Charlottesville Ballet: Bringing Life Through “A Chance to Dance”

September 23, 2014
Sara Clayborne at Studio Portrait Sara Jansen Clayborne is Co-Director of Charlottesville Ballet.

Story and photos by: Michelle Cho

Sara Clayborne wants to change the way you think about dance. She believes that both boys and girls can be ballet dancers and that ballet dancers should study many dance forms like hip-hop, jazz, musical theater. She believes that dance should be affordable and that people should choose to do so as regular exercise. But most importantly, she believes that a dance studio should be a place of health and wellness, of nutrition and exercise. I got to sit down and chat with Sara after one of her classes at Charlottesville Ballet.

Michelle Cho: So as we like to begin these interviews, would you mind starting by sharing your story?

Sara Clayborne: I am originally from New York. I went to school in Manhattan and started dancing at a young age. I danced professionally in the city but then I got sick and tired of the starving artist lifestyle. Literally sick and tired. So I moved to Richmond and joined their professional trainee program. I met my now business partner Emily Mott and we decided we wanted to create a dance studio focused on health and wellness, a place where people would be able to dance without worrying about cost physically, mentally and financially.

We moved forward as a non-profit and brought on a board of directors. We made it our goal that our studio would be for the good of the community. A board member donated a space in Greene County to us for four years, but then decided to sell the space so we had to think about relocating.

Charlottesville Ballet Charlottesville Ballet Academy is now based in Charlottesville and serves more than 400 students.

That’s when we chose our current space. With our relocation, we were basically starting from scratch again. Emily and I had both heard about CIC [Community Investment Collaborative] and we decided that at least one of us needed to go. Even though we were not technically a new business, we felt it was a good opportunity to learn more and be better prepared to grow. I went to CIC and it was such a valuable experience.

It was amazing to encounter a group of people at CIC that were so genuine in their desire to help the growth of small business. They will give you any support you need. These are people with so much talent and insight, and they're just at your disposal.

Since our move to Charlottesville, we have seen over a 400 percent growth rate. We originally had about 78 students in Greene County, and now we have about 400. The CIC program helped set us up for how to reach those benchmarks.

MC: One of the tenants of Charlottesville Ballet that differentiates it from other dance studios is its emphasis on healthy body image and wellness. Could you speak a little bit about this?

SC: Lots of companies make their dancers do weigh-ins. This means that dancers get weighed each week and if a dancer is above a certain weight requirement they are not allowed to even rehearse. This puts a lot of pressure on the dancers, and results in unhealthy behaviors to attain standards that may not be appropriate for that individual dancer. Also if dancers are injured, there are not always enough understudies for a performance and they feel pressured to rehearse and perform even if they are hurt. Charlottesville Ballet does not do that. We choose to take a different approach.

We have a medical director that helps guide boundaries. Dancers are perfectionists. They push themselves to extremes. Our medical director, Dr. Heather Snyder helps us assess how much is too much and what appropriate exertions are for individuals. If your mind isn’t healthy, your body won’t be healthy. If your body isn’t healthy, you can’t dance effectively and joyfully. We also do wellness sessions with dieticians and physical therapists that meet with our dancers and help provide preventative measures that address their needs as individuals.

We also chose to not have a mirror in one of our studios. While mirrors can be helpful for self-correction, they can also be limiting and promote feelings that can create an unhealthy environment. So we chose to have no mirrors in one of our studios, which is quite unique, although studies show that children learn better without a mirror.

MC: How do you think that being a woman has affected your business experience? Your dance experience?

SC: Overall, everyone in the community has been very supportive of female entrepreneurs. I do have to admit though that I have encountered some people who have an outdated mindset.

There have been times when people have come in and asked where the boss is. They seem surprised that our organization is run by female leaders.

In the dance community, I would say about 90 percent of the dancers are female. However, most ballet companies are led by men and most choreography is led by men. Historically that is the pattern. Even with pointe shoes: They were created when a male director saw a female dancer and told her to look like she was floating. He kept telling her “up, up, up!” to the point that she was on her toes. But that’s changing now. In the past ten years, much has changed.

It would be wonderful to have a more even ratio of males and females in the management of dance companies. And for the composition of dancers within companies to reflect the population more accurately as well. People tend to not send their sons to dance. If they understood the history and athleticism of ballet though, their minds might change: It takes a lot of muscle and skill to dance!

It’s truly amazing what you can do when you have both male and female dancers. Of our 400 students, probably less than 20 are boys, and we are trying to grow that number. We hope to help change the societal attitude about boys in dance, and build strong male dancers for the future from within our students.

Our children are our true avenue of change!

Sara Clayborne Up-Close Portrait Sara attended the CIC courses to help her grow the non-profit Charlottesville Ballet professional company and academy.

Read about more women in this series:

Elizabeth James - The Happy Tomato

Stephanie White and Sue Gass - Stevie G's Gluten-Free Bakery

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