Perhaps the most beautiful form of dance expression, ballet tells a story through exquisite movements of the body without needing words. When I met ballet dancer Denise Paavola, founder of the Young People’s Ballet Theatre in Flint, the first thing I noticed was her striking, crystal blue eyes. Her poise and elegance are evidence of her years of dancing and teaching ballet, which she claims has been her passion since she was five years old. “I’ve always loved dancing: the fluidity and the movement,” said Denise. She met her husband, Gary, who was the youngest in a family of dancers, when she was just 12 years old. “He had the most beautiful, long legs,” recalled Denise with a girlish grin, describing him as a very handsome and talented dancer.
A Flint native, Denise began her dance studies with Lena Pelio in Flint, but never dreamed she would one day be a professional ballerina. She attended Point Park College in Pittsburgh, PA and performed with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, and it is there that she realized her potential. She returned to Flint, married the man with the beautiful legs, and had two daughters, Gretchen and Calli. Now grown, the girls are both professional dancers.
After having her children, Denise returned to the stage to perform with Ballet Michigan, a “second chance” that changed her life. “I auditioned and I got in,” she smiled. “I was very fortunate to have that opportunity.” Gayla Zukevich was Ballet Michigan’s founder and renowned artistic director, and Denise danced with the company for four years. She feels that more than any other dance experience, her time with Ballet Michigan taught her how to coordinate and properly use her muscles. With the Flint Ballet Theater, Denise performed principal roles in productions of Swan Lake, Coppelia, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Giselle before founding her own school. “I put my entire soul into my dancing,” she said. “Once ballet is in your blood, it’s hard to get out.” Her favorite performance was her leading role in Giselle, the story of a peasant girl named Giselle who has a passion for dance, and discovering that the man she loves is engaged to someone else, dies of a broken heart.
Her love of story ballet led Denise to start her own company in 1988, in order to bring the art form she loved to young dancers in Flint. She founded YPBT on the premise that all inspired area dancers should have a chance to study with professional choreographers and perform the Children’s Classics.
After 24 years, Denise retired from YPBT in 2012. She and her husband still own the dance studio building, now used by the Grand Rapids Ballet Company. The new artistic directors are Nicholas and Laura Schultz of Grand Rapids, and Jennifer Wiley is the executive director and a teacher at the school. Denise is very happy with the transition. “I’m thankful there is a group of professionals willing to come to Flint to keep YPBT going and growing,” she said. Both Nicholas and Laura currently dance professionally with the Grand Rapids Dance Company, and the company occasionally provides guest dancers for the theater performances. “My hope is that our dancers will continue to be inspired by story ballets, and allow audiences of all ages to appreciate this beautiful art form,” Denise said.
Denise will continue to teach the school’s most advanced students, who learn that there is much more to ballet than choreography. She says dancers learn the art of pantomime and pas de deux (in French, “step for two”), which is the art of partnering, as well as how to work as a team, how to challenge themselves and be challenged. “New audience members tell me what a gem YPBT is, and I want it to remain so,” she said.
Denise plans to help with theatre rehearsals when asked, and is continuing her work on an official archive of the ballet company. While admitting that retiring is bittersweet, she says it’s the right move. “I’m a new grandmother!” she boasts, her blue eyes sparkling as she speaks of her grandson. “He is my life’s new passion, but dancing will always be a part of me.”
PHOTOS BY NAARAH MYERS
Are you interested in purchasing photos from this story? Go HERE and select the “Young People’s Ballet” category.