Indie Awards: Passion becomes a livelihood

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Winner: Big Leap

Sponsored by: Ingenex Digital Marketing

Russian Ballet Theatre School

Owner: Kathy Scharp

Founded: 2010

Full-time employees: 1

Website: russianballettheatreschool.com

Kathy Scharp, with her Syllabus IIA, 10-13-year-old class | Photo by Benjamin Weatherston

Kathy Scharp, with her Syllabus IIA, 10-13-year-old class | Photo by Benjamin Weatherston

Kathy Scharp is living proof that necessity is the mother of invention.

She worked in sales in the late ’00s, in media and real estate, when the economy was laying waste to lots of jobs. Including Scharp’s. “I kept getting downsized,” she said, “like it was a sign.”

She remembers thinking, “OK, no one wants to hire you. You have no income, no savings, not even any interviews!”

Facing limited prospects, she decided to follow her passion and teach ballet. “As afraid as I was to fail at the one thing I treasured so deeply —the demanding, elusive yet soulful art of ballet —I felt somewhere deep down that if I held it in such high regard surely I could inspire others to discover their love of it as well.”

She rented a space and went in search of students. She taught her first class on Aug. 28, 2010, and before long had about a dozen students. By February 2013 she was teaching five days a week to about 70 students, and she was confident enough in July 2013 to sign a lease for a studio in Depot Town, Ypsilanti. She currently has about 80 students, about half of whom are adults. “We have become quite the spot for adults who dreamed of learning ballet as youngsters, but were not given the chance,” Scharp said.

“I work so many more hours than I used to, but I love it so much more,” she said. “Even when I was struggling I said I wished I’d started this sooner.”

It’s not like the ballet world was new to Scharp. She grew up dancing, studying with Marjorie Randazzo. Scharp’s mother, Carol Radovich, opened a ballet studio when Scharp was 17 —the CAS Ballet Theatre School in Ann Arbor —and she spent 30 years teaching ballet off and on for her mom.

But she was still wary of opening a ballet school in a distressed economy, with no business training and very little money. And in Ypsilanti?

One of her goals, Scharp said, is to make ballet available to everyone. “It’s rewarding to teach people who’ve never had it. Ballet can be full of elitism and snobbery. Making it accessible is part of my mission statement.”

And it’s not like she’s teaching a watered-down version of the demanding dance form. She teaches only classical ballet training in the Russian Vaganova style. “It’s very disciplined, very expressive, strengthening, with a lot of head and arm movements. It takes a long, long time to get good at it,” she said. “But the Kirov-trained dancers just take your breath away.”

Her style is appreciated. Julie Sheere drives her two daughters to Ypsi from Canton to study with Scharp. “This is our third studio and this is the best one so far,” Sheere said, adding that her children “adore Kathy, the technique, the ambiance. This is the first place I’ve gone where I’m not dragging them to class.”

Ela Hammond, another mother of a student and veteran of two other studios, said, “The Russian ballet form is beautiful. My daughter wanted to go on pointe (the classic technique of dancing on your toes) when she was 10 and Kathy allowed that. I like how she evaluates each kid and puts them where they belong, so it’s kind of personalized. And her recital was great, so much better than any recital I’ve been to.”

Scharp said, “We have high hopes at Russian Ballet Theatre School to be more than just a ballet school. But if that is how we are seen, it will suffice. I like to think of our school as an extended ballet family for all students who study here. … Among our intentions are to include more of the members of our community —by offering outreach programs, financial scholarships, demonstrations and even mini-performances to others with less access to art and its natural ability to uplift and inspire.”

Kyle Poplin

Kyle Poplin is co-founder and editor of The Ann magazine.