Whidbey Island ballet teacher inspires passion from within
July 18, 2011 · 8:20 AM
Jennifer Bondelid starts the class with a smile on her face.
Her long, light brown hair is pulled back, ballerina style, in a bun, which emphasizes her large blue eyes and open face. On this particular morning, she is dressed in the uniform of the dancer: tights, leotard, short wrap around a skirt and a sweater for warmth. She wears black dance shoes. She places the portable ballet barre in front of the studio’s mirror in preparation for her beginning ballet students.
Bondelid is one of the few ballet teachers on South Whidbey and has been teaching ballet, among other classes, at Island Dance in Ken’s Korner since 2001, almost as long as she’s lived on the island. The combination of her longtime dance background and her patient and kind demeanor makes her well-cast for the job of teaching all manner of students the basics of ballet.
“Let’s start in first,” Bondelid calls out to the all-ages group that has trickled in to the studio. She turns on the music and takes her place at the barre among her students and moves through the exercise with them.
“And ... demi-plié, and elevé. Good. Shape your arms up to high first again, and ... good,” she says.
This is the language of every ballet teacher, using the French terms that originated in the court of King Louis XIV, where ballet was made popular.
She keeps an eye on the mirror, and breaks away from the barre.
“Knees are open, heels pushing down into the floor, and ... elevé,” she continues in an encouraging voice as she walks around fixing the positions of arms, gently straightening torsos and turning feet ever more outward.
In the world of most ballerina-makers, what counts is the right body for the future — the turnout, limb length, a long neck, good feet with high arches and high insteps, and a noticeable spring in one’s jump. But for Bondelid it’s mainly spirit that counts.
“In the American ballet school, a teacher can provide an appropriate experience for each student,” Bondelid said.
“It’s not all about raising professional dancers, but more about creating an appreciation of the arts, creating patrons of the ballet, getting ballet in the soul,” she said.
Her expertise at bonding people to ballet began when she was thrown into teaching the unexpected student at a young age. As a dance major at Principia College in St. Louis, Mo., Bondelid became a student teacher.
“My first ballet class included in its rolebook the college’s entire men’s soccer team, there on orders by their coach. It was trial by fire. I told myself, ‘OK, if you can survive this you’ll be home free,’” Bondelid said.
It was an interesting way to start, she said, because not one of them would have chosen the class on their own.
“By the end of the semester, all agreed that ballet was much harder than soccer, and that none of them would make fun of it again,” Bondelid recalled.
To her credit, four of the athletes continued to take ballet for another semester, and one even remained through the rest of his college years.
“There’s a lot of things about ballet that serve students in other ways,” she said.
“There’s the self-discipline, the work ethic and the early exercises of ballet that keep you fit for life. No matter what you are born with congenitally — weak ankles can be strengthened through ballet,” she said.
Although she began studying ballet at 6, which is common among dancers, that is not an ideal Bondelid holds staunchly.
For this teacher, working with late beginners and adults has been a special joy.
“They come for their own reasons and are personally motivated,” Bondelid said.
“They’ve also lived in their bodies longer and feel lucky to train,” she added.
She mentions dancer Avery Grant, who started training with Bondelid at 11 and is a recently graduated advanced company member of the Whidbey Island Dance Theatre. Caitlin Christensen, too, currently a student at Island Dance, started studying ballet only last year at the very advanced age of 15. She advanced so quickly, Bondelid said she was flabbergasted by her progress.
“At first I told her she wasn’t ready. I didn’t realize how willing she was. She moved up quickly. It’s very exciting when that happens,” Bondelid said. Christensen is in the company at level five now.
“I was really scared and embarrassed because everybody was much younger in my first classes,” Christensen said.
“But it was good because Jennifer challenged me. She was always talking about using your body and its different parts and how they work,” she added.
Back in the studio, the warmup is finished.
The class has moved to one side of the room and Bondelid has cleared the floor of the barre.
“How long has it been since we worked on Chainé turns?” she asks the class, pronouncing the French term as “chi-nay.”
The dancers begin to move across the floor, spinning as they go.
“Make sure your heels are pointing at each other at all times; look over your shoulder as you half turn,” Bondelid calls out to them as she demonstrates the turns.
“Turning out! Turning out! Turning out! Neck long, lock eyeballs with yourself in the mirror.”
She is firm and clear, yet ever nurturing, as if these students were learning a lesson to hold for life; a survival tip in the tricky world of the ballet sequence. Perhaps for some, it is a sort of survival — an obstacle to overcome.
Bondelid talks tenderly about the adults who have taken her classes for various reasons.
“I’ve had grandmothers who have taken ballet because they always wanted to do it and so they finally take the challenge. I had one grandparent who even went en pointe,” she said referring to advanced classical ballet technique that uses specially reinforced shoes called pointe shoes or toe shoes.
Nora McGee was the eldest student that day.
“I’ve been taking ballet for 10 years, since I was 50,” she said. “I was 5 feet, one-and-a-half inches when I started and when I was measured seven years later, I was 5 foot, 2 inches,” she said with a smile.
Bondelid is one of about six to nine ballet teachers who are teaching at any given time at Island Dance. She has studied dance on and off for most of her life and at 16 spent a summer in Spain and began training in Flamenco. She received a full scholarship as a junior company member of the St. Louis Cultural Flamenco Society where she performed for two years. She also spent time as a teacher at the St. Louis Ballet’s company school.
Since coming to the island, she has worked with the Whidbey Island Dance Theatre company as a dancer, choreographer and répétiteur (a répétiteur teaches the steps and interpretation of the roles to some or all of the company performing a dance).
She has been onstage here in WIDT’s “Nutcracker,” and in various Whidbey Island theatrical productions including as a dancer in “Cabaret” and “Chicago.” Bondelid also recently choreographed the movement in Whidbey Island Center for the Arts production of “Metamorphoses,” as well as performing in the ensemble.
For Bondelid, ballet is as much training for the brain as it is for the body, and continues to take ballet classes herself. And, although she comes from a family of teachers, she didn’t anticipate this career for herself. Ultimately she realized it was meant to be.
“I was never at the top of my class, which makes me a more patient teacher with students who don’t get it right away,” Bondelid said.
“For me, technique was always secondary to expression. Everybody has to have something that feeds their soul.
“With some kids, I see something in them that could turn them into a dancer, and maybe other things that tell me not. Sometimes kids have to try different things and find out what that is. Some of them find it with ballet. Everybody needs to find the thing that makes them sparkle,” she said.
The class was over and Bondelid packed up her things and turned out the lights. She was still smiling.