Raising The Barre For 35 Years 

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Three students at the barre of the original GNSD studio in the 1980s
Three students at the barre of the original GNSD studio in the 1980s

The Great Neck School of Dance has been training high-level ballet dancers in Great Neck for three-and-a-half decades. In fact, the school recently celebrated its 35th anniversary, and as the new term begins, looks forward to another exciting season.

“Our proudest accomplishments have been training two generations in classical ballet—two generations of young women who have become more intelligent, graceful, beautiful, athletic and disciplined, due to the study of one of the great classical arts,” said Roberta Senn, the founder and director of the school.

An early performance
An early performance

At The Great Neck School of Dance, children have had the unique opportunity to dance full-length, classical ballets alongside professionals from its ballet company, the American Ballet Russe.

Waltz of the Flowers from Nutcracker featuring Roberta Senn and Osamu Uehara with GNSD students in 1990
Waltz of the Flowers from Nutcracker featuring Roberta Senn and Osamu Uehara with GNSD students in 1990

“Some of our celebrated graduates include Sarah Hughes, the 2002 Olympic Gold Medalist, who studied at The Great Neck School of Dance for 11 years; Ashley Hod, who’s just 21 years old and dancing principal roles at the New York City Ballet; Olympian Emily Hughes, who studied at The Great Neck School of Dance for 8 years; Isabella de Vivo, who’s currently dancing solos with the San Francisco Ballet, and countless others who appreciated the value of classical training,” said Senn.

Roberta Senn, Osamu Uehara and Mark Diminno performing with GNSD students in the finale of Don Quixote in 1999
Roberta Senn, Osamu Uehara and Mark Diminno performing with GNSD students in the finale of Don Quixote in 1999

“There’s nothing more beautiful than ballet,” she continued. “It trains the mind, the body and the spirit. It’s everything you want your child to learn. It’s challenging and teaches concentration, discipline, coordination, flexibility and strength. I love dancers because they’re always striving for perfection.”

Students dancing the Garden of Flowers from Le Corsaire in 2001
Students dancing the Garden of Flowers from Le Corsaire in 2001

After moving to New York from Chicago as a young woman, Senn, whose grandma came from a small town in Russia, showed up at a Broadway audition for the original Fiddler on the Roof with her hair in braids, wearing a full yellow skirt and red Russian boots. In a sea of 500 dancers in leotards and fishnet stockings, Senn was handpicked by Jerome Robbins. The famed choreographer, director, dancer and theater producer pulled her aside and said she was in. Senn left the production after a year, because she wanted to dance in a company. At the time, she had no idea that decades later the musical would remain a classic, which, ironically, is currently being produced on Broadway by Catherine Schreiber and costars Adam Kantor, both of Great Neck.

The dancers from Raymonda in 2002 (clockwise from top left): Madeleine Klein, Marcia Kresge, Roberta Senn, Momchil Mladenov, Thomas Smusz, Leslie Aiuto, Lauren Carahalios, Laurel B., Kristina Mosco and Moira McDermott
The dancers from Raymonda in 2002 (clockwise from top left): Madeleine Klein, Marcia Kresge, Roberta Senn, Momchil Mladenov, Thomas Smusz, Leslie Aiuto, Lauren Carahalios, Laurel B., Kristina Mosco and Moira McDermott

Senn wound up dancing throughout Europe, including for the Shah of Iran in the Iranian National Ballet and in the Israeli National Ballet. “The dance company was so poor in Israel that we were dancing for the soldiers in the desert on tables as a makeshift stage,” recalled Senn. “I decided it was time to come home and people I met in Israel told me to move to Great Neck. I had never been to Great Neck before.”

Following their advice, Senn moved to Great Neck and then opened her ballet studio here. Traditionally, dance schools open in September, but Senn decided to open The Great Neck School of Dance on April 27, 1981.

