When Linda Copp arrived in Lebanon in 1984, one of her first stops was to visit the Lebanon Recreation & Parks Department to inquire about teaching ballet. What began as a small instructional program with a few dancers upstairs at the Carter Community Building is today a thriving, multi-faceted organization offering ballet, musical theater dance, and modern dance. The institution now has its own studio space on the mall in Lebanon comprised of a dance school – the Lebanon Ballet School – and a non-profit performance dance company – City Center Ballet, Inc., hosting professional artists and choreographers from around the country.

Jennifer Henderson teaches a high school class at City
Center Ballet.

Linda and fellow teacher Ruth Mayer established City Center Ballet in 1999 to provide opportunities for local dancers to explore and perform classic and contemporary ballet. “The cost of adding that component far exceeded the financial ability of a small ballet school, but forming a not-for-profit company opened the door to private and foundation funding,” says Copp. The ballet company has a dual mission: to provide performance and educational opportunities for advanced dancers from local communities, while providing cultural enrichment for the wider Upper Valley audience. Now celebrating its 20th year, City Center Ballet offers high-quality full-length classical and repertory ballet performances to communities in Vermont and New Hampshire.

In 2008, Linda transitioned into the role of Artistic Director for City Center Ballet. “I felt that is was important to bring guest artists and choreographers from NYC, Canada, and from wherever I could to expose the dancers to a wider world and great connections to others in the dance world,” explains Copp. With a philosophy of starting early to give dancers the greatest chance of long term success, the company has included children as young as six years old in age-appropriate roles.

Linda Copp inspects the extensive City Center Ballet
costume inventory

Through teaching and training dancers for more than 30 years, Linda has seen many of her students grow up and become professional dancers and teachers in their own right. One of those students is Linda’s daughter, Jennifer Henderson, an original founding dancer. Jennifer became the Resident Choreographer for the company in 2010, working on her first show, Cinderella. A natural interpreter of the classic dances and a skilled dancer and teacher, Jennifer tells an “amazing story with dance,” according to Linda. Jennifer also choreographs the annual presentation of Clara’s Dream, a nutcracker story, now in its ninth year. Jennifer says she was on the fence about teaching at first, but realized “there was a natural gravitational pull” back to the dance studio. Today, parents, and dancers alike say Jen is an “amazing teacher.”

The Upper Valley has several dance schools, each with a different focus and teaching approach. City Center Ballet’s reputation is one that expects dancers to make a full commitment to the program; and as a result, the company has a disciplined philosophy with the intent to prepare dancers with a high level of technical skill. Linda explains that dancers are asked to commit to three things, including “…to show up on time and be prepared to dance; ask questions and be informed; and understand that after the first week, there is a process of learning ballet that cannot be rushed.”

Jennifer Henderson coaches Camille

There was a time when high-school-aged dancers in the company were fewer in numbers, but this is changing, says Linda. “The very nice thing is that former dancers are returning to the company.” Emily Higgins is one returning dancer who couldn’t stay away from the studio. “Anywhere you go in the dance world, if you have a strong foundation in classical ballet, you can  explore all the other types of dance.” Emily started dancing as a 5-year-old and notes, “The joke in the family was that I could dance before I could walk.”  At age 25, Emily was drawn back to the company after teaching locally and missing the classical aspect of dance. “The school and company have always had a professional atmosphere, and the etiquette and discipline are a big part of what appeals to me. I have a lot of discipline in my life because of this school.” Linda adds, “Ballet was an etiquette before it was an art form. Ballet guidelines were set down 300 years ago, and the pointe slipper has changed little since the early twentieth century. I don’t expect everyone to become a professional dancer, but I do ask that whatever they do, commit to doing it well.”

Last year, the company began the Master Dance Series, which gives dancers the opportunity to study and learn intensively for six to seven days with a visiting choreographer/teacher. “We strive to link students with professional dancers so they can advance their technical skills and get exposure to the national dance community,” says Linda. Guest artists have performed or taught with companies such as Ballet Hispanico, Twyla Tharp, and on Broadway. Many of the company’s students have gone on to dance at the college level, with some being awarded scholarships to dance at University of Richmond, Skidmore, Boston Conservatory, Adelphi, and others. One college recruiter watched a rehearsal of the company, and offered two students full scholarships on the spot.

Some of the masks used in City Center Ballet productions

Camille Dizon, a seventh grader, is currently dancing with the company. Camille loves to dance so much that she practices five days a week. “I love being involved in the company because it pushes me to be a better dancer, and I get to know dancers from a lot of different schools.” Camille started dancing at age six, being introduced to the basics of how to move with others, listen, observe, and move her body in space before getting instruction in classical ballet. “The more exposed you are to professional dancers, the broader your education. I learn a lot from the master classes and the mentoring really helps my performance skills. The teachers know what’s best for you technically.”

It appears that Camille and Emily will be dancing for as long as they want to, and Jennifer is set to carry on the legacy of professional-level choreography at City Center Ballet under Linda’s guidance. As Linda says, “There is always a next generation of children to teach. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

For more information on City Center Ballet and Lebanon Ballet School, visit www.citycenterballet.org and www.lebanonballetschool.com.

Cindy Heath is the former Director of Recreation & Parks for the City of Lebanon, and takes belly dance classes for fun and fitness.