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Atlanta Ballet pro brings artistry, experience to Gainesville summer intensive program
Tara Lee, a principal dancer with Atlanta Ballet, gives a demonstration to dance students at Brenau University during the Gainesville Ballet Company’s Summer Intensive program.

For many dancers at the Gainesville Ballet Company, dance is more than just an after-school activity.

"I love the experience of it all," said Caitlin Hardegree, a 21 year-old dance major at Brenau University. The Powder Springs native began dancing at age 2. "Not just the practicing or the rehearsing, but inspiring the younger dancers here as well. It’s the whole feeling I get when I’m doing it and in the atmosphere of it."

A four-year veteran of the Gainesville Ballet Company, the college senior is attending the company’s Summer Intensive with years of experience behind her, but hopefully many more to go.

"After this year, I’m going to try to audition for some companies and try to get into a professional company somewhere, and just keep dancing," Hardegree said. "When my body says I can’t dance any more, I’m going to teach and keep inspiring the generations to come."

The Summer Intensive began July 15 with the goal of encouraging young dancers like Hardegree to hone their skills over the course of two weeks. A crucial element of the process is instruction from seasoned professionals. This summer, the company tapped Tara Lee, a principal dancer with the Atlanta Ballet, to choreograph a special performance and share her skills.

A native of Connecticut, Lee is in her 18th season with the Atlanta Ballet.

If anyone understands Hardegree’s ambition, she would.

"(Ballet) is a pretty fantastic thing to do for a living," Lee said. "You’re constantly being inspired by different people, and you get to be physical every day, as well as an artist."

In addition to her work with the Atlanta Ballet, Lee has trained and performed with the prestigious Joffrey Ballet School in Chicago, the New Orleans Ballet Theatre and Vancouver’s Ballet British Columbia. The Atlanta company’s offseason allows Lee to spend some of the summer teaching and choreographing.

The piece Lee choreographed during the Intensive was inspired by Vivaldi’s "Four Seasons."

"It’s not necessarily about anything specific," Lee said of the dance. "There’s no storyline. There’s some abstract ideas about it in my head, but for the most part it’s music and musicality and quality I’m trying to instill in them."

Her desires for her new pupils go beyond one performance and one week of instruction.

"(I want them) to find things that inspire them every day so that the hard work is worth it," Lee said, "not to do it in a way that feels like hard work. It is hard work, no matter what, so to feel free to use your own imagination, to come up with things that inspire you, that make you more playful in the studio so that all that work is for a reason."

Diane Callahan, the Gainesville Ballet’s artistic director, knows something about a career in dance and a desire to impart wisdom to students.

Directly after graduating high school, Callahan joined the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. In her career, she also performed with the San Francisco Ballet and the Atlanta Ballet. Callahan founded the Gainesville School of Ballet in 1969 and the Gainesville Ballet Company in 1974.

In her 40th year as the company’s director, Callahan credits her desire to teach with sustaining her.

"The kids, the talent, the ones that have the desire — I keep doing it to see them get better, see them develop," Callahan said. "All their hopes and dreams, it keeps you young, keeps you wanting to help them as a teacher."

Callahan still instructs students using hand gestures and voice commands, but appreciates every opportunity her students have to learn from an active dancer.

"I think it’s wonderful," Callahan said. "(Lee) is one of the few (guest instructors) we have that I feel is a tremendous inspiration, because she’s still dancing."

After just a few days of instruction, Lee’s impact on the dancers is already apparent.

"I have learned so much from Tara," Hardegree said. "She has explained things to me in a way that in my 19 years nobody has. It’s also refreshing having someone who’s a modern-day dancer teaching modern-day dancers, not somebody who trained in Russia 30 years ago. It’s a whole new experience and I love it."

Lee’s time with the dancers of the Summer Intensive will conclude with the performance, but her advice to aspiring dancers like Hardegree is fit for a lifetime.

"I wouldn’t let any influence besides their own belief about themselves to influence them," Lee said. "I’ve seen less talented people make it rather than some people who had more natural talent, just because they had the will, the determination, the persistence, the focus. In a way if you have that and you want to do it, you probably can do it."

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