Monday, December 1, 2008

Ballet teacher celebrates 30th year in Roswell

Can it possibly be 30 years since Nancy Tolbert-Yilmaz, just a 20-year-old dancer ready to stretch her wings and fly, was approached by three of the cultural leaders of the community, Maurice Hilliard, Frances Magahee and Emily Dolvin, to start giving dance classes to the youngsters of Roswell?

"No it doesn't seem like it's been 30 years," said Tolbert-Yilmaz. "When I was a kid, there were no dance studios, no classes at Parks and Rec. The only thing we had was Marion Springer, who would come in at the Sun Valley Bowling Alley and teach all of us tap, ballet and tumbling."

By this time Tolbert-Yilmaz had already danced professionally at the Southern Ballet, on television and at Disney World. But she would be getting married soon, and the idea of teaching dance appealed to her.

She had a house on Canton Street in Roswell she had bought as an investment, now it was to become her dance studio. She put the word out that she would be giving dance lessons, and on the appointed day, she came down to open the doors.

"I was so surprised, we had about 350 kids there to sign up," Tolbert-Yilmaz said. "That was the day I learned what people meant when they say be careful what you ask for."

Fortunately, she had a good friend and dancer, Mary Lynn Taylor, she immediately called in to help out.

"I told her I needed someone to take turns answering the phone and teaching lessons," Tolbert-Yilmaz said.

Taylor never left. Today she is the associate director of the Tolbert –Yilmaz School of Dance. They also operate the non-profit Roswell Dance Theatre Inc., which they founded in 1985 to house the resident performing company of the Tolbert-Yilmaz School of Dance.

Tolbert-Yilmaz trained extensively in ballet, tap and jazz, studying most notably with Robert Joffrey of the Joffrey Ballet New York. She appeared on many stages in her career, including to a worldwide audience at the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics as a featured performer.

She has been on stage with Celine Dion, Gladys Knight and Gloria Estefan, as well as with Donnie and Marie Osmond, Peggy Flemming and Tina Turner.

But it is the accomplishments of her students that really make her eyes light up.

"I have two dancers on Broadway right now, several are in dance companies and Sean Steigerwald is on full scholarship at the North Carolina School of the Arts," she said. "That is what gives me satisfaction – seeing the accomplishments of my dancers, making a living and doing what they love to do."

She also noted with a mother's pride that her daughter Elizabeth just graduated from Marymount Manhattan College in New York and will be dancing with a ballet company this spring.

Another pupil, Ansley Van Epps, stars in the Disney World production as Ariel in "The Little Mermaid."

"We start teaching them when they are 3 or 4 years old. They really are all like my own kids. The hardest part is when they do graduate. But then, I've had some come back to teach," she said.

Brandon and Whitney Suave met at the Dance Studio and got married one afternoon onstage between performances of "The Nutcracker." Now they both teach at the School of Dance and their baby has a role in this year's "Nutcracker" production.

No wonder it seems like one big family.

The performing company has been all over the world – England, Spain, Australia twice, New Zealand, Hawaii and Los Angeles. This year the Dance Theatre company performed at the Orange Bowl with ZZ Top. In 2004 they performed at the Tanzsummer Festival in Europe.

Tolbert-Yilmaz has managed to pack a lot into those 30 years, but it is the little moments she remembers best.

"One day one of my little dancers came up to me and said, 'This is my happy place.' I told her this is my happy place too," Tolbert-Yilmaz said.

But goodness, how the family has grown. Today there are 19 teachers with more than 850 students enrolled, from toddlers to advanced professional classes.

Tolbert-Yilmaz has had other offers over the years, but she says she is fourth-generation Roswell and there is no place she would rather be.

"I love what I do," she said. "The only job I've ever had is to dance. I'll retire when they carry me out toes first."

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