Location: Charlotte, NC
Some girls dream of becoming ballerinas, and beg for tutus and ballet slippers as soon as they are old enough to take classes. Jacque White was not one of them. “I was a total tomboy,” she says. So much so that her mother, a huge fan of dance who regretted not being able to take dance classes herself, enrolled her in ballet despite Jacque’s protestations. At eight years old, Jacque was, as she puts it, “scooped off the soccer field” in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
Tall and athletic, Jacque traded cleats for ballet slippers begrudgingly. As young as she was, Jacque knew she did not have the right body type for ballet. Her first role in the Nutcracker was one of the mice. “I was the mouse who had to catch all the fallen mice,” she says, “because I was the tallest one.” But she kept at it. Her ballet teacher saw something in her and nurtured it. The ballet studio became her second home, not only because her teacher was encouraging her inner ballerina to emerge, but because she didn’t want to be in her real home. Her parents got divorced when she was ten and ballet served as a great escape for Jacque. That year she was cast as Clara in the Nutcracker performance.
“I never saw myself as a ballerina,” Jacque says. Part of that was due to her non-ballerina body. “I had a D cup,” Jacque says, and I was often told I needed to lose weight. But she continued with ballet both because she liked it and because there were not a lot of options at her dance studio. Jacque went to all the classes she could, even the ones geared to younger children. By her senior year, the studio asked her to start teaching. She taught three weekly class of four to six year olds and loved it. “I took to it right away,” she says. “I was always trying to be perfect and I loved that they were just having a good time.”
Her ballet teacher thought she had a future as a professional dancer, but Jacque’s parents did not agree. Jacque auditioned for a company on a weekend when her mom was out of town, knowing she would be against it. When she was offered an apprentice role – something she now realizes is the norm for an entry position with a company – she decided that was that. “I said I am done,” Jacque recalls, and she opted to attend North Carolina State University. “I majored in Landscