Dance mom

A quick peek in the dance studio at Western Reserve Academy explains everything

by Stephanie Fellenstein Published:

First and foremost, Emily Barth is a dance instructor. But her commitment doesn't end when class is done. She also serves as a surrogate "mom" to the residents of Ellsworth Hall. Take a look.

Dance teacher Emily Barth stands at the back of the studio at Western Reserve Academy. In her hands is a huge green notebook crammed full of notes -- a dancer's Bible of sorts. The notes inside are cryptic, though, with abbreviations and terms that only Barth can translate.

Then the notebook is cast aside and Barth is in the middle of the dancers, showing them what those pages of notes mean.

"I definitely consider myself an active teacher," she says, moving off the floor to let the dancers try the steps by themselves.

This is Barth's Wednesday afternoon class, right before spring break, and her 10 students are running through the steps in their three dances for the May 9 and 10 show.

They meet on the floor, slipping on their ballet shoes while talking about grades and phones.

"This is a fun group," Barth says.

Once the ballet piece is finished, they switch to a modern dance.

"Look, jump, 5, 6, down, 8," Barth says from the back of the room as they run through the dance that is choreographed to Aloe Blacc's "Ticking Bomb."

"Do the transition again," she says, walking to the front of the room to show them. "Then ball change, look, down. Can we try with the music now? The whole thing?"

Once the modern dance is finished, they switch shoes again. This time it's jazz. Barth says they usually don't focus on all three dance styles each class, but she wanted to run through the steps of each dance one more time before spring break.

"Don't forget the choreography check that's going to happen after break," she says.

Barth knows first-hand how challenging and rewarding dance can be. She started dancing when she was 3.

"I tried gymnastics and sports, but dance has been my one consistent thing through my life," she says.

And consistent, it has been. Barth danced through high school in Hudson before going to Kent State University where she earned a bachelor's degree in dance performance and a master's degree in teaching and dance. She has taught at the Fairmount Center for the Arts, Kent State University and Ohio State University's Mansfield campus. And she still loves it.

"I always told myself to do what makes me happy," she says. "It's my comfort zone, my therapy."

Barth arrived at WRA in 2010 and is wrapping up her fourth year which means her first freshman class is now graduating.

"It's a little bittersweet for me with the seniors," she says.

This year there are 40 students in the dance program at the school. They are split between regular and honors classes.

The regular classes are for students with very little dance experience, while the honors classes are geared to those with substantial experience. All honors students must audition for the class, and most auditions include a demonstration of ballet techniques, a modern combination across the floor and some jazz steps in the center. Some students may spend two years in the regular class and then move to the honor's level, Barth says.

The classes, which meet four times a week like all academic classes, cover ballet, modern, jazz, hip hop and tap. They culminate in two performances each year -- fall and spring.

While the students are tasked with learning, and remembering, all the steps, it is up to Barth to actually create the steps, put them together and watch them unfold on stage like a giant, moving puzzle.

"Doing all the choreography is definitely a challenge for me," she says.

The spring show, with the theme "Our playlist, recently played," is based more on modern music -- early 2000 and on, Barth says.

For the upcoming show, students were even invited to audition their own choreography.

They had to fill out a form and include their theme or concept, the music and costume ideas, as well as the steps.

Not only are there student choreographers, but for the first time there also is an alumni choreographer -- Alexandria LeBay, a 2013 WRA graduate.

LeBay, an English/dance major at the University of Akron, choreographed a contemporary ballet piece for one of the honors classes.

She comes in toward the end of the regular class and gets ready to work on her piece.

"I'm really excited. It is so different choreographing for other dancers," she says. "Now I look at it and think, 'that came out of my head.' Then they [the dancers] take it and make it real. It's a combination of the dancers' inspiration and my inspiration. It's really cool to see."

LeBay, a Macedonia resident who trained in classical ballet with the Ballet Theatre of Ohio, came to WRA as a junior.

"Coming here [WRA] really added to my dynamics," she says, adding she really enjoys working with Barth.

"Ballet is my thing, but she's able to do all of it. She's very capable," LeBay says. "I have a whole new appreciation for what she does. She does 12 dances at the same time. I'm just trying to do one dance."

Barth fills the rest of her days with her afternoon dance class, a class which fulfills the physical education requirement at the school, plus dorm duty [for 30 students] at Ellsworth Hall where she lives with her husband Kevin.

It seems that WRA may be a good fit and Barth agrees, "It's home."v

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