*** This story was published published Oct. 26, 2008 in the Bristol Herald Courier. ***
BRISTOL, Va. - Seven-year-old Elizabeth Oakley fidgeted just a little bit. Then the boundless bundle of energy straightened up and stood as still as a whisper and listened intently to the woman she and dozens of kids know simply as "Miss Michele."
So began another class on another day in the 60-year history of Bristol Ballet...Today, the Bristol Ballet fares well. Yet when Michele Plescia was hired as its artistic director in 2004, the Twin City institution was faltering badly. The once thriving dance company was as if on life support, one blip shy of death.
"When I was hired there were no students," Plescia said recently from Bristol Ballet's studio near Bristol Public Library. "But the fact is, we are here."
Established in 1948 by Constance Hardinge, countless numbers of kids and adults have filed through the doors of Bristol Ballet. Most of her pupils tried and learned and then moved on to other pursuits. Some stuck it out.
"I was 7 when I started right here in Bristol Ballet," Plescia said, eyes alight upon the memory. "My mother decided that I would have cultural diversity. She started me in ballet, and I stayed."
Seven years after founding Bristol Ballet's performing company, Hardinge and company staged the area's first production of "The Nutcracker" in 1966. Six years later, Hardinge was hired to head the dance department at Virginia Intermont College, during which time the Bristol Ballet grew to its largest size and stature.
Hardinge, who died in 1992, taught Plescia. From entry-level ballet lessons on proper form and stretching as a child through more intricate teachings as a teen, Hardinge taught ballet in steps.
"Ms. Hardinge was my teacher from age 7 until I was about 14," Plescia said. "She had a way of instilling a love of dance that I want to instill in my students. She was wonderful."
A year after Hardinge's death, Bristol Ballet was incorporated as a non-profit organization, a status which continues.
TROOPERS IN TIGHTS
Late afternoon. Families sat down for supper all over the Tri-Cities. Meanwhile, about a half dozen Bristol Ballet students from ages 12 to 18 worked hard. They danced, had fun, giggled some and perspired a lot.
A framed photo on a wall declared, "Dance is work."
Whether instructing little ones or teenagers, Plescia commands attention. She does not yell or implore with threats.
Instead, Plescia is part taskmaster, teacher and coach, part motivator, cheerleader and demonstrator.
"Still looking for that long, straight spine," Plescia remarked to several students.
"Good job! That's it!" Plescia responded.
Other times she spoke in a language that sounded foreign, a dancer's lingo that swoops right over the heads of laymen. She voiced lingo and they grabbed a bar and stretched this way or that. She uttered more indecipherable verbiage that they sure knew well, and her students would either hop here or there or pirouette from one corner of the studio to another.
Plescia demonstrated often. Lithe as licorice, the longtime ballet dancer and teacher acted out scores of intricate moves and contortions. Plescia's troopers in tights paid rapt attention. Then they followed her lead as if dancing by numbers, over and over and to a tee. Repetition matters a great deal for would-be ballet dancers.
"It does require a little bit of effort," said one sweating dancer.
Plescia nodded and smiled as she wiped her brow. "And a lot of stamina," Plescia added.
Call it dance, call it art, call it entertainment, call it difficult. All apply.
"Things over the years get modified," Plescia said. "You introduce different techniques, but there's still the core of moving with grace and agility and strength."
Yes, strength. Athleticism. Dedication. Discipline.
"It's extremely physical and extremely demanding on your body," Plescia said. "Point work (dancing on the tips of the toes) is hard on you. If you do a lot of point work, you're going to lose toenails and have ingrown toenails or bleeding toes. You have to learn to work through that."
Not easy. Not for the weak of heart or body.
"You will have sore muscles but if you train properly it should not be physically damaging," she said. "Fortitude is really important."
Twins Francie and Lily Mehl of Bristol, Va. along with Elizabeth Oakley and six other wiggle worms gathered in Bristol Ballet's studio and watched "Miss Michele." She moved across the mirror-lined room. Their eyes followed.
"How are you today?" Plescia asked the nine children in a singsong voice.
"Good!" they replied enthusiastically.
"Stand on the gray tape," she instructed, which positioned the nine little girls in two neat rows. Then she asked them to sit.
"Sit up straight," Plescia said them while adjusting several into a proper form of posture. They sat ramrod straight.
"Nose to your toes," Plescia said, and the little girls did so.
Ballet dancers young and veteran alike stretch much as a football players do before a game, which is vital to prevent injuries. Yet whether learning a football playbook or ballet, even something as seemingly elemental as stretching has to be learned, too.
The little ones were learning how to stretch properly.
"Now on your tummies," Plescia instructed warmly yet firmly. "Reach back and grab your feet."
Amid several giggles, the girls did so. They then rolled into compact balls, looking like little frogs about to leap from their lily pads.
From there they moved to rows of bars that stretch the length of a wall. Plescia led them through more basic stretches and moves, basics of ballet should they hope to advance to more involved stages of learning.
The little ones listened without a murmur among them.
Meantime, a group of parents awaited their little ones in the lobby. Some read magazines while others chatted yet all expressed enthusiasm for Plescia and their children's participation in ballet.
Ann Oakley of Bristol, Tenn. looked up from her magazine upon mention of Plescia's teaching of her 7-year-old daughter Elizabeth.
"Michele is such a ballerina," Oakley said, "and the kids want to be like her."
Brigitte Mehl of Bristol, Va. nodded and chided agreement. Her daughters, twins Francie and Lily Mehl, started at Bristol Ballet in August, she said. Even after so little time, she's impressed with Plescia's patience and teaching methods.
"It's very methodical and very gradual," Mehl said.
And effective, she said.
"If I see one of them slouching," Mehl said, "I can say, 'ballerina,' and they sit straight up."
Pricing attracted Mehl to Bristol Ballet. For the past three years the company has offered free fall tuition to new students.
"It's a sign of Michele's confidence and pride in what she's offering," said one parent, who asked to not be identified.
Tuition costs thereafter depend on the number of classes a student attends, Plescia said. "Probably, and this is a guess, about $300 per year," she said. "That's for a beginner. My company members (the more skilled dancers who earn lead parts in such annual productions as "The Nutcracker") come four times per week, which is about $1,100 per year."
60 YEARS AND COUNTING
Meanwhile, several blocks away, Dave Manning greeted customers for another night of friendly reverie at O'Mainnin's Pub. Musicians played for a crowd at the country music mural. Folks in homes all over town cleaned dishes and settled into an evening of watching sitcoms or CNN.
While at Bristol Ballet the little ones learned ballet one small step at a time.
"I want my kids to work," Plescia said with a megawatt smile. "Part of the fun is knowing that you contributed to something that is great."
And that, Bristol and beyond, is what drives Plescia.
"To be around for 60 years for anything is a great accomplishment," Plescia said. "It means a lot to me to have started with Ms. Hardinge and to carry on her heritage."