By Laura Jackson Roberts
Once again, it’s The Nutcracker season at Oglebay Institute. Everyone knows the show, the music, and every year little girls wonder what it feels like to put on a dancer’s shoes and step into the role of a sugar plum fairy. But most of us, myself included, never pass the point of wistful imagination. It’s a fantasy we have, for a moment, as children.
At Oglebay Institute’s School of Dance, it’s not a fantasy. A group of talented young dancers annually perform the iconic ballet for the holiday season. And while I could write about the magic of the show, and the beautiful costumes, I’d rather write about the work that it takes to be a dancer, the road that isn’t easy or glamorous.
OI will present The Nutcracker at the Mansion Museum and Towngate Theater this Christmas season, and two esteemed program grads will return for the December 26th and 27th performances: Michael Morris of WVU and Kalista “J’lyse” Kafana of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater School.
I met J’lyse when she was seven years old. My son, Andy, was two, and he adored her. What I didn’t know at the time was that J’lyse was already well on her way to becoming a serious dancer. Cheryl Pompeo, director of Oglebay Institute’s School of Dance, remembers J’lyse as a toddler. “When she was little, we didn’t take babies here. Ballet didn’t start until you were six. But she wanted to dance.” Pompeo gave J’lyse a small part in a performance, and since that day, J’lyse’s feet haven’t left the dance floor.
She danced at Oglebay Institute for years, and at age 14 was accepted into PBT’s Pre-Professional Division, a rare honor. The current OI dance students all know J’lyse, and not just because her mother, Miss Kim, teaches there. They know her story. She’s living proof that they too can reach for their dreams. I asked J’lyse about her journey from the Ohio Valley to the elite Pittsburgh dance school. “It doesn’t feel like I’ve changed,” she tells me. Indeed, she seems like the same young girl who used to babysit my kids, who gave them horsey rides and taught them handstands.
If she’s living her dream, her success nevertheless comes with conditions. “Most people my age want to have a normal high school life. I guess that’s the hardest part about it—being cyber-schooled, and you don’t really get to go out with your friends a lot because you’re in the studio a ton. But I love it, so it really doesn’t matter.”
Pompeo conveys to me just how intense J’lyse’s journey has been. “You have to have the drive. You have to have the love in your heart. You can’t be sick. You can’t take [just] an hour class…it’s an every-day commitment.” A young dancer’s life is also inextricably tied to the efforts of his or her parents. “Do you want to drive her to Pittsburgh, or Columbus, or Cleveland every day? It’s hard,” Pompeo says. J’lyse’s parents drive her to and from Pittsburgh every day, putting over 100,000 miles on their car per year.
“I have lucky parents,” she quips.
Pompeo adds, “It’s like the Olympics. But to say that you dance with the Pittsburgh Ballet? To say that you’re in the corps? It’s worth every cent. It’s worth every blister, every drop of blood, sweat, and tear.”
J’lyse has paved the way for other young dancers, and they want to follow in her footsteps. The little girls look up to her, and she can relate to that, recalling how she used to look up to her Nutcracker partner, Michael Morris. Now she’ll share the stage with him this Christmas.
Pompeo realizes that Wheeling is a small town, but she knows how strong OI’s dance program is. More importantly, she believes that her students are learning what’s really important, and building a foundation here, while also encouraging them to spread their wings when the time comes. “We can only take you so far. Our all-star dancers [must] go and make a life for themselves. You’re not going to leave Wheeling, West Virginia and go to New York City. There’s got to be stepping stones along the way and we try to guide them there. Our kids are talented. But they also know that OI has their back, and we give them all the support they need to get to the next level. And I think that’s a plus on our side.”
Mr. Jay smiles at his daughter. “Oglebay Institute was the foundation. The stepping stone. You never forget where you came from. If it wasn’t for Miss Cheryl, and Miss Kristen, and Miss Kathleen and all of the teachers over the years that she’s been here” (“And my mom!” J’lyse interjects) “she wouldn’t be where she is. We couldn’t be more appreciative. This is where it all started for her.”
Pompeo looks at J’lyse. “To know that two of your own did it? That’s cool.”
So what can a parent expect when their young dancer lands a role in Oglebay Institute’s The Nutcracker? Parental involvement. It’s key. This show doesn’t just magically appear on the stage at the Mansion Museum or Towngate Theater. I live near the School of Dance; I see the cars parked at all hours, the parents carrying bags and shoes as their children wear a groove in the pavement to the door. I see lights on, late at night, as dancers continue to practice long after I’ve settled in for the evening. It’s a commitment, and Pompeo and her fellow instructors couldn’t put on the show without the help of the parents, who volunteer their time and efforts every year.
“We have eleven shows,” she says. “That’s a lot for young kids. It’s a lot to give up every weekend at Christmas. And both days after Christmas a lot of families don’t travel anymore because the kids have to dance.”
Miss Kim is volunteering at PBT the day I speak to J’lyse, as parents are expected to do. Mr. Jay routinely heads up a dad-squad, working on sets. He’s chauffeured guest instructors around town. In fact, he’s only seen J’lyse perform from the audience four times, because he’s always working backstage. It’s part of the deal, and he wouldn’t trade it for the world.
J’lyse is achieving her dreams, and she’s working harder than any 16-year-old I’ve ever met. She’s both humble about her achievements and excited about her future. “A dancer’s life is short,” she says. “You have to take every opportunity. You have to enjoy every moment.”
The School of Dance looks forward to sharing The Nutcracker with the Ohio Valley over the holiday season. Pompeo’s students may take J’lyse, and Michael Morris, as living proof that they can achieve their own success with the help of dedicated teachers and supportive parents.
“I don’t know that people realize the magnitude of the talent that has come through these doors,” Pompeo muses. “Here we are, in little old Wheeling.”
Oglebay Institute’s School of Dance presents “The Nutcracker” at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Sunday, December 20 at the Mansion Museum; 7 p.m. Saturday, December 26 at Towngate Theatre and 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday, December 27 at Towngate.. For tickets call 304-242-7700 or visit www.oionline.com.