A Look Back on the Founding Moments of the Ballet School of Chapel Hill

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Ballet School of Chapel Hill
Summer camp students in the early 1980s at the school’s 229 S. Elliott Rd. location.

In 40 years, the Ballet School of Chapel Hill has seen more than its fair share of high buns and chiffon skirts. It has taught thousands of aspiring dancers of all ages – and still does, as is evident by the line of cars that snakes its way onto busy East Franklin Street every weekday. But the school is more than the lessons it teaches. It resembles a family, one that envelops all who pass through its doors. In honor of the school’s founding in 1980, we spoke to those who were there at the beginning:

In This Conversation

Gretchen Vickery founding partner
M’Liss Dorrance founding partner
Anita Lewis mother and grandmother of former students
Emily Ware Baldwin first enrolled student
Katie Wakeford partner and early student
Kate Pendergrass current student and mother of a student

GRETCHEN VICKERY M’Liss [Dorrance] and I had a relationship before the company started because she was the teacher of my two daughters, Katherine D’Urso and Jennifer Vickery, who were heavily into ballet

ANITA LEWIS M’Liss was one of the instructors with Barbara Bounds (at Bounds Dance Studio). I’m not sure if she was the youngest, but she was the most motivational and inspirational. 

GRETCHEN I got a call in the summer of 1980 from M’Liss saying, “I think I’ve decided to open my own company.” 

M’LISS DORRANCE My goals for teaching were different, and I felt like now was the time I had to [open my own studio]. 

GRETCHEN I hung up, and I told my husband what I had just heard from M’Liss. He said, “Well, call her back and offer to be her business partner!”

Founding partners M’Liss Dorrance, Carol Richard and Jennifer Potts in 1981
Founding partners M’Liss Dorrance, Carol Richard and Jennifer Potts in 1981.

ANITA We transferred our daughter to M’Liss’ school, the Ballet School, largely because of M’Liss. She truly was a professional who was able to connect well with not only the kids, but with parents.

EMILY WARE BALDWIN My mom really had a lot of respect for M’Liss. If my ballet journey was going to go anywhere, it was going to be with M’Liss.

GRETCHEN Back then, we needed a large space. We didn’t need the presence on the street that a business would normally cherish.

EMILY There were two studios, and then there was a [third] studio out back. But you kind of had to walk through the second studio out in the back of the parking lot to get to the little tiny studio. 

Ballet School of Chapel Hill brochure
The studio’s first brochure features students Charlotte Kirchgessner and Emily Ware Baldwin with M’Liss in a studio at Duke University.

KATIE WAKEFORD Gretchen had a small office behind the girls’ dressing room. And for whatever reason, who knows why, the dressing room and Gretchen’s office had the same light switch.

M’LISS Because we added that closet. It was not even big enough to call a closet. (laughs)

KATIE We would goof off in the dressing room and turn the lights off, forgetting that we were turning the lights off on Gretchen. And you would hear Gretchen’s door open and be like, “Oh no, we did it again!”

M’LISS How many students did we have? I think we had about 106, or something like that?

GRETCHEN If you counted the adults, it would be like 150 total population in the studio. About 100 or a little bit more of those were kids. The [first] recital was really a no-brainer because we’d been doing all of our recitals before, just not for our own studio.

M’LISS We wanted something really clean, cut. It was a student performance, not a recital, and I didn’t want a sequin in sight. Well, [these days], that’s gone out the window.

ballet performance

GRETCHEN The big crisis there was to see if we could get the Chapel Hill High School schedule for the theater. They had a beautiful theater they built, and it was quite in demand.

M’LISS Gretchen personally cut out 100 chiffon skirts and dyed them so that each class had their own separate color of camisole leotard and chiffon skirt and had little flowers to match in their hair.

KATIE I wasn’t in the very first student performance because I didn’t join until the second year of the studio but I remember it. I had come from more of a traditional studio with a lot of sequins and not very professional in its setup. I remember [the Ballet School] feeling just so professional.

