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Bountiful ballet school founded in 1973 still standing strong, helping to fulfill dreams

Published: Saturday, Aug. 1 2015 8:30 p.m. MDT

Sandra Swensen (left) and Kate Ostroski (Alyssa Bertelsen, Bountiful School of Ballet) Sandra Swensen (left) and Kate Ostroski (Alyssa Bertelsen, Bountiful School of Ballet)

BOUNTIFUL — When Kate Ostroski and Sandra Swensen met at the University of Utah in 1972, they were both graduates of the university’s ballet program, and both had opportunities to dance professionally. That might have seemed an easier option than founding a ballet studio, as only about 5 percent of all U.S. businesses were owned by women at the time.

“I remember sitting on the lawn and saying to Sandra, ‘I want to open a ballet studio, but I don’t want to do it alone,’ ” says Ostroski. Swensen had the same desire, so in 1973 they opened Bountiful School of Ballet. It began as a tiny studio with a menagerie of square mirrors on the wall.

“You had to look at yourself in pieces, because we had no money and couldn’t afford full mirrors,” says Swensen. “We had so few students that I taught one girl private lessons for an entire year because she was the only student her age.”

Big Alice (Lindsay Longmore) and Little Alice (Aubrey Mercer) (Angela Lilyquist Photography) Big Alice (Lindsay Longmore) and Little Alice (Aubrey Mercer) (Angela Lilyquist Photography)

Forty years and thousands of ballet students later, Ostroski and Swensen have a very successful and well-respected ballet studio. They have succeeded by staying true to the two core values they established in the beginning: a pure, classical ballet focus and a commitment to nurturing all types of ballet students at an affordable price. Along the way, they have withstood major changes in the dance world.

Cati Snarr, children’s ballet mistress at Ballet West, says what makes Bountiful School of Ballet unique is its continuity.

“Kate and Sandra have been there for 40 years, and they have stayed true to a classical ballet syllabus. I am always impressed with their students. When our 'Nutcracker' casts a Clara from Bountiful School of Ballet, we know she will come with a full, clean and articulate ballet vocabulary.”

40th Anniversary Recital (Bountiful School of Ballet) 40th Anniversary Recital (Bountiful School of Ballet)

Over the past few decades, this kind of quality ballet training has not always been valued.

“We saw a dip in enrollment for a while as cheer schools and competition dance schools popped up,” says Megan Ostroski Ware, Kate’s daughter, who grew up at the studio and now teaches there.

“For a while, many studios were relying less on ballet. But it didn’t work. Most recognized that the lack of ballet foundation was hurting the overall quality of their dancers. Our enrollment eventually picked back up, and has remained steady.”

Ostroski and Swensen’s second priority, to nurture all types of ballet students, means valuing all students, regardless of body type or ballet potential.

“Most of our students will never be professional dancers,” says Ostroski. “That’s not our goal. We want them to have a good ballet foundation for whatever dance they want to pursue, or even just so they can choose good dance studios for their own children someday.”

Bountiful School of Ballet's 18-year-old Alyssa Bertelsen (Thomas Andre, Timewave Studios) Bountiful School of Ballet's 18-year-old Alyssa Bertelsen (Thomas Andre, Timewave Studios)

This supportive attitude toward all dancers has prompted Ostroski and Swensen to take a unique approach to the many competing extracurricular activities of today’s children.

Ballet West’s Snarr says most strict ballet studios require their students to commit to ballet five or six days a week, at the expense of all other activities.

“Bountiful School of Ballet is unique because they have chosen to support their students in doing a lot of other things, like cheerleading and drill team,” says Snarr. “They say, ‘come three days a week, and we’ll give you all you need to succeed in whatever else you want to do.'"

Jan Whittaker, whose Bountiful High School Mandonelles drill team has won the state championship five years running, has worked closely with Bountiful School of Ballet.

“We work together well to accommodate the girls’ schedules,” says Whittaker.

“I want to be able to encourage the girls to keep taking ballet because the two programs work side by side to help produce fabulous dancers.”

Ostroski and Swensen work hard to keep high teaching standards and a consistent staff. In fact, a fixture in the studio with Ostroski and Swensen is Susan Crosby, who has taught at the studio for more than 30 years.

Kellie Yeates, a Bountiful School of Ballet teacher who is also a former student, feels lucky to be teaching at the studio.

“When people ask me if I work, I find myself saying I get to teach at the studio I grew up in, with the women who taught me,” explains Yeates. “I can’t say it without getting choked up, because I feel it’s such a great privilege.”

Yeates also points out how hard Ostroski and Swensen work to keep ballet affordable.

“I wouldn’t have been able to dance throughout my adolescence without their relatively low tuition. I’m amazed at the quiet ways they go about providing opportunities for full participation.”

Swensen simply says, “We have always put the money back into the kids. We were always in it because we loved teaching ballet — never for the money.”

Ostroski and Swensen won’t tell you themselves about their good deeds for students, but 18-year-old Alyssa Bertelsen will.

Bertelsen will dance the part of the white rabbit in "Alice in Wonderland," Bountiful School of Ballet’s 40th anniversary recital this month. She has already been accepted to the University of Utah’s ballet program for the fall. Nine years ago, Bertelsen was a little girl obsessed with ballet, but without the money for lessons.

“My family is a missionary family. I always loved ballet, but we never had the money for lessons. When I was 9, I was a member of the First Presbyterian Church that Sandra and Kate also attended. The church had a silent auction, and Sandra and Kate offered six months of free ballet classes. I could only afford two tickets, but I put them both in for the ballet lessons. When my mom got the call that I had won, I cried.”

Her mom dutifully pulled her out after the six months of free lessons, but she immediately received a call from Swensen.

“Sandra said to my mom, ‘If Alyssa doesn’t like ballet, that’s OK. But if this is a financial thing, we would like to keep her here on scholarship as long as she would like to take lessons.’”

At one point, Bertelsen couldn’t afford a leotard for her growing body, so she wore one that was too small. One day Ware handed her a bag of new ballet clothes and told her to go change.

“She didn’t even wait for a thank you. That’s just how they are here.”

Bertelsen and her two younger sisters all dance at the studio now, and all on scholarship.

“Alyssa could not even come close to touching her toes when she started,” says Swensen. “But she had the most amazing attitude. She’s been a wonderful influence on our studio.”

Because Ostroski and Swensen believed in her, Bertelsen never gave up.

“I am basically the opposite of what a ballet dancer build should be. My hips turn in instead of out, and I have to focus constantly on turnout in every step I dance. I don’t know what they saw in me,” Bertelsen says. “But I figured if they believed in me I could do it. I think with ballet if you work hard, you will see progress. It doesn’t matter who you are.”

Bountiful School of Ballet’s 40th anniversary recital, "Alice in Wonderland," is May 17 and 18 at Woods Cross High School.

Emily Mabey Swensen has been a freelance writer and editor for the past 12 years. She has an MA in writing and publishing from Emerson College in Boston. email: emilymabeyswensen@me.com

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