Emerald Coast Talent

CORPS DE BALLET Todd Eric Allen and  Northwest Florida Ballet celebrate 40 years of dance  on the Emerald Coast. Photo by Scott Holstein
Emerald Coast TalentBallet Company Celebrates 40 Years of Dance at the Beach

By Joyce Owen

As a child growing up in Fort Walton Beach, Todd Eric Allen thought football was his sport. But in middle school, he tore a muscle during a football game. Through an incredible twist of fate, he recovered because of a doctor’s orders to take ballet lessons.

That football injury led Allen into a career as a dancer and, ultimately, to his job as artistic director and CEO of Northwest Florida Ballet, which is now celebrating its 40th anniversary.

Like his entry into the world of ballet, the story of how the Northwest Florida Ballet came to be in Fort Walton Beach is one that Allen loves to share. Not just because it is a good story, but also because the ballet and its founder made a profound difference in his life.

Although Bernadette Clements Sims, founder of the Northwest Florida Ballet and Allen’s teacher, was offered a job at the Joffrey Ballet School in New York, she followed her heart and married her high school sweetheart from Mobile, Ala. They moved to Fort Walton Beach, where her husband worked as a civil engineer at Eglin Air Force Base.

“It would have been a great opportunity for her, she was a beautiful dancer,” Allen says. “When she came here, Fort Walton Beach was a small community with no ballet. Highway 98 was a two-lane road. She cried for a time, but then she started teaching ballet at her house.”

According to Allen, offering lessons to others not only helped Sims share her love of ballet; it also was a way for her to continue to dance.

She moved the classes from her home to a studio near the Greyhound bus station and in 1969, founded the ballet company.

Its mission, according to the Web site nfballet.org, is to provide quality dance performances and instruction for Northwest Florida, identify and develop talented dancers, and increase appreciation of the arts through public education and outreach.

Talent Identified
When Allen tore a leg muscle while playing in a middle school football game, a doctor’s suggestion to go to the ballet for physical therapy was at first just a way to help him recover from the injury, but the experiences he had at the school led the young man to discover his “ticket out of here.”

His arrival at the school was the result of a friendship between Sims and the wife of the doctor who treated Allen’s football injury. The women realized that by providing rehabilitative therapy for athletes, they could get guys into the ballet school, Allen says.

Upon discovering his talent, Sims encouraged Allen to participate in a ballet performance, where he found a passion for dance. He won a scholarship to attend the Joffrey Ballet School and studied there for five years. Following years of additional training, he went on to perform with ballet companies throughout the United States, and to teach, direct and choreograph ballets.

Allen Returns to Guide Organization
In 1995, while looking for a place to settle down and raise a family, Allen and his wife, Sharon, visited Fort Walton Beach. He remembered how Sims had made a difference for him. When the opportunity was presented, he decided to take the experiences he had as a dancer and return to develop new programs to support the ballet’s mission.

Thus he began the next phase in his career as the assistant artistic director of the Northwest Florida Ballet. Allen has since taken on the additional role of CEO and is the artistic director. His wife is now the assistant artistic director.

The ballet company offered more than ballet, with classes in modern dance and jazz, but Allen wanted to reach out to kids who did not know that dance was even an option for them.

One such opportunity came when then-Okaloosa County School Superintendent Don Gaetz asked Allen and the other members of the organization to come up with a new educational program.

“We were told to dream a little bit,” Allen says.

That dream came to fruition in 2002 with the creation of the Academie, an academic and dance education program, which is a collaborative effort between the school district and the ballet company.

To be selected for the school, students don’t have to have previous dance instruction, but auditions are held at the end of the second grade year to identify children with talent.

“We are looking for students with flexibility, coordination and rhythm,” Allen says.

The program currently offers instruction to 140 students in grades 3 through 8.

The Academie has been a success, earning high marks each year for its educational excellence while developing new generations of dancers. Allen attributes much of the success to the students.

“They take to it,” he says. “It can be hard sometimes, but there’s hope for everyone. Besides, the students love coming here. We never have attendance problems.”

The school is at the Sybil Smith Lebherz Center for Dance Education, which opened in 2002. The 13,000-square-foot building provides much-needed space for classrooms and studios, although Allen has had to rent nearby space for classrooms as the school has grown. The facility is also the site of adult classes. His wife is the head of the evening school, where ballet, jazz and Pilates are among the offerings.

Future of the Organization
“Think about the importance of art and what it has done for your life,” Allen says. “Art has always found a way to exist.”

He notes that fundraising is a big issue in the effort to expand the programs the company offers.

“Everyone is hoping that the recovery will pick up,” he says. “Nonprofit organizations, especially the arts, are struggling for funding. We eventually hope to create an endowment. We are making decisions that will help the organization continue to fulfill its mission.”

Outside the School
One highly successful outreach program has been a summer tour group performing ballet outdoors. The Starlight Ballet brings performances to venues across the Emerald Coast, including Seaside, Grand Boulevard and Rosemary Beach.

The idea of bringing ballet to areas that didn’t have access to such performances was an easy one.

“Everyone loves dancing outside,” Allen says.

“I went to Seaside initially. We provided the stage, the lights and the sound system. It is a cool way to see ballet, you don’t have to get dressed up, and vacationers like to see different types of musical performances when they are here.

“We went back and forth on charging,

but the sponsors wanted to make it free. Now all performances are free,” Allen says.

Kathy Kemp, director of marketing for Rosemary Beach’s Town Center, says the Merchants Association was looking for a different type of musical presentation to promote in Rosemary Beach.

“It’s been a great event for them to sponsor,” she says.

For five years, vacationers and homeowners have gathered to enjoy the program. With the setting under the stars on one of the resort’s expansive lawns, the performances have taken on a special quality, Kemp says.

“It is such a unique event, everyone has a good time, and it just feels right.”

Guests often remark that they are surprised at the caliber of the performances. Many come from cities where they can attend the ballet and have preconceived notion of what the local performance might be like — a little less professional, perhaps — but that is not what they see. The dancers, the music, the location all make for an incredible evening, Kemp says.

The event is already on Rosemary Beach’s calendar for next year as the culmination of the ballet’s 2009–2010 season.

The 40th-anniversary Ruby Celebration of the Northwest Florida Ballet will also include the annual holiday performance of “The Nutcracker,” a gala event in January at the Sandestin Hilton, and a stage production of “Dr. Coppelius’ Magic Toy Shoppe” in the spring.


The Impact of Northwest Florida Ballet

Over the past 40 years, the Northwest Florida Ballet in Fort Walton Beach has presented 393 performances from Panama City to Pensacola for an estimated 340,000 people. There have been 55 lecture demonstrations to more than 13,000 children and 60 free outdoor performances to nearly 50,000 people.