By Joey Phoenix

Images by Vicki Hendrix 

Salem’s very own A Performing Arts Academy, tucked away on Swampscott Road in Witch City’s southwestern corridor, is home to a number of dance classes geared towards those aged 3-18.

The wooden floors, pink surroundings, and mirrored walls provide a rehearsal and practice space for any young student willing to learn the art of dance. Although tap, tumbling, jazz, hip-hop, and more are offered within these walls, ballet is the style of choice for many who go there, and for good reason, as it is home to The Greater Salem Ballet Company.

The Greater Salem Ballet Company is a Non-Profit organization formed in 2013 by Artistic Directors Seanna Chmura and Susan Byrne, along with Assistant Director Katie Machado. Although under a new name and leadership, the company isn’t exactly new. Formerly known as the Salem Ballet Company, the organization was originally founded in 1974 by Georgia Deane Young and Helen Deane Bassett of The Deane School of Dance – Great Aunt and Grandmother to Seanna and the childhood dance teachers/mentors to Susan and Katie.

Where the Salem Ballet Company was limited primarily to Salem dancers, the GSBC seeks to provide a more inclusive environment where students all over the North Shore are welcome to participate. Yet, with their more than two decades of experience, Seanna and Susan are following in the tradition set by those before them. The GSBC continues to give students an opportunity to perform locally in professional quality productions while learning in an encouraging and nurturing environment – a situation greatly beneficial to children, teens, and young adults.

“We have dancers from Salem, Swampscott, Marblehead, Beverly, Danvers, Ipswich, all over.” Seanna explains. “We wanted everyone from the area to have the opportunity to learn here.”

Since the very beginning, the Salem Ballet Company, and now The Greater Salem Ballet Company, have put on an annual production of the Christmastime classic, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. This year, the production will take place on December 3rd at Lynn Auditorium. The GSBC is also partnering this year with the community outreach program SPUR who donates holiday gifts and packages to over 400 local children in need for the holidays.

A Family of Dancers

It was 2:00 on a Sunday afternoon when I arrived at the A Performing Arts Academy Dance Studio, the morning sunshine had given way to a cold, November grey and I was eager to step inside. I came through the doors and immediately spied 15 young girls, ages ranging from 5-8, sitting on the floor in their tutus and ballet flats listening to their instructor explain what each should do. They would be dancing in “Marzipan,” they needed to pay attention, they needed to be adorable, which they undoubtedly would be.

Greater Salem Ballet Company
© Vicki Hendrix Photography

One of the instructors ushered me through the building and to the single studio to where rehearsal was taking place. She told me to go quickly, and I skipped across the space, narrowly avoiding collision with several ballerinas mid-arabesque. I nestled into the most inconspicuous corner, laid my bag on the rosin-covered floor, and watched the movements happening all about me. What at first seemed chaotic soon gave way to comprehension as I noticed that everything was choreographed to perfection. I watched for a moment in awe, delighted by each movement.

A dancer with braces stepped onto the floor, she had flown in from the distant corner. Each of her steps were graceful.

“That’s our Clara,” Susan interjected, “And her name really is Clara.”

““Look entranced, Clara, sparkle!” Susan turned from me and spoke instructively towards the dancers. Clara immediately smiled and lifted her face, each new effort poised and intentional.

The Greater Salem Ballet Company
© Vicki Hendrix Photography

13 year old Clara Szalewicz, an eighth grader at Marblehead Veterans Middle School, moved to Marblehead from the Berkshires a couple of years ago, and has been training at the GSBC ever since.

“It’s my second year here and I’ve made so many friends.” Clara says, “I love coming here to dance everyday.”

She, like so many other of the talented girls in the room, has been learning the art since quite a young age. She first put on ballet flats when she was 3, and being able to perform as “Clara” is one of the highlights of her young life.

“We only let them play Clara once,” Seanna explains. “We want to give as many girls the opportunity as possible.”

Jillian Angeramo, an eighth grader at Collins Middle School, was also a former Clara. This year she’ll be dancing in the role of Spanish Lead and Snow Corps.

“I love coming to dance because I feel like it’s kind of an escape from other things and it’s a nice way to end my day. It makes me happy being here with all my dance friends.” Jillian says. “I enjoy it a lot.”

While Clara and Jillian have four more years to look forward to with the company, other girls who have been with GSBC since they were 2 and 3 will soon be moving on.

“They all go to college.” Seanna tells me. “These girls are all excellent students and their education is really important to them.”

High School Seniors Haley Carola (Role of Dewdrop, Swampscott High School) and Olivia Hauber (Role of Chinese Lead and Snow Corps, Salem High School) have both been dancing since before their 3rd birthday. Dancing has been such a significant part of both of their lives, so much so that they each feel like the company is more like a family than anything else. This will be the final Nutcracker with the company for both of them.

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“’I’ve been dancing since I was two and a half,” Haley explains. “It’s been a long time. You have your school life, and your home life, but here you just have a family.”

“Like Haley said we’ve just kind of made a family here.” Olivia expresses. “I’ve been here since I was 3 and it’s my last year so it’s kinda bittersweet – I’m really excited, but it’s also kind of sad to have this be my last time doing this.”

Although this may be their last time dancing with the company, by no means will the doors be closed to them.

“It’s incredible how many of them come back during their college summers to participate in what’s happening here.” Susan says. “Many of them come back to become certified teachers or help with dance competitions.”

This desire to help out and be a part of this community isn’t something that just develops when the dancers become High School Seniors, it’s something that’s instilled in them from the beginning.

Greater Salem Ballet Company
© Vicki Hendrix Photography

“They like being here, they’re like a family.” Seanna tells me. “And they’re always asking me how they can help with the little kids. We host birthday parties and events here, and they’ll come in and help with the birthday parties. If the parents of the little ones are looking for babysitters, the older girls will step in.”

In and out of the studio, their dance family means the world to them.

Preparing for the Nutcracker

The company rehearses for their annual production of The Nutcracker each year from August through December, and the process is intensive. In addition to regular classes and practices five days a week, the girls also rehearse on the weekends. All of the roles except for the Crown Prince, the Cavalier, and the Sugar Plum Fairy – all roles performed by professional dancers selected from the Providence Ballet Festival – are performed by GSBC students.

“When a dancer has to pull out of a performance for any reason, another dancer will have to step up to the role.” Seanna says. “We recently had to have Vasia Fotopoulos fill the roll of the Angel Princess, and she rose to the task. She learned the entire routine in just one lesson.”

Greater Salem Ballet
© Vicki Hendrix Photography
Greater Salem Ballet Company
© Vicki Hendrix Photography

With little more than a week to go, the dancers are more than ready to dazzle the audience with their 2016 production of Tchaikovsky’s winter classic, and with the amount of effort they’ve put it in, it would be a shame to miss it.

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The Greater Salem Ballet Company’s 2016 Production of The Nutcracker will be on December 3rd at the Lynn Auditorium at 1:00pm and 5:00pm. For tickets call 1-781-599-7469

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download-2Joey Phoenix is a Salem-based writer, portrait photographer, guinea pig aficionado, and proud member of the Creative Salem team. You can follow her on twitter and IG @jphoenixmedia 

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Vicki Hendrix is a Marblehead, MA based family, newborn, and small event photographer who loves to capture joy in everyday moments.  She is also the mom of two budding dancers. You can follow her on FB @VickiHendrixPhotography

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