Written by: Kharin Gibson
Photography by: Phil Mancuso & John Brubach
The biggest adventure you can take is to live the life of your dreams.
- Oprah Winfrey
Sometimes people are lucky enough to discover their passion at an early age. A vision is established and a destiny is set. Then, there are times when that pathway traverses original expectations. This is a story of a courageous single mother who took a leap of faith while carrying a CD player in hand, and a dream in her heart…
Since the tender age of four, Elizabeth Hester has had an innate passion for dance. Whether at family functions, or piano lessons, music moved her soul and she expressed it through dance. As a teen she found herself at a crossroad, her decision to embrace ballet changed the trajectory of her life, and later would have a profound effect on the lives of others.
At eight years old, she began basic dance classes. Her pivotal moment came during a Civic Ballet performance at Thalian Hall as she witnessed a ballerina executing a double pirouette. She then cultivated her dream of becoming a ballerina, later moving to Boston, she honed her craft and found herself performing as a professional ballerina with the Carolina Ballet in Raleigh.
The career of a ballerina is brief; most ballerinas age out by 23. When she believed her ballet career was over she switched gears and enrolled at NC State. Always proficient in math and science, Elizabeth chose civil engineering as her course of study. “My life was movement,” she says. “I hated the idea of being confined to a desk; civil engineering allowed me to be outside and moving around. It is also creative.”
As with any journey, there are challenges along the way. At 33 years of age, Elizabeth found her marriage in disrepair and arrived back in Wilmington to her mother and father’s home, with a toddler and suitcase in tow.
She began rebuilding her life. Herb McKim recognized her talent and gave her an opportunity with his firm, McKim and Creed Engineers. She loved her job, and she also taught dance one night a week at a local ballet studio.
As is common with ballet schools, this particular studio struggled to keep its doors open. Dismayed, the community rallied together to convince Elizabeth to quit her engineering job and open her own ballet studio. This was a big decision for Elizabeth who remembers, “I loved the job, as an individual, but struggled with the job as a mother.” Being at the helm of a ballet school was not initially part of her plan, but it offered her the flexibility she needed to care for her son, Caleb. From that point on, a new dream was created.
In 1999, with the support of the community and her parents, Elizabeth took a huge leap of faith, left her successful career, and within a month, opened The Wilmington School of Ballet.
Elizabeth’s parents, Brenda and the late George Harriss, were instrumental in her transition. Her mother gave her the nurturing and her father gave her the confidence. “I had no doubts she’d be fine,” says Brenda Harriss. “She has worked wonders in the lives of young girls and has impacted their lives in a positive way.”
“My father was my constant tutor,” Elizabeth reminisces. “He was always pushing me to do more.” When doubt crept in, he’d always assure her “that she could do it.” Her father left a resounding impact in Elizabeth’s life. “His influence drives me, I am so fortunate that he was my father,” she confides. And quite candidly, his presence is still felt and revered among many “founding friends” – community members that helped make Elizabeth’s dream a reality.
These individuals not only offered financial support, but became members of her first board of directors. The original members consisted of Dr. Robert Roer and his wife, Margie, George and Sylvia Rountree, Rose Zimmer, Paul Boney, Dr. Walter and Donna Pendergrast, Charlie Rivenbark, and her parents, George and Brenda Harriss.
George Rountree, a childhood friend of her father’s, commented that when individuals with drive are given support, they can make their dreams come true. There was no question about his support for Elizabeth’s passion and feels, “ballet is an art form that is misunderstood and underappreciated… it’s unfortunate because many haven’t been exposed to it.” Knowing that this was something the community needed, he was confident that Elizabeth was the right person for the job.
Charlie Rivenbark, the first non-parent board member, helped Elizabeth purchase an old building that was more suitable to sustain an active ballet school – a venue where she and her CD player full of music could house her first studio. “I knew she was talented and had a dream, and I wanted to be a part of it,” Rivenbark says. He remembers being flattered about being asked to be on the board and “feels fortunate that he got to be part of something special.”
The community was thrilled. “She was the school to learn the pure form of ballet,” recalls Rose Zimmer, whose three daughters all attended. She feels that Elizabeth was the “right person and had the right personality.” Rose iterated the importance of ballet, in that it acts as a good foundation for young people to learn discipline, develop poise, self-confidence, core strength, and hand-eye coordination. As important, she adds, it affords the right environment for young dancers to be exposed to professionals that can help mentor their development.
The arts, and ballet in particular, struggle to exist without the support and generosity of the community. Elizabeth was also fortunate to receive additional financial support from groups such as Landfall Foundation, The Arts Council of Wilmington, Rotary Club of Wilmington, and Cape Fear Community Foundation who also saw the need and importance of Elizabeth’s mission.
Other groups became involved and offered support by providing venues for some of her first performances. These organizations included Junior League, Girls’ Choir of Wilmington, Wilmington Woman’s Club, Garden Club of Wilmington, and Wilmington Symphony Orchestra.
As expected, sustaining the ballet company proved to be challenging. Elizabeth remembers at least five instances where she wanted to quit, but was always drawn back to her purpose with small reminders of why she was doing what she was doing. In each moment of darkness she was reminded of the positive impact the ballet school was having in the lives of young girls and this reinvigorated her. When the ballet company reinvented the Festival of Trees, “founding friend”, Diana Corbett, creatively decorated a tree where Elizabeth witnessed firsthand how it touched a student, thus strengthening Elizabeth’s perseverance.
The positive impact of dance has been profound in the life of her first scholarship student, Dara Holmes, who rose up from inner city Wilmington to become a dancer with Joffrey Ballet in Chicago. Holmes is now considered one of the top ten black ballerinas in the world.
“There were at least two times that we almost went under,” says Elizabeth. If it weren’t for the additional generosity and support of Mac and Carol Montgomery, Raiford and Ava Trask, and Dr. Robert and Jane Henihan, the dream would have died. Their support helped bring a Nutcracker performance to Wilmington, which proved to be the catalyst needed for growth.
Ava Trask remembers, “Elizabeth came to me and Raiford with a request for some help with the Wilmington Ballet Company. Our two girls had been taking ballet at the Wilmington School of Ballet for several years… we had a vested interest in the wellbeing and continuance of The [Wilmington] Ballet Company for performance opportunities and future experiences for the girls but at the same time, it was apparent that Elizabeth had vision and determination and was building something bigger and better while continuing to offer the community of Wilmington quality classical ballet training.”
It was at this juncture that their support of event changed the course for the ballet school. “It put us on a different path,” recounts Elizabeth. The performance, held at the Wilson Center, was such a significant event. This single performance, heralded as the “only event by a local organization to sell out the Wilson Center”, allowed the ballet company to grow exponentially. It had given the ballet company a platform to now attract dancers from across the globe, including continents such as Africa, Europe, and Asia.
Today, the dream is still alive and growing beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. Elizabeth’s ultimate goal is to bring cultural awareness to nearby rural regions by touring areas from Myrtle Beach, to Raleigh, and Ocracoke. She wants to impact small rural communities within those borders by offering the ballet experience to young dancers and giving them the opportunity to be positively impacted.
November 2nd held the 1st Annual International Ballet Gala celebrating Wilmington Ballet Company’s evolution into a professional ballet company, and catapulting it to a status usually reserved for major market cities. Indeed, Wilmington Ballet Company has been borne by dreams and continues to elevate the possibilities for dancers with dreams of their own.