By STEPHEN O’KANE, Staff Writer | Published March 5, 2009
The Dance Company at St. Pius X High School is much more than learning how to master a pirouette or a pas de bourrée.
Stepping into the large, open dance room at the Atlanta high school immediately brings a sense of freedom, as members of the highly skilled corps gracefully move across the floor while sunlight pours in through large windows.
They are preparing for their major Spring Dance Concert, which showcases their talents year after year.
And the relaxed atmosphere among the small group of nine dancers belies the serious amount of work that is taking place.
Lisa Martin, dance teacher at St. Pius since 1998 and the chair of the fine arts department since 1999, continually expresses her interest in teaching them more than just intricate choreography.
“I want to teach them life skills through the discipline of dance,” said Martin. “I try to teach them how to work really hard and see the fruits of their labor.”
And members of the Dance Company, most of them dancers for more than a decade, definitely work hard. They perform several times throughout the year, at a fall open house, the NOVO Choreography & Benefit Project, which assists a different local charity every year, and the Spring Dance Concert that features all of the St. Pius dance classes, from beginner to expert.
Getting into the Dance Company is no easy task. The dancer, in addition to consistently earning decent academic marks, must be enrolled in at least two ballet classes outside of St. Pius.
“This course is for students who have achieved proficiency in ballet, as well as jazz technique,” states the syllabus for class, which requires an audition. “This course will act as a supplement to his/her dance training outside of St. Pius.”
“It has really helped me grow in other things,” said Mary Kate McCarthy, a 17-year-old senior, who said the program has made her a more versatile dancer. Opportunities to dance with the Columbia City Ballet or to train with the Richmond Ballet are before her or a scholarship to continue her study of dance at Texas Christian University.
In addition to learning life skills, such as working successfully with others and presenting in front of a group, Martin also gives the teenagers opportunities to express themselves creatively.
Each year, they participate in a choreography project, where they design and perform a dance they create themselves.
Senior Samantha Jones, who has been offered a presidential scholarship to study dance at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, said she is “happy to get the chance to do choreography.”
Sophomore Jessica Kaczor said the project and the Dance Company in general, “helps me express myself more.” She said she has learned how to understand music through dance.
The other members of the Dance Company this year are seniors Chrissy Cole and Maria Roberts, juniors Caroline Cassan and Sarah Mitchell, sophomore Alexandria Haertel and freshman Rose Kazanowski.
The St. Pius dance program began in 1985 under the direction of Lynn Fleetwood Dukes. During the first two years, two classes were offered.
Eight years later, under the direction of the school’s second dance teacher, Amy Walker Koulovatos, affectionately called “Mrs. K” by her students, the Dance Company was established. It is both a course in the fine arts department and an after school commitment for its members to hours of rehearsals and focus on dance.
Many of the Pius graduates who put forth countless hours of work with the Dance Company have continued to pursue this art. Charlotte Foster, class of 2001, graduated magna cum laude from the University of Georgia in dance. She is the founder and artistic director of SIDEWAYS contemporary dance company, based in the Atlanta area, and serves as artistic director of the Roswell Dance Starz as well as the co-creator of a dance academy for those with Down syndrome.
Sarah Kelly Kerr, also in the class of 2001, graduated with a fine arts degree in dance performance from the University of South Florida and currently teaches ballet in the area. She is also a member of Full Radius, a physically integrated dance company in Atlanta. Kimberly Williams from the class of 2004 majored in ballet at the highly regarded dance program at Indiana University.
In addition to the Dance Company, several dance courses are offered in the St. Pius fine arts department as electives for freshmen through seniors, combining study with training and performance at various levels.
Martin has expanded the curriculum for the dance program during her time at Pius, which now includes the study of modern dance, history and choreography. Students of the program are also taught different stretches and ways of conditioning based on the principles of Pilates and yoga.
A new course, dance for couples, has been added as well, which focuses on teaching basic social dance forms.
“I began the course by teaching the students the waltz and the foxtrot and have progressed to swing and salsa,” said Martin. “These students will be performing a lively swing dance, as well as their own hip hop dance choreography, in the Spring Dance Concert.”
While Dance Company members fly, at times, through the air, the athleticism underneath their performances has won them a coveted recognition for high school.
Participants can earn a varsity letter in dance, like their counterparts on the athletic field or court. Letters became available for dance in 2000, under the direction of Martin and supportive parents.
“These girls spend five to six days on average per week training,” Martin said. “The recognition of their efforts is important.”
To receive a letter, dancers earn points based on performances in which they participate or services they provide to the rest of the company. For example, a dancer can earn points for ushering fine arts events, attending a master class or workshop or serving as the costume manager. They must also demonstrate a professional attitude and positive manner to avoid any deductions. If a dancer accrues 30 points during the year, she is eligible for a letter. The letter jacket is awarded the following year.
“That letter jacket has a prestige about it that is very important for high schools students,” Martin said.
This year’s spring concert the weekend of March 27-29 will highlight the performance of a work choreographed by Martha Goodman, an established teacher and coach, who was brought in by Martin as part of a visiting teacher program that exposes the dancers to varied ways of teaching and learning.
Goodman, who studied in New York under Igor Schwetzov, David Howard, Genia Melikova and Maggie Black and in Paris with Gilbert Meyer of the Paris Opera, was the principal teacher and co-director for the Atlanta Ballet Centre Theater for 10 years.
They began their study with Goodman in October and have been perfecting the piece in preparation for the spring concert.
Since the Dance Company is relatively small compared to other classes at the high school, the members really have a chance to become close. Entering freshmen often comment on how nice it is to meet upperclassmen right away, while the juniors and seniors take pride in helping their fellow students along the way.
“It’s like we’re a big family,” said McCarthy, a comment which drew smiles and nods from her classmates.
Kaczor agrees. “It’s great to get a chance to know the upperclassmen,” she said.
“It’s like I have nine daughters,” Martin said with a smile.