Today I’d like to introduce our newest contributor–Risa Gary Kaplowitz. She’ll be doing a monthly column for 4dancers, and today we begin with a bit of her “back story” so you can get to know her a bit…
by Risa Gary Kaplowitz
It’s a wonderful thing to realize how lucky you are. I don’t mean the gratuitous “grateful” we all read on Facebook posts when a “friend” gloats about one thing or another and then says, “So blessed!” Nope. I mean how great it feels to acknowledge the really big decision or moment of good fortune without which your life would be completely different.
I had such a realization a few months ago when I attended the 90th birthday celebration for Tensia Fonseca, Artistic Director of Maryland Youth Ballet. It was she who started the now nationally recognized school and youth company almost 50 years ago in the barre-lined basement of her cozy suburban home.
I came to what at that time was called, Maryland School of the Ballet when I was three years old. My mom had taken me to my first ballet class at the local recreation center where Mrs. Fonseca’s business partner at the time, Roy Gean, was teaching pre-ballet. After class, he told my mom that I showed promise and asked if she would bring me to their newly built one room studio on St. Elmo Ave. in Bethesda.
The rest of my life can be traced back to the moment my mom said, “Yes.”
Starting ballet at a place with exceptional fundamental training meant that I was also to become part of a web of success stories. All told, Mrs. Fonseca, Michelle Lees (who started teaching at MYB when I was 14) and the MYB staff have grown over 60 professional dancers. In Ballet School Land, this is a very rare accomplishment, especially for a school that is not affiliated with a professional company.
Several former MYB’ers not only achieved the rare status of being employed dancers, they also became famous. Among them are Cheryl Yeager, who is a former American Ballet Theatre principal, Susan Jaffe, a former principal and current ballet mistress at ABT, and Julie Kent, a current ABT principal ballerina. So, too, did Mrs. Fonseca grow into a fabulous dancer her own gorgeous son, Peter Fonseca, who was an ABT soloist until his untimely death at age 28.
Mrs. Fonseca’s party was held at MYB’s newish sprawling Silver Spring location. Over 300 guests heard all three of the MYB’s most famous alumni acknowledge the deep appreciation they had of having stumbled upon Mrs. Fonseca and MYB in one way or another. Julie Kent (who was a few years behind my class) read birthday greetings from Mikhail Baryshnikov and American Ballet Theatre’s Artistic Director, Kevin Mackenzie. You can hear her read the letters at around the 3:49 mark: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F6VkW9SrSx0.
Cheryl Yeager (who was a few years ahead of my class) gave a short but moving speech, and Susan Jaffe (my classmate and the one with whom I eventually opened up a dance studio in Princeton) offered a passionate tribute.
But there was even more reason to feel charmed than being part of an American ballet dynasty. I also had the great luck to have known Mrs. Fonseca outside of the studio. Our houses were close enough so that my mom and she could carpool. We would drive Peter to class and Mrs. Fonseca would drive me to her house after class, where I would sit happily in her kitchen talking with her and Peter for what seemed like never enough time until my mom retrieved me.
Early on in the arrangement, I was most excited to spend time flirting with Peter, who, in my innocent young mind, was sure to be my husband one day. But over time, I came to see the afternoons with Mrs. Fonseca as an education in life. She had not only created a booming studio but was also a loving wife; a mother to five boys; an impeccable seamstress who designed and (with the help of the moms) sewed all of MYB’s costumes; a wonderful choreographer of charming original ballets; and avid gardener. In the late 1960’s, this was one rare woman!
Yet, she handled her crazy, busy life with the same balance and grace she used to demonstrate steps in class. Because of her, I learned that a woman could have it all.
My life has become eerily similar to hers: I, too, opened a dance school and started a youth company at the very same age she was when she started MYB (43). I am a wife, a mother (although to two children, not five), and a choreographer of original ballets for talented young dancers.
My mantra is “WWMFD” or, “What would Mrs. Fonseca do?” And just like that, I know my next step.
What was your moment?
Contributor Risa Gary Kaplowitz is a former principal dancer with Dayton Ballet and member of Houston Ballet and Manhattan Ballet. She has also performed with Pennsylvania Ballet and Metropolitan Opera Ballet and as a guest artist with many companies nationwide.
She was originally trained at Maryland Youth Ballet by Tensia Fonseca, Roy Gean, and Michelle Lees. She spent summers as a teen studying on scholarship at American Ballet Theater, Joffrey Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, and Houston Ballet. As a professional, her most influential teachers were Maggie Black, Marjorie Mussman, Stuart Sebastian, Lupe Serrano, Benjamin Harkarvy, and Ben Stevenson. She has performed the repertoire of many choreographers including Fredrick Ashton, George Balanchine, Ben Stevenson, Stuart Sebastian, Dermot Burke, Billy Wilson, and Marjorie Mussman.
After spending ten years in a successful business career while building a family, Risa returned to the dance world and founded Princeton Dance and Theater Studio (www.princetondance.com) and DanceVision, Inc. (www.dancevisionnj.org) with Susan Jaffe, former ABT principal ballerina. Risa is now PDT’s Director, and the Artistic Director of DanceVision Inc. Risa also founded D.A.N.C.E. (Dance As a Necessary Component of Education), an outreach program that brings dance to New Jersey schools.
Risa has choreographed more than twenty pieces, and her original full-length ballets, The Secret Garden and The Snow Queen, premiered with DanceVision Performance Company in 2008 and 2011, respectively. Additionally, she has choreographed for several New Jersey Symphony Orchestra family and school outreach concerts.
Risa is an ABT Certified Teacher, who has successfully completed the ABT Teacher Training Intensive in Primary through Level 5. She has lectured the ABT/NYU Master candidates on starting a dance studio. She is most grateful for her teachers who gave and (in the case of ABT Curriculum) give her the exceptional tools necessary to have had a performance career and the opportunity to train others in authentically. She also feels fortunate to have had the opportunity to dance with and learn from many exceptional dancers.