FRONT ROYAL, Virginia—“Some of the most amazing dancers in the world came out of a barn,” professional ballet instructor Karen Eriksson-Lee says.
The barn to which she refers belonged to Marcia Dale Weary (1936–2019) and was the original dance studio for what is now the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet.
When Weary died this past March, there was an outpouring of affectionate tributes in the press to her teaching talent and artistry. The New York Times describes her as “a dance teacher whose school in rural Pennsylvania trained a number of prominent ballet dancers and helped populate the ranks of many major companies.” In Dance Magazine, Julie Diana Hench praises Weary not only for her skills as a teacher, but also for the other life skills she sought to impart to her students: the ability to focus, generosity, and self-discipline.
Barn Babies Learn Ballet
In 1955, Weary opened her ballet school in the barn she owned near Carlisle, Pennsylvania. As word of her skill as a teacher spread, students began driving long distances to attend her sessions. Eventually, some parents even rented or bought homes in the area so that their children could be “barn babies.”
For 30 years, Karen Eriksson-Lee studied and worked with Weary. After graduating from Shenandoah Conservatory, now Shenandoah University, with a major in dance and a minor in psychology, Eriksson-Lee continued to dance at the barn school. She also enrolled her three children in Weary’s classes, driving from Front Royal, Virginia, up to Pennsylvania. Like others, she and the children moved to Carlisle, and eventually Weary asked Eriksson-Lee to join her faculty.
She describes Weary as being old-fashioned. “Marcia (pronounced Mar See Ah) cared a great deal about preserving the innocence of the children, and made sure their dance costumes were modest and youthful.” Like so many of the writers of the online tributes and obituaries, Eriksson-Lee says the school was like a family. Her oldest daughter, Natassia, was 7 when she enrolled, followed by Alexander and Marlene. “There was something magical in that barn,” Eriksson-Lee says. “The kids would dance and then picnic in the garden, swim in the pool outside, or play games like hide-and-seek.”
A Teacher’s Gifts
In describing why Weary excelled as a teacher, drawing students from across the country and from abroad, Eriksson-Lee attributed it to her practice of “breaking it down,” her rigorous standards, her demands for excellence, and her love for her students.
“Breaking it down” means teaching ballet in tiny increments. “Most teachers teach steps,” Eriksson-Lee says, “but Marcia taught how to do the steps. It was a graded, incremental technique.” No student, she says, went to the next level without absolutely mastering the steps of the current level. “And no dancer who ever worked with Marcia went out into the world without knowing technique and feeling absolutely confident.”
Weary had high expectations for her students, even the little ones, and was a disciplinarian of dance. “Some people called her school the ‘boot camp of ballet,’” Eriksson-Lee says with a laugh. “She was a tiny lady with a very big presence. You did not want to be on her bad side. You wanted to please her and follow her directions. You wanted to stay in her good graces and wanted her to be proud of you.”
Many instructors, Eriksson-Lee says, don’t want to teach ballet to very young students, but this is another area where Weary excelled. “If you want to have floors that are shiny and beautiful and sparkling,” she says, “you clean them the old-fashioned way, on your hands and knees. And that is what Marcia did with children. Sometimes she’d spend hours a day on her hands and knees with the little ones, breaking down a step, teaching them hands-on how to move.”
Passing the Legacy Forward
Although Eriksson-Lee works for the Seton Home Study School in Front Royal, she continues to teach dance. She and Anastasia “Annie” Kubanda, who also studied at the barn, operate the Northern Virginia Academy of Ballet.
Kubanda began studying with Marcia Weary when she was 8, and stayed in the program until she was 15. From there, she went to the San Francisco Ballet School, danced with that company, and later joined the Alabama Ballet. During her auditions, several judges impressed by her technique and competence asked her if she had studied with Weary.
Like Eriksson-Lee, Kubanda has the deepest respect for Weary. “She was a very traditional woman. Old-fashioned in every way. She’d notice all sorts of things about her students. I remember when I was little, I had a green plaid dress that I loved to wear. Marcia liked it because it was traditional, and told me ‘Never stop dressing that way.’ Students weren’t allowed to chew gum, and she corrected anyone who used the Lord’s name in vain. ‘How would you feel if I used your name as a swear word?’ she would say.”
Kubanda points out that Weary also taught her students optimism. “She told us all the time, ‘What do you say if someone asks you if you can do a fouette?’ You say, ‘No, but I’m working on it.’”
“No one can be Marcia,” Eriksson-Lee says, but like so many others who studied with Weary over the years, she and Kubanda are passing on their mentor’s techniques and passion for music and dance to a new generation of ballet students.
Today the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet has 95 staff members, 300 academic year students, and more than 600 dancers who enroll in the summer program. In addition to teaching dancers, Weary helped train many other teachers, choreographers, and administrators.
As Julie Hench writes: “Weary made dreams come true. She touched the lives of countless people and will remain in our hearts as future generations of dancers grow and blossom through her legacy.”
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.