Local classical ballet lovers need look no farther than Flint’s west side for professional-quality performances, thanks to Denise and Gary Paavola, founders of Young People’s Ballet Theatre (YPBT). The organization prepares young people for a lifetime love of dance, not to mention the opportunity to dance professionally. Many of the students have gone on to become professional dancers in high-profile ballet companies. As YPBT’s online video says, its purpose is “to nurture the seeds of Michigan’s future audience for the professional arts.”
A nonprofit 510(c)(3) organization, YPBT is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Denise, currently the artistic director, founded it in 1988 as a training school and performance company to offer Michigan’s youth skilled, classical training in dance and to teach the younger generations to appreciate ballet.
Setting the Stage
The Paavola name has been synonymous with dance in Flint for more than 67 years. Gary comes from a family of dancers. His older sister started dancing in 1951, and the rest of the kids followed. Years later, when Denise founded the Paavola School of Dance in 1980, it went through various temporary studios before finding home at 5251 Commerce St. in Flint.
“Every time we moved, we had to have the floor rebuilt and mirrors put in,” Denise says. “We needed high ceilings so the male dancers could lift the female ones up high, and the floors needed rebound, so they had to be padded floating floors.”
Denise and Gary’s first studio was in the basement of their home. The second one was a racquetball court. After that, Thomas Designs allowed her to rent its garage, and afterward, the Paavolas rented space at Happy Elephant Day Care. Six months later, they found the land on Commerce.
Now, their spacious building, the Paavilion, houses two studios. The larger one has been converted to double as a performance space, with added risers and a curtain. The building also has a kitchen and a large storage space upstairs for costumes.
Raising the Curtain
YPBT trains children as young as 3 but works with dancers of all ages, the oldest having been 42 years old when she began taking classes. Training is based on classical ballet techniques. YPBT also teaches jazz and modern dance because in today’s professional milieu, a dancer must be versatile.
Dance students come from all over Genesee County and beyond for the excellent training and nurturing atmosphere. “YPBT has a family atmosphere,” Gary says. “Our students’ parents are often involved as volunteers – sewing costumes, creating props and more. We welcome anyone in the community who is interested in volunteering.”
Generally, dance schools operate on the recital paradigm, in which students display what they’ve learned throughout the year to an audience composed mainly of family and friends. Rather than yearly recitals, YPBT’s students can choose to participate in a yearly performance, as well as join the attached performance company, which performs three times a year. The main performance is in March at the UM-Flint Theatre. This year, the company will perform “Little Orphan Annie” March 1-4. Dale Brannon of Louisville, KY, is the choreographer, and according to Denise, he has choreographed and written musical scores for 19 of YPBT’s 29 productions.
The company also performs at a spring gala, with repertory pieces at mixed venues. The other performances are held at the Paavilion.
Over the years, YPBT has put on more than 24 children’s story ballets with original choreography and scores. Shows like “Heidi,” “Anastasia” and “Little Women” grew out of Denise’s childhood love of these stories.
Dancing with a Lifetime Partner
It was dance that brought them together. In 1962, when both were 12 years old, they met in a dance class taught by Lena Pelio at Flint Ballet Theatre. Gary and his four older siblings were already part of that company. Their father had figured that learning dance would help his boys in sports, and he was right (Gary went on to devote himself to basketball in college).
“I fell in love immediately,” Denise recalls. “Gary was an excellent dancer and very handsome. I wrote in my diary that I had met the boy I was going to marry. He didn’t notice me until we were 15, though.”
Denise says that her first dance instructor told her, “You have lovely arms but a lot of work to do.” She says that because her training was so excellent, she fell in love with dance. Eventually she was accepted into the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. At the same time, Gary went to UM-Ann Arbor. While there, he played basketball – but Cupid had other ideas. Gary and Denise wrote to each other devotedly every day and hated being apart.
“At the end of my senior year Coach Orr invited me to play varsity on the basketball team,” Gary recalls. “But being apart from Denise, every day felt like a year. This was before the Internet so we sent cassette tapes to each other, and called each other from payphones for $1.25 per 3 minutes. Long distance was expensive!”
Inevitably, they both returned to Flint to be together. Denise graduated from UM-Flint with a degree in elementary education and Deaf education. She also received a master’s degree in learning disabilities, all the while continuing to dance with Pelio.
They married in 1974 and had two daughters who both became dancers. In 1983, Denise was offered a second chance at a professional dance career with Ballet Michigan, based in Flint Cultural Center. Unfortunately, the company folded in 1988.
“I was left with a choice,” Denise says. “Should I teach or start my own studio? What I really wanted was to teach dance. I wanted a performance company. I’d received excellent training and I wanted to give that opportunity to youth in the area.”
That opportunity remains, thanks to the Paavolas’ continuing work. It’s not too early to sign up for YPBT’s summer dance workshop. It will be held in mid-June for two weeks, and there are three classes a day in ballet, contemporary and jazz. For more information, call 810-230-1355 or visit ypbt.org.