by Stacia Friedman
Like many dance enthusiasts, Germantown resident Ellen Wert fell in love with ballet as a child. The big difference? Wert, 62, never stopped dancing.
At a time when her peers have long since hung up their pink satin slippers, Wert continues to perform en pointe in productions of Pages to Pirouettes, a local dance company. Wert describes the non-profit organization as a ballet caravan. “Our mission is to bring ballet into the community with performances in schools, libraries, museums and senior centers,” she said.
“I get to vamp around in my pointe shoes as the Mouse Queen in our ‘Nutcracker,’ wearing a pink fur tutu, and the evil fairy Carabosse in our ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ where I sweep on stage in black tulle,” said Wert with the glee of a teenager. “Our performances are very interactive: First, an actor reads the story to the audience. Then we dance it, followed by a brief ballet lesson for the audience. Then we give them an opportunity to talk with us and touch our costumes. Young and old, the audiences love it.”
Wert’s evolution as a ballerina was far from typical. “As a child, ballet lessons were not in the family budget. My first class was at a YM/YWCA in Allentown,” said Wert, who eventually joined a gymnastics club at the Y “because it included free ballet lessons.”
However, Wert didn’t really get on her toes until she was 21. “I took some amazing ballet classes when I was majoring in English at Temple University, but the pointe classes were only for dance majors.” Luckily, a teacher from Temple, Mary DeSanto Rose, formed a class for a small group of interested adult students off-campus in West Philadelphia.
After earning her PhD and embarking on a career as a university instructor, Wert had a transformative experience. “At 26 I walked into a ballet class and encountered a woman exactly twice my age whom I initially dismissed as ‘ancient.’ But as soon as she started to dance — en pointe — I was in awe.” Then the 52-year-old ballerina told Wert, “I am going to dance as long as I can.”
That classmate gave Wert a role model, even when “life” got in the way. Following her teaching career, she served as a program officer for education at The Pew Charitable Trust for 13 years. Currently, she’s still actively engaged in freelance writing and editing for non-profits and academic publishers.
When her husband retired from his career as a physics professor and embarked upon a four-year study of classical drawing and painting in Florence, Italy, Wert studied ballet there, even though she didn’t speak the language.
“I already knew the language of ballet, which is in French,” said Wert, who recalls the pleasure of dancing with people of all cultures and ages in Florence, including an eight-year old boy. “I performed in school recitals and even passed two years of ballet exams.”
When she returned from Italy, Wert started taking ballet classes at Wissahickon Dance Academy in Germantown, which offers adult classes three mornings per week. There, she met two dancers who greatly broadened her dance horizons.
“In 2011, Nancy Malmed, who runs Wissahickon Dance Academy, invited me to serve on the board of International Ballet Exchange (IBE). Soon after that, Susan Cade, artistic director of Pages to Pirouettes, who also takes classes at Wissahickon, needed a stepmother for a production of ‘Cinderella.’” Wert stepped into the role and Cade soon invited her to join the company.
While both organizations seek to make ballet accessible, they operate quite differently. “IBE offers a full year of ballet instruction to inner-city youth at Blaine Elementary School in North Philadelphia and George Washington High School in the Northeast. Students study with an IBE master teacher like Elena Tiuriakulova, a Kirov-trained former principal ballerina,” said Wert.
Each December IBE brings a fully staged production of the ‘Nutcracker’ to George Washington High School for schoolchildren from throughout the district. “It is performed by the world-class Donetsk Ballet on its annual U.S. tour and by local students drawn through IBE’s open audition,” said Wert. “Each spring, IBE presents a story ballet cast with local guest professionals, students from Wissahickon Dance Academy, and the students in the IBE ballet classes. These are not dress rehearsals; they are performances exclusively for the students. The program gives more than 3,000 city children exposure to ballet every year.”
Pages to Pirouettes, on the other hand, travels the region performing abridged versions of the great story ballets with a stripped-down cast of just a half-dozen dancers in full costume. “Both organizations are making ballet accessible to audiences that might not otherwise get to see it,” said Wert. “When we recently performed at Masonic Village in Lafayette Hill, two women in their late 80s confided in us that they had never seen a ballet before.”
If you’ve never seen a ballet before, consider attending IBE’s annual performance of the ‘Nutcracker’ at Plymouth-Whitemarsh High in December featuring the Donetsk Ballet of Ukraine. Or check out the ballet offerings for children and adults at Wissahickon Dance Academy. No experience necessary!
For more information, visit www.wissahickondance.com.