, they aim to make them into the best technically trained dancers they can be.
As the dancers, Myah Gallup and Katie Drake, pose for our photographer, Hannah gently coaches the girls to correct technique while Luke gives them the lowdown on how difficult it is to create a static image of fluid motion. You can tell that he has flashbacks to media photo ops from his pro days.
It's that perspective that gives weight to his words. As he and Hannah carry on the work that his mother started and continues in Gladstone, a new generation of dancers is flexing their muscles, ready to create new life within a dance form that saw its inception under the Sun King.
Ballet is highly demanding on the body, combining flexibility and strength. Luke says that ballet is low-impact when done correctly. Ballet also encourages a healthy diet to fuel activity.
Ballet combines music and motion to allow dancers to express themselves, both within the framework of established pieces or in new choreography.
Ballet encourages dancers to hone their craft, working on individual skills until they are mastered.
Hannah says that many of their students excel academically because they know how to focus on a task and see it to completion.