Diane Callahan was recently fired from her position as artistic director of the Gainesville Ballet Co., a nonprofit that produces dance performances each year.
The organization’s board of directors voted unanimously for her removal during a Zoom meeting on May 26.
“I was just completely shocked,” Callahan said. “I told somebody I felt like I had been shot in the back. I had no idea.”
Callahan established the Gainesville School of Ballet 52 years ago as a business when she was in her late 20s, then founded the Gainesville Ballet Co. five years later. Over the span of five decades, she has taught thousands of young dancers and helped grow both the nonprofit and school.
“All I’ve ever wanted is to help children dance better and be happy,” she said.
Callahan, who is 80 years old, said like other ballet schools, her school has lost dancers because of the pandemic. For most of the summer, she said that lessons were taught over Zoom.
Because of her age and not wanting to risk receiving COVID-19, Callahan said she refrained from teaching classes in person until she was fully vaccinated and also didn’t take pay.
“I think if I had been there this year and been able to teach the kids, none of this would’ve happened,” she said.
Callahan said she recently spoke with one of the ballet school’s teachers about possible plans for retirement, but “no official discussions” were held with board members before May 26 about her leaving.
The nonprofit’s board, which is made up of around 18 members, offered a statement to The Times, explaining that they spoke with Callahan leading up to her termination.
“The board members had many conversations with her regarding her future as the artistic director and the future of the Gainesville Ballet Co.,” the board said. “Our focus has always been on the current and future young dancers in the program, but we feel like we have been fair to everybody involved.”
Tamara Stevenson, executive director of the Gainesville School of Ballet, said two days before Callahan was fired, the school’s two main teachers resigned. These two dance instructors will teach classes in the fall at the Gainesville Ballet Co., the board said.
The Gainesville School of Ballet offered a statement Wednesday, June 2, on social media, explaining that Callahan had begun considering her retirement before the pandemic started.
“Diane was looking for the right person to take over who would share her passion for teaching and her dedication to her dancers,” the school said. “She was searching for a person who could add artistry on top of technique.”
Callahan said she doesn’t have clear plans for the future of the ballet school. However, she will continue working to maintain her relationship with Brenau. For now, she said the school is on hiatus and summer camps are canceled.
Nikola Foster, who has worked with Gainesville School of Ballet on and off for 12 years, said the school released a statement on Facebook to “put the truth out there publicly.”
“We (the school) all agree that the biggest point is this could’ve been done in a much better and considerate way, and had a much better result than how they did it,” Foster said. “She was truly blindsided, and it didn’t have to be that way.”
For nearly five decades the ballet company and the school have been partners. The Gainesville School of Ballet has been responsible for teaching dance classes, and the Gainesville Ballet Co. puts on two shows each season.
“And, while this partnership has thrived for 50 years, the last few years have brought us challenges that have forced the Gainesville Ballet Company board of directors to consider whether this structure gives us the best opportunity to continue thriving for another 50 years,” the nonprofit’s board stated in an email to Gainesville Ballet Co. members.
After much consideration, the board said that its members decided to make changes that they think will “help create more stability” for the nonprofit’s young dancers. One of the adjustments included removing Callahan as artistic director.
“This is obviously a difficult decision for everyone involved as Miss Diane has created an incredible legacy that we are all grateful for,” the board stated in the email. “But we believe our new structure will best enable our current and future dancers to continue building upon this legacy.”
The board said Gainesville Ballet Co. will continue its partnership with Brenau University.
In the fall, the nonprofit will offer classes to different age groups, and the community can expect the usual two shows each season, including “The Nutcracker” around Christmas and a storybook ballet in the spring.