Beersheba's budding ballerinas

The Bat Dor dance center keeps its students on their toes.

ballet class 88 (photo credit: )
ballet class 88
(photo credit: )
On any given day the little girls - and most are girls - are pointing their toes, arching their backs, and curving an arm as they work their way through the obligatory warm-up at the barre. They're taking a compulsory ballet class at the L&L Goodman Bat Dor Beersheva Municipal Dance Center (BDB). As they get older, they'll also learn modern dance, jazz, the history of music, and the history of ballet. Few of them will go on to careers as dance teachers, fewer still will become professional dancers, but for all "dance is a wonderful education," says Bat Dor artistic director Daniella Schapira, "in terms of learning their bodies, learning music, and relating to the arts generally. We do a lot of good." Bat Dor has been in Beersheba since 1975, and Schapira started as a teacher there in 1977, replacing founding artistic director Aliza Wolf when the latter retired eight years ago. Three years ago the school moved from its 450-square meter studio to a new purpose-built 1,000-sq. m structure across the street in a modest neighborhood of narrow streets and close-packed apartments. Donors Lillian and Larry Goodman provided about 40 percent of the approximately $1 million cost, with the remainder coming from the Beersheva Foundation. The entrance floor houses offices, a music room, and teachers' lounge. Three spacious studios - the school's pride and joy - are on the ground floor beneath. Dance is an after-school activity, so classes at BDB run from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday through Thursday. Thirty years ago the school found its first students by going around local schools and community centers. Today, Schapira and others of the faculty still trawl the kindergartens at the beginning of the school years to pick out promising youngsters. In one of the smaller studios, six 11- and 12-year-olds in their last year of Lower School are taking a ballet class. There are only six in the class "because we've already removed the more talented students," explains Schapira, "and these started relatively late." Relatively late means at seven or even eight years old. Many of the students start when they are five or six - too young for formal classes, so twice a week they get a 45-minute session of pre-ballet. Formal instruction for 7- to 12-year-old students starts with classical ballet for one hour twice a week. By the time they are 10, the students are getting three hours of classical ballet, one of music and one hour of modern dance per week. Upper School - the one that has absorbed the more talented dancers that Schapira spoke of - lasts from age 12 to 18. "At this level, ability dictates advancement and the schedule," says Schapira. It is demanding, starting at level one with three classes of ballet, one modern, one jazz and one history of dance per week, each 75 minutes long. By the time they reach level six of Upper School, the students are taking 12 dance classes a week, plus the history of ballet. In one level six class, the dancers are being prepared meticulously for UK Royal Academy of Dance classical ballet exams to be held in March next year. Those who pass these stringent tests will have an international calling card because the Academy's exams are accepted throughout the dance world. The patient pianist - all the classes (except for jazz) are accompanied by live pianists - is Victoria Ganzin, who played for the Kirov Ballet School in the USSR and started at BDB two days after her immigration in 1977. Another veteran is the vivacious and energetic Tova Tchaikovsky, who teaches jazz. She's one of a dozen teachers, and her story epitomizes what BDB is all about. At nine years old, Tchaikovsky was one of BDB's first students in 1975. She stayed until she was 19, sailing through every year on America-Israel Foundation scholarships. She came from Beersheba's notorious Daled neighborhood, then a hotbed of social unrest and crime. She did her army service in the IDF's Southern Command entertainment troupe that was based in Beersheba, which allowed her to continue at BDB. "I started studying ballet with a Russian teacher in the neighborhood and knew then that dance was for all my life," she says. Tchaikovsky's teacher starred her in a neighborhood production, where Aliza Wolf saw her talent and scooped her into the school. After her army service she danced in the Jazz Plus troupe for three years while teaching classical ballet and jazz at her school. Jazz dancing is not a local staple, so Tchaikovsky regularly goes to Europe and the US for workshops to top up her skills. For the past five years, she's been teaching only jazz "because I realized that jazz was where I belonged." There are no boys in her classes. In fact, there are only 12 boys among this year's 290 students. Getting boys into dance remains a perennial problem Schapira admits, but when they do get there they are cosseted. "It's not rare for us to take a boy and give him private lessons to advance him. Boys dancing is not as problematic as it was in the early days," she observes, "but they still face peer pressure. I know that if a boy comes to us, especially at an older age, he'll be a dancer because if he was strong enough to overcome that prejudice, that's what he wants." Schapira's most talented student was a boy. He won the silver medal at a prestigious London dance competition, then went on to dance as a principal with the Birmingham Royal Ballet for six years. Another gifted lad is 17-year-old Uri (not his real name). He's dyslexic, has failed every other formal framework, and is now in his second year at BDB. According to Schapira, he's responsible, committed, punctual, maintains himself, and lives with other students in an apartment in the city. His elder brother was a dancer in Kamea, BDB's professional dance company that was established in 2003. "I didn't know what I wanted," says Uri. "My brother told me 'Go try,' so I did and now I want to be a dancer, a modern dancer. In coming years, if I reach the required standard, I want to study abroad." What makes him want to dance? Searching for an answer, he lifts his hands, passing them lightly over his body as though to illustrate his thoughts, saying only "I like to dance. It makes me feel good about myself." He too is receiving scholarships from the America Israel Foundation, as did Tchaikovsky, as do many students who cannot afford the NIS 2,300 - NIS 9,000 annual tuition. Nobody who wants to dance gets turned away because he or she cannot afford the tuition. Nor are students winnowed out as they progress through the school. "This isn't the Kirov," says Schapira succinctly. "I don't drop kids. Beersheba is a small community, and the repercussions would be harmful. Besides, I believe that kids have very good instincts about themselves and what they can do. Often a child will come to me and say 'I want to go to scouts and do other things,' and we part as friends. They come back to us later as audience, and that's very, very important." Once a year they hold a recital so the students can show off their party pieces, parents can watch with pride, and would-be choreographers can show their mettle. This summer there was a summer school for the first time with teachers from the famed Cullberg (Sweden) and Stuttgart (Germany) ballets, and more are planned. BDB started life as a branch of the parent school in Tel Aviv, established in 1968 alongside the dance company founded and funded by Baroness Bathsheba de Rothschild. Wolf had suggested the Negev branch to de Rothschild, and Bat Dor founding artistic director Jeanette Ordman enthusiastically agreed. "The Arts and Culture Administration (ACA) liked the idea, too because they wanted to nurture culture here," Schapira relates. However, realizing that they would not be able to depend on de Rothschild money forever (de Rothschild died in 1998), Wolf implemented steps toward separation "while Bathsheba was still alive. We became a non-profit organization so that we could get more public funding." The organization has been an independent entity for 10 years. Fifty percent of its NIS 2.5 million annual budget comes from tuition fees, and the rest from the ACA (80 percent) and the Beersheba municipality. "Even though we are not connected with Bat Dor Tel Aviv in any way, we have retained the name because it's a recognized and very respected brand name, and as a tribute to the founders. I can't imagine the establishment of the school here without the support of Jeanette and Bathsheba," emphasizes Schapira. It's time for class. The studios exhale one set of neatly coiffed, tights and leotard-clad students and inhale another. On mats in the hallway some of the Kamea dancers are limbering up. The music begins. BDB is dancing.