Richmond’s newest dance school celebrates its first anniversary this month, and wow, what a year.
- September 2020: Jack and Michelle Bettin begin instructing three students at a time in Jack’s parents’ basement, rolling out a dance floor and a portable barre and mirror, masked and spaced out for safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- January 2021: With word spreading about the new ballet school and its professionally trained instructors, Richmond Academy of Ballet is officially licensed.
- April 2021: RA Ballet settles into a custom space at 413-C Branchway Road, off Courthouse Road in North Chesterfield, featuring two studios (one stage-sized at 30 by 41 feet), several dressing rooms, a gathering area, and permanent, professional equipment – Harlequin sprung floors with marley overlays, Harlequin barres, and mirrors mounted high so dancers can practice lifts.
“Forty-five days in we were at 100 students,” says Michelle, owner and artistic director along with husband Jack. “We registered 60 for the summer session.” Fall registration is ongoing now.
As the school’s name clearly states, the Bettins teach ballet, in the classical, Russian style, which reflects their own training and performing careers. Photos and inspirational quotes from the Bettins’ mentors Roudolf Kharatian, Linda Kintz, Mark Mejia and Alreene Monahan line one studio wall – and both performed professionally with such companies as Sacramento Ballet, Ballet Theatre of Maryland, ARKA Ballet, Columbus Dance Theatre, and Omaha Theater Company. They met at Manassas Ballet Theatre and have been partners in dance – and in life – ever since.
Both also have taught, Jack as principal instructor, choreographer and manager for the Falls Church School of Ballet, and Michelle previously on faculty at the Washington School of Ballet and Maryland Youth Ballet as well as academy director for Metropolitan Ballet Theatre. Additionally, they are both trained in exercise and kinesiology, with Michelle certified as a personal trainer, and Jack similarly certified as a personal trainer as well as a corrective exercise specialist, and as a gravity yoga teacher. Jack also has experience as a sommelier and wine director working at high-end restaurants including the Michelin three-star The Inn at Little Washington, and notes that his time in the hospitality industry has inspired him “to create a reverent and welcoming culture” at the new ballet school.
The couple is passionate about Russian ballet, with its precise forms and expansive movements. “We are of one mind,” says Jack. “One syllabus. We work on the same steps in progression, to set students up for success.”
Yet while the Bettins’ classes can be rigorous, with students held to high standards, they are equally focused on each student holistically.
Michelle compares a typical class to the classic movie Mary Poppins – strict yet fun, with magic thrown in. She tries to instill magic by showing video snippets of famous ballets so students can experience the costumes and scenery, to glimpse the wonder of a ballet performance.
She recalls teaching a particular movement to her students, and explaining the emotion of love and longing behind the dance as performed in Swan Lake. “Then we did it again, and this time, they were just beautiful,” Michelle says. “And when I asked them about it, they said they felt beautiful, too.”
For children and teens, whose growing-up years can be fraught by awkwardness, insecurities, poor body image and fears of being unpopular or unattractive, this sense of “feeling beautiful” is exactly the side effect the Bettins are hoping for. In addition to teaching the arabesque, pirouette and fifth position, the couple also teach life skills such as respect, service, courage and strength, which are among the founding principles and universal values that form RA Ballet’s foundation.
“We strongly believe that cultivating reverence, a sense of beauty, courage and strength in a child is essential to preparing them for a rich and rewarding life,” the couple declare on their website.
Reverence is a particularly important value that dovetails seamlessly with ballet. One ballet concept is révérence, or the practice of curtseying or bowing. At RA Ballet, students and instructors regularly “show révérence” to one another, typically at the end of each class.
“Children are on their phones so much now. They’re insecure. It’s important for children to stand properly, look me in the eye, have reverence. I have to teach this,” says Michelle. “They need to be aware of how they communicate with their bodies. I’m not just teaching ballet. I’m helping them to prepare for an interview, to interact in the world.”
The Bettins take pride in their school and their methods and the benefits to the total child, no matter the body type. So passionate are they that they’ve enrolled their daughter, Cora, who at age 6 already has two years of ballet instruction to her credit. To Cora, the studio on Branchway is a second home where she admits to spending “so much” of her time. And dancing is even more of a family affair – Jack’s brother, Tommy Bettin, has operated the Fred Astaire ballroom dance studio at the Arboretum since 2018.
“Our teaching is inspirational and motivational,” Jack says. “We help students to motivate themselves. Children must learn that most great accomplishments are not achieved through brief fits of strenuous efforts, but through consistency, discipline and endurance. It is important for children to experience the sense of freedom and confidence that come from self-discipline.”