To artistic director Elena Manakhova-Amy of the Eastern Shore Ballet Theatre, dance is serious business, and her passion is inspiring area youth
Hair upswept into tight buns, the girls whirl and tiptoe intricate patterns around the wood floor of the dance studio. Arms waving gracefully, they dance precise, detailed steps in unison and in time with the music — all under the narrowed eyes of their instructor, Elena Manakhova-Amy, the artistic director of the Eastern Shore Ballet Theatre. Six understudy dancers stand on each side, watching closely and imitating the movements of the girls on the floor.
“You are spinning too fast,” Elena says to one dancer. “Pull your spine up,” she orders another. “Stop. Stop. Stop. Stop,” she coaches another who needs to put slightly more definition in her pauses.
“It’s the details,” she tells the girls, who drop to the floor to rest after the number, breathing hard, though moments earlier, no strain was detectable at all.
It’s only one practice of dozens leading up to the Eastern Shore Ballet Theatre’s 27th annual full-length performance of The Nutcracker, which will be held at Wicomico High School on Friday, December 1 at 7 p.m.; Saturday, December 2 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.; and Sunday, December 3 at 2 p.m.
Doubtless, the performances will look effortless, but they are actually the product of vast amounts of effort and monetary contributions on the parts of many people and organizations.
“ESBT is a nonprofit, so donors and sponsorships are crucial,” says Leslie Belloso, who is on the ESBT Board of Directors. Donations, along with funding and grants from several arts groups, including the Salisbury Wicomico Arts Council, the Maryland State Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as revenue from spring performances and the holiday performance, enable the dance-education enrichment for up to 100 local girls and boys each year.
The education is of such quality, says Leslie, many of the young dancers continue to professional careers after training and enrichment experiences provided by the ESBT, which is based at Elena’s Salisbury Dance Academy in Fruitland, Maryland.
In fact, Elena calls it her greatest compliment: When a student goes to college and dances, and the new instructors recognize the signature Russian dance style Elena trains into her students.
“That’s the reward,” says Elena, a Russian-born-and-trained classical dancer whose professional accomplishments are too numerous to list here. “I did something for that child to help her get somewhere.”
A nonprofit company, the Eastern Shore Ballet Theatre was established in 1991 by a local group of culturally minded people led by Betty Webster and the first artistic director, Tatiana Akinfieva-Smith, to raise awareness of the art of dance and provide a classical venue to train local dancers.
The idea blossomed and grew. Now in its 27th season, the company has produced two ballets each year, The Nutcracker and a new spring production each April. Elena and her ballet mistress, Britni Ilczuk, tick off the names of at least a dozen ESBT dancers in recent years who’ve gone on to dance with professional companies, and more who dance in university troupes.
Elena herself is a highly accomplished dancer who received the Medal of Honor at the Ukrainian International Ballet Competition in 1987. Born in Russia, she was accepted at age 9 into the world-famous Kirov Ballet School and the Vaganova Academy, established in 1738, in St. Petersburg.
Part of the 249th graduating class of the academy, Elena then became a principal dancer with several companies in Europe and later in the U.S. Eventually a guest artist with the ESBT, Elena was named its artistic director in 2000 and later received a master’s degree as a Teacher of Classical Ballet, Vaganova Style and Choreography from Cheyabinsk State Pedagogical University in Russia.
“There’s this incredible legacy here,” says Leslie. “The foundation the dancers get here is really quite fine.”
‘NOT JUST BALLET’
The students come from as far as Seaford and Pocomoke City to dance with the Eastern Shore Ballet Theatre. Most of them dance at least five times each week and often more.
“I think they see me more than they see their parents,” Elena says. “I enjoy every minute of it.”
“Mrs. Elena” is no pushover. She’s not in the business of babysitting, she says. It’s her job to train exceptional dancers.
“We’re not just doing ballet. We’re building lifetime experience, too,” she continued. “[With] my personality, I tell it like it is. How will you make yourself better if you don’t know what you’re doing wrong?”
“I like that she teaches them to be very disciplined and organized,” says Michelle Corbin of Salisbury, whose daughter Marah, 13, practices with ESBT three hours each evening. “I think that’ll go a long way.”
“She really does treat them like her own,” says Angela Rathkamp of Princess Anne, whose twin daughters, Emily and Sarah, are lead dancers in The Nutcracker production. “She shows them her real feelings. She cares about it all.”
Emily Rathcamp, 17, has danced 15 years and depicts the Rose Fairy and the Lead Arabian in the production.
“Definitely discipline and respect for others, putting other people first, [and] dancing as a group,” says Emily of the skills she’s learned as a dancer. “Being tired and coming in and having to come back and put in 150 percent, as Mrs. Elena says.”
Paleena Amy, 15, is Elena’s daughter and part of the ESBT — an understudy for Rose Fairy. Her mother treats her the same as the other dancers, she says.
“I’ve just learned so much — persistence, perseverance, determination,” says Paleena. “It’s something that will affect you for the rest of your life.”
Membership in the Eastern Shore Ballet Theatre is open to dancers from the Eastern Shore who have previously studied ballet. Auditions are held once each year, and members must attend company classes and rehearsals, as well as continue their regular study of ballet at least twice weekly. Current membership includes dancers from four local dance studios.
Editor’s note: For more information about the Eastern Shore Ballet Theatre or to purchase tickets for The Nutcracker performances, visit www.esbt.org.
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