Young Battery Park woman makes ballet accessible


By Abby LaTour

In the world where Manhattan, the performing arts and parenting meet, competition is not unknown and high income usually matters. But at least one participant has chosen a different path: ballet dancer Elizabeth Fernandez gives lessons to children, taking donations as payment.

At a typical lesson in Battery Park City, where she set up her ballet school last year, Fernandez concentrates on teaching a group of three-year-olds first and second position. Envelopes and information about suggested donations lay next to a box on a nearby table. Parents drop their checks inside. Those who can afford to make donations are treated the same way as those who can’t. Her idea is to make ballet accessible to children of all socio-economic backgrounds.

“Dance a lot of times can be about money – about how much people pay for lessons and costumes. There have been moments when I thought about going into a regular tuition program, but it felt wrong for us. We do have situations where some of our parents have trouble coming to lessons because of the cost of the subway fares,” Fernandez said.

Since relocating to lower Manhattan in May 2002, Fernandez’s New American Youth Ballet has grown to nearly 100 students. Another factor setting her school apart is its focus on stage performances: Twice a year, all pupils, even the youngest, aged two, are invited to participate in a classical ballet, like the upcoming “Nutcracker Celebration” at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center. Fernandez supplies ballet costumes free of charge, which are designed by her mother, Bonnie, who works as a full-time administrator for the school, runs its business aspects, and acts as her daughter’s manager.

“It’s rare for children as young as two to be able to perform. It’s a nice way for children to grow up – hearing music and being a part of the classics. Technique classes are a foundation and you have to do them to perfect the craft, but kids work harder when they have a production to look forward to. A performance brings everyone together in a positive way,” Fernandez said.

As a performer Fernandez has played many roles, but now that she runs her own school, she plays many more: director, choreographer, producer, fundraiser, administrator, and ballerina — and is adept at all of them. At 23, Fernandez has the grace and poise of a woman twice her age.

Between classes she will be choreographing a scene for an upcoming performance or writing words to a song to use for a ballet lesson. When schedules allow, she’s studying with her teacher, Eva Evdokimova. Between classes and on weekends she is networking and fundraising for her ballet school. She also performs leading roles in her school’s productions. She loves her job but admits she has preferences among the many hats she wears.

“I like the process of experimenting with choreography in the studio and of course I like performing – I’d like to continue doing that as long as possible,” said Fernandez. “The kids bring a lot of joy to my job. Some days I wonder how I’m going to get it all together or have a show. The kids aren’t bogged down as much with reality. They see a goal without the obstacles.”

Fernandez, who was homeschooled growing up in Binghamtom, New York, took her first ballet lessons at age 8. In her early teens she left the ballet school where she was studying to start her own school.

Not all of her early experience with ballet has been positive.

“I loved dance but not all the politics that came with it. I began a school with a different set of rules for kids who wanted the same things I wanted.”

Fernandez previously taught lessons at the Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center and at the International Ballet Dance Studio at Carnegie Hall.

She relocated to lower Manhattan from midtown after September 11, partly as a gesture to promote emotional healing for the area.

“We’ve taught in many places in New York City and no place felt as much like a community as Battery Park. The school really blossomed here. I want the program to continue to be a gift to the neighborhood. Some people don’t like to express their feelings verbally and dance can be a good form to work things through.”

Fernandez believes ballet is beneficial to children due the physical and mental discipline it imposes, not the least because it keeps them from sitting in front of a television after school.

“It’s like a sport set to music. There are incredibly challenging steps. Ballet can take a period of years to develop, but the inner discipline it provides is important for many aspects of life. Ballet is a key foundation – like what piano is for a musician.”

While it may appear as if Fernandez has accomplished her life’s goal, she still has many aspirations. One is to expand her downtown program to include music education and ballet history. Another is to have a permanent home for her dance school.

“I would love to have barres on the wall and to be able to hang up my hat,” she said. She currently gives lessons at The Soundings, 280 Rector Place in Battery Park City, and sometimes in her home, which is also on Rector.

As a performer, her favorite role is playing Odile, the black swan, in Swan Lake.

“She’s a very aggressive kind of character. Technically it allows me to show off all my years of training and the music is gorgeous. I wouldn’t want to be that way in real life but it’s a fun, different character and there aren’t that many juicy parts like that in ballet.”

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