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Volume 24, Number 3 — March 2017

Deanna Cole-Roberts overcomes obstacles

Deanna Cole-Roberts in her role as Cindy Lou from
Deanna Cole-Roberts in her role as Cindy Lou from "Mountain Ballad."
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By Leslie Grace | A! Magazine for the Arts | April 28, 2015

Deanna Cole-Roberts has faced challenges throughout her career professional and personal and believes that the discipline of ballet has helped her through them.

Her introduction to ballet and its discipline came through her mother.

"As my mother and I walked up the narrow staircase that led to a small ballet studio above Babe's Pool Hall, little did we know that she was registering me for lessons that would shape the rest of my life. The year was 1948, the studio was the Hardinge School of Ballet, and at that precise moment I was bitten by the bug and began a lifelong love affair with the art of dance. I loved everything about the ballet: the music, the costumes, the grace of the movement, the discipline and the never-ending task of conquering one challenge after another.

"Ballet is challenging. As Martha Graham said, "It is not for the faint of heart,' and that is what drew me in. It was the art, drama, theater, athleticism and learning to speak with the body. Words are not necessary in ballet.

"My first ballet recital was "Cinderella.' I remember the event so clearly. The production was a little world unto itself, made up of the theater, the costumes, the makeup, the footlights. My costume was beautiful. I thought that I was so important that everyone was there just to watch me. Of course, they were not; they were watching their own children."

At 14, she performed the "Bluebird Pas de Deux" from "Sleeping Beauty," and then her studies hit a snag. "My family could not continue to afford my ballet lessons; and I began demonstrating for the children's classes to help pay for my ongoing training. Where there is a will, there is a way. I began teaching at age 17. It was a wonderful learning experience.

"My own ballet teacher, Constance Hardinge, was so well versed in ballet terminology, dance history, classical music and the art of acting with the body that I absorbed every ounce of it. I began to discover that ballet was not just found in the studio or on a stage; inspiration was everywhere. I loved sharing my love of dance with the students, and I strived to help them feel what I felt ... something I still do to this day."

Cole-Roberts danced every time she got a chance, she even choreographed a pas de deux jive to perform at school assemblies and original choreography for "Heat Wave" for her junior prom.

In 1961, everyone but Cole-Roberts thought she'd performed her swan song. "I had gotten married the previous summer and was five months pregnant with my first child. I proved them all wrong. Just six weeks after my son, Jason, was born, I was back in class. You can take the girl out of dance, but you can't take the dance out of the girl," she says.

The next year, she went to New York City for the first time. "I went straight to the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. And why not, after all the Ballet Russe was, in part, responsible for bringing ballet and the Russian style and technique to this new and wild country. That is where my teacher received her training, as did many who went on to further develop their careers. That was also the year that I studied with Matt Mattox. I had seen Mr. Mattox in the movie "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,' and when I found that he had his own jazz school in NYC, I just had to study with him. The school administrator was not going to allow me into class, but I talked my way in by saying, "I will dance in the back, and if I cause too much concern or cannot keep up, just give me a nod, and I will leave class.' Well, I got to stay in class, and I even moved to the front line."

Each summer, Cole-Roberts went back to New York to study. She studied at the prestigious Alvin Ailey School, with Robert Joffrey, and Luigi who asked her to join his company. "I considered the offer but eventually decided that I could do more for my little family and contribute to the art of dance by bringing all that I had learned back home with me. I am still in that never-ending learning process," she says.

Her career has been filled with fabulous roles, rave reviews and her family. Her daughter, Deirdre, is also a dancer and in the 1970s danced the role of Clara with her mother in the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Cole-Roberts says that was "a highlight of my career. There were tears in everyone's eyes during our first rehearsal together. My son, Jason, would have none of the on-stage glory but did start working backstage building scenery and touching up backdrops. He is quite the artist and could draw in five minutes what it would take me hours. It's been quite the family affair.

"She helped Hardinge form the dance department at Virginia Intermont College and taught ballet, classical variations, point, partnering, modern dance and jazz there for 17 years. She also taught at Emory & Henry College and schools in Abingdon, Marion and Chilhowie.

She left VI in 1986 and in 1993 purchased a small studio at The Arts Depot in Abingdon, Virginia. Three years later, it had grown to the point that she had to move to her Lee Highway location. She and her daughter are the teachers, as well as the secretaries, administrators, counselors and janitors.

"I suppose that I don't think about challenges, per se. They are just little bumps in the road to rise above and to solve. I was a math and science major in school, and I loved it. Solving challenges is just what you do."

Between leaving VI and purchasing The Highlands Center for Ballet Arts, she was diagnosed with an eye affliction called histoplasmosis. "I have lost all of my central vision and have not been able to drive since 2005. It has been a gradual process, so I have had time to adjust. There is no cure, just injections in the eye every six to eight weeks to hopefully control it. I tell my students, "I may not necessarily recognize who you are, but I know what you are doing wrong.'

"Some would consider this a challenge, but it is just another little bump, a challenge to be solved. I do believe that my ballet/dance training has enabled me to cope very well. Dancers through their training learn to be astutely aware of their surroundings and are taught to judge the space that they are in. It becomes one of the senses. I do have my peripheral vision and am constantly using that awareness of the space in my surroundings. I am very fortunate."

She's also looking forward to the future. She's working on a new ballet, "Sleeping Beauty ... The Spell" that debuts Mother's Day weekend. She has other new productions in mind, one of which involves live music and "the vocalization that only Lindsey Blackwell (local musician) can contribute."

"My belief is as the arts inspire creativity in each of us individually; they breathe life into our communities. There is art in each of us; our very lives are works of art. Each of us has the potential to touch the future through who we are and through the values and beliefs that we model.

"I am flattered to be one of the five recipients of the AAME Arts Achievement Award. It is surreal. How did this happen? I am still pinching myself to see if I wake up. Hopefully this award will, in some way, help to encourage young dancers and validate their studies in the art of dance. If that happens I will feel so very proud and happy."

Cole-Roberts' life and talent and positive approach to obstacles are an inspiration.

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Deanna Cole-Roberts talks with her students before a performance.