Raising the BarreWorld-Renowned Dancer Todd Allen Reflects On His Return to the Northwest Florida Ballet

By Lori Hutzler Eckert

To talk with Todd Allen about the art of dance is to be sure this man was born ready for the stage. But in truth, Allen did not find his way to the spotlight until he was a teenager, reluctantly trading his well-worn sneakers for ballet shoes.

Perhaps by accident, possibly by fate, and definitely by the design of some very gracious members of the Emerald Coast arts community, Allen’s introduction to dance – which he called “my ticket . . . an opportunity to get out into the world” – has been the stuff of which romantic ballet storylines are made.

Allen, who has served as artistic director for the Emerald Coast’s Northwest Florida Ballet for more than 10 years, is, as one would expect, lively and animated. Comfortably situated in the company’s bustling administrative offices, Allen shared the story of his unlikely path to becoming a professional dancer.


From Football Plays to Pliés

While growing up in Fort Walton Beach, Allen said he was infatuated with every possible sport, never considering dance until it was literally doctor’s orders.

After Allen tore his left hamstring during a middle-school football scrimmage, his doctor suggested physical therapy – a progressive prescription in the early 1980s, particularly for children with a sports injury. His doctor’s wife happened to be friends with Bernadette Clements Sims, founder of the Northwest Florida Ballet. Allen soon found himself at the ballet barre along with his sisters, stretching out and eventually rebuilding his strength.

Sims, who also became his teacher, encouraged Allen to take a small role as a villager in the company’s performance of “Giselle” in 1981.

“I just did a bit part,” Allen said, “but I heard the applause and fell in love with it. Standing there taking the bow, with all the people . . .  I remember the lights and all of that, and it was awesome,” he said.

But the thrill of his newfound passion was quickly dampened by the reaction of his peers. At 14 years old and with a reputation as a sports jock, Allen soon found that becoming a dancer was a certain invitation for cruel taunts and hurtful reactions by his classmates.

Allen said that by the beginning of 10th grade, “I considered trying to play again, or run track, but I decided I wanted to dance. It was just as hard physically, and I realized the guys I played football with were getting much bigger than me.” He added with a laugh, “I was sort of over football, and it didn’t hurt that there were about two or three guys in the dance school, and, you know . . . there were all these girls there!”


Jumping at the Chance

After dancing for a year, Allen performed at a regional dance festival. At the event, a representative from New York’s famed Joffrey Ballet Company selected Allen for a summer scholarship.

The opportunity was one that most young dancers dream of, but the trip would have been a financial strain on the family. So Sims introduced Allen to Sybil Smith Lebhertz, a board member and active arts patron in the area.

“(Smith) was just this great person,” Allen said. “She was fortunate to be well off, and she would help kids all over the place. She did it very silently; she didn’t make a big deal out of it.”

Shortly thereafter, with assistance from Lebhertz, 15-year-old Allen was on a bus headed to New York City.

“After that summer, I knew for sure that I wanted to dance – that was what I was going to do with no question,” he said.

But finding his passion was only half of the process of becoming a professional dancer. Serious training for dancers begins around age 8, and Allen knew he was six years behind his peers. Ever the sports-minded competitor, he set a goal to make up for the lost time by age 18. His drive was fueled by the fact that at the Joffrey Ballet School, students must show improvement to be invited back. Keeping his goal a top priority, Allen was invited back to the school for five consecutive summers.

After graduating from Fort Walton Beach High School, Allen still was intent on dance as his chosen career, but he said he wasn’t really ready yet: “I had the strength, but it wasn’t refined.”

Once again, his mentor, Sims, played a role in shaping Allen’s future. She used her connections in the dance world to introduce him to the director of the Bristol Ballet in Bristol, Va., which was associated with Virginia Intermont College. Allen soon was awarded a scholarship to the college, which had an acclaimed dance school.

Following graduation, Allen’s first professional job was with the Louisville Ballet, where he spent three years. He went on to accomplish another long-term goal by joining the prestigious Boston Ballet, where he danced with and learned from celebrated American contemporary choreographer Twyla Tharp.

He performed with the Boston company for five years. During that time, he married Shari Honer, a fellow college dance-school student. After leaving Boston, the couple moved to Montreal, where Allen danced with the Les Grands Ballets Canadiens.

While with the three companies, Allen experienced the quintessential life and career of a dancer. He performed at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington – once for President President Clinton  once for George H.W. Bush. Allen also toured Europe, where he was part of a gala performance at Madrid’s Royal Palace and performed in Glasnost Ballet.


Full Circle

In 1995, after performing with the Les Grands Ballets, the couple learned Shari was pregnant, and their focus shifted to creating a family. As the Allens contemplated their next step, Bernadette Clements Sims, whom Allen continues to credit as the steering force in his career, was waiting in the wings once again.

Sims was preparing to retire, and more than once, she asked Allen to consider coming back to the Northwest Florida Ballet in an administrative role.

“The first time, I said no – I couldn’t imagine it, because you spend most of your time trying to get away from your hometown when you are a kid,” Allen said. “We were thinking about moving to Europe or New York. The options were out there, but then we were thinking about our child.”

The Allens visited the Emerald Coast and discussed the opportunity with the ballet’s board.

“Shari and I talked about it a lot,” he said. “Bernadette did a lot of work here – she is a pioneer of dance in this area – and there was a good history and something to build on.”

While Allen spent time in his hometown, he remembered what it was like to be a child with the passion to dance.

“I started to see that I could have an impact here with the kids,” he said. “I knew that I could help those kids . . . and that is where we started.”

He joined the Northwest Florida Ballet as assistant artistic director, and Shari  handled the bookkeeping. Allen said Sims “pushed me out there”; after a year on staff, he was promoted to artistic director and Shari became assistant artistic director. Of that time, he said, “It was intense, very intense, in a good way. We didn’t have many resources, but we had a lot of people wanting to work and believing in us.”

Allen worked long hours growing the Northwest Florida Ballet, but he also found time to dance in some very high-profile performances. His accomplishments include appearing in “Ocean Dance 2000” with legendary dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and on Broadway in Twyla Tharp and Billy Joel’s Tony-winning “Movin’ Out” in 2004.

Over the past decade, Allen, along with Northwest Florida Ballet Executive Director Barbara Beck Lord, has helped to grow the ballet, now headquartered in an impressive multi-studio facility in Fort Walton Beach. The company has received regional attention for its talented dancers, its innovative seasons and the NFB Académie, a free academic and artistic program that is operated in association with the Okaloosa County School District.

Allen said he has no regrets about moving his family to his hometown and taking over the artistic direction of the Northwest Florida Ballet. He realizes, he says, that his ticket to the world was of the round-trip kind.

“I grew up here barefoot and on the beach,” Allen said. “I have enjoyed raising my son, Tristan, here. I want to live here, and I want a quality company and school. This area deserves it, and it can be done here.”