The cast of Sleeping Beauty in 2004
The cast of Sleeping Beauty in 2004

“To my surprise, 500 students showed up the first week,” recalled Senn. “We were located in a basement at 213 Middle Neck Rd., which used to flood every time it rained. I would cry and, one day, a loyal friend, supporter and lawyer, Jeff Peck, found us a new location in the Courtyard at 770 Middle Neck Rd., where we remain today.”

According to Senn, the early years were comprised of skill building and beginning performances, which were mainly held at Great Neck South High School, as well as at Steppingstone and Grace Avenue Parks, nursing homes, the senior center and every school in Great Neck. “My teachers came from all over and included Great Neck residents like Shelley Hoffman,” said Senn. “Those days were a different scene in Great Neck. Everyone ate huge $20 dinner salads and every little girl took classic ballet.”

Raymonda performers in 2009 (clockwise from front left): Cassie Wang, Nina Remy, Kyoko Suenaga, Roberta Senn, Chie Tsukamoto, Raul Peinado, Mayumi Asada, Stephanie Gottlieb and Polina Pittell
Raymonda performers in 2009 (clockwise from front left): Cassie Wang, Nina Remy, Kyoko Suenaga, Roberta Senn, Chie Tsukamoto, Raul Peinado, Mayumi Asada, Stephanie Gottlieb and Polina Pittell

In 1991, The Great Neck School of Dance founded its professional ballet company, the American Ballet Russe. “At that time, our longtime teacher and choreographer, Osamu Uehara, joined our staff and, with his help, we began to perform full-length ballets,” noted Senn. “In the course of 35 years, we have performed every classical ballet in the repertoire—much more than once—including our 35th-anniversary performance of La Bayadere at the Landmark Theater on June 11.”

Senn refers to the following years as the Sarah and Emily Hughes years and the Ashley Hod and Isabella de Vivo years. “One of my proudest accomplishments might be what just happened a couple of weeks ago,” beamed Senn. “My student Ashley Hod, who is now in the New York City Ballet, just made her debut dancing the principal role of Odette/Odile in Swan Lake. This role is rarely given to dancers under the age of 30, so this is unheard of and incredible.”

Another beautiful performance (Photo by Timelessme.com)
Another beautiful performance (Photo by Timelessme.com)

Throughout the past 10 years, Great Neck School of Dance has continued to develop. “Performances have gotten bigger and better with more professionals dancing with children,” said Senn. “We even did an original ballet of Alice in Wonderland. We have also started training the next generation of dancers, the children of my previous students.”

Star pupil Ashley Hod as Dewdrop in the Nutcracker last winter
Star pupil Ashley Hod as Dewdrop in the Nutcracker last winter

The school’s original ballet exercises for adults have become the popular Ballet Body Barre. “I was probably the first dancer to do ballet barre as a fitness class,” said Senn. “Barre classes have now become the rage, but mine are still the only ones to teach the real, authentic ballet barre as a workout. Last year, we opened a sister school in Manhattan, where we continue to teach children, but our Ballet Body Barre classes have become very popular.”

The Fan Dance Ending from a 2016 performance of La Bayadere (Photo by Michael Ezra/Timelessme.com)
The Fan Dance Ending from a 2016 performance of La Bayadere (Photo by Michael Ezra/Timelessme.com)

The dance school director said that many of her adult students are still with her today, and include Great Neck residents Joanne Fichera, Elaine Markowitz and Judy Levin.

“Everyone who knows me knows that I am a complete ballet fanatic devoted to my art and the highest level of classical training, which I hope to continue in my beloved home of Great Neck for many years to come,” said Senn.

Happy Anniversary, Great Neck School of Dance! For more information, visit www.gnschoolofdance.com or call 516-466-3515.

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Sheri ArbitalJacoby brings more than three decades of publishing experience at national magazines to her position as editor of the Great Neck Record. She also writes decorating, travel, food and green articles for Long Island Weekly and Anton Media Group's special sections.

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