GRETCHEN I remember putting Katie’s hair up in a bun before class. She’d come in to change and come out and I’d flip her hair into a bun. I was really good at that because I had two kids of my own with long hair.

KATIE My mom wasn’t very good at stuff like that. (laughs)

KATE PENDERGRASS I wasn’t a student until the early ’90s, but they definitely ran a tight ship with recitals. Like this is when certain classes were supposed to be, and they had little waiting areas, and you had to sit over here in this taped off area – you weren’t allowed to go anywhere.

KATIE I had to really get my hair and tights right, but we had so much fun. Some of the dancers at the studio from those days are still my dearest friends. You had a sense we were really striving for high-level training.

ANITA I should mention that I was so inspired that I enrolled myself in the adult classes in the evening.

EMILY On Monday and Wednesday nights, M’Liss taught the adult ballet class from 7:30-9 p.m., and my mom took that class.

KATE I’m still taking adult classes!

ANITA My funny kind of memory is when M’Liss was expecting her first child, Michelle. She was pretty far along, maybe nine months or close to. I came to class and nobody else came. We looked at each other, and M’Liss said, “You know what I’d love to do? I’d love to roll around on the floor and do some kind of stretches.” So both of us did that. (laughs)

EMILY Every now and then, Anson [Dorrance] would show up a little bit early to pick M’Liss up before the class was over, and he’d randomly come into the classroom. 

I remember him doing a little partnering thing with M’Liss, and of course, we all thought that was amazing and how fun that was because certainly that’s not his forte. It was neat to see that side of M’Liss when a lot of times she was very serious and expected so much out of us.

After more than a decade, the school eventually outgrew its space in Village Plaza Shopping Center and moved to its current location in 1992. 

Ballet School of Chapel Hill
The Ballet School of Chapel Hill moved to its new facilities and current home at 1603 E. Franklin St. in 1992.

M’LISS Gretchen was so hugely responsible for that. At some point, in one of our partner meetings, when it was just the four of us, I said “We’re never going to make money renting commercial space.”

GRETCHEN They were hiking the rent up a lot. I talked to a friend of mine who was a Realtor. She said, “I’ve got this perfect property for you to build on,” and that was my idea, that we wanted to build and own our own building because otherwise we were perennially going to be in this rent hiking situation. She took us to this lovely little ranch house, right near the corner of Elliott Road and Franklin Street.

ANITA [My] main thinking was I hope they can afford it or make it work because it was palatial.  

KATIE At the original dance studio, somebody… Gretchen? Built some boxes that the stereo sat on, and you could slide records into them because the teachers all taught using music on records. Well, when we moved to the new studio, those boxes came with us. Of course, the children don’t know what records are, but we fill those up with Kleenexes and hand sanitizer. They’re relics in our studio.

M’LISS I still use the CD player because I can’t get my mind around the phone. (laughs)

GRETCHEN Some things never change.

KATIE One of the amazing things now about the studio, and because [of] the 40th anniversary, we have moms who studied at the studio and now their children dance with us. So we’ve got generations of people.

KATE I definitely get déjà vu when I peer into the two-sided mirror and through the door and watch my 4-year-old daughter doing her leaps across the floor over the scarfs and all of those fun things. I remember doing that.

EMILY I’ve only been in the new location once or twice, and the last time was at the 25th anniversary. There was a performance at the high school and after that there was a reception at the new location. Michelle started chasing my daughter, Erica, who was probably 4 or 5. I used to babysit for Michelle and Natalie Dorrance a lot. It was kind of full circle, and I was like, “Oh my god, here we go. I’m going to get in trouble for this, too!”

M’LISS It’s really fun. Anita’s daughter, Tal, studied with us in the old studio, so did Tal’s daughters, who graduated a couple of years ago.

KATE It’s just a testament to what the founders were able to create and accomplish. It’s not just a place to come and learn ballet. It’s a community. It’s a place to connect with people who have similar interests. It’s a place to come be a part of something bigger. 

ANITA It’s the spirit of the school.

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Hannah Lee

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