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Gainesville Ballet trains area men to hold, lift ballerinas
Male nondancers volunteer to help with the pas dance class
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Peter Swan talks with ballet students during a break in pas class at the Brenau University fitness center. Swan is a professional male dancer who has been dancing for the Gainesville Ballet for 14 years. - photo by Erin O. Smith

For his first show with the Gainesville Ballet Company, John Lilly apparently put his bloomers on backward. Later, the clothing apparel fell to his knees during a ballroom dancing scene in “Cinderella.”

Lilly placed the ballerina he was holding down and fixed his attire.

“Diane (Callahan) told me, ‘Next time your pants fall, do not drop the girl,’” Lilly said, recounting the backstage conversation with the owner and artistic director of the Gainesville School of Ballet.

Before joining the ballet and helping with stage productions, Lilly said he thought ballet was ridiculous. Since his appearances on stage, the Northeast Georgia man has found an appreciation for the dance company.

Lilly is one of the men who is part of the pas class, which meets once a week at the fitness center at Brenau University in Gainesville.

Only two professional male dancers are in the class. Therefore, men such as  Lilly help fill the void.

“The guys are helping to hold the girls up, dance with them and pick them up when needed,” Diane Callahan said.

Along with the class, the men and ballerinas meet for rehearsals when a production is close at hand. But the men are volunteers and not trained professionals.

“These girls are on an inch and a half point,” Callahan said. “The guy is supposed to balance her weight. If they can’t do that, she could fall and can’t do anything.”

Nondancer and father, Anthony Dye, began helping with the productions after playing Mother Ginger in “The Nutcracker.”

“I never guessed I would be 50 years old and doing ballet,” he said. “I’m a financial adviser.”

With two daughters in the ballet school, Dye respects the skill his 12- and 14-year-old girls have as well as their dedication to becoming a dancer.

“Dancers are (in ballet class) every day except Sunday,” Callahan said. “And sometimes we are here on Sundays, depending on how close we are to production.”

Pas class instructor Peter Swan said it is different working with trained dancers than nondancers.

“Initially there is an unease with having to actually put your hands on someone,” he said. “Dancers, we don’t think about it. It is just part of the business.”

Professional dancers train all their lives and usually miss out on events such as prom, family events and holidays. 

“It takes years and years of training to reach a level where you can even begin to entertain the impression of a career,” Swan said. “And all throughout your career, you’re taking classes and trying to improve until the day you retire.

“To dance takes desire because desire is everything, and you have to want to do dance and you can’t think you already know it all,” he said.

Helping the girls takes focus, and that is Matt McClurg’s biggest challenge. But Swan is patient with the men.

“(Swan) recognizes that we are volunteers and not professionals,” he said.

The benefit for volunteers such as McClurg and Dye is seeing their daughters progress. The flip side is the girls see the men improve year-to-year.

“I’m proud of them,” said Caitlin Hardegree, who has been dancing for 19 years, including four with the Gainesville Ballet. “They are excited to learn and they are picking it up quickly.”

Hardegree’s favorite move with the men is jumps. She said she has faith her partner is going to hold her in the adrenaline-filled move.

“I know they aren’t going to let me fall,” she said. “Their technique might be off here and there, but I know they got me.”

Never thinking ballet would turn into a career, Hardegree said she feels completely free when she dances.

Knowing the dance is all about the girls, Lilly said ensuring they look good is the hardest part.

“When I was younger I had a big mouth. I found myself in brawls and fist fights; that was nothing compared to the nervousness of this,” Lilly said.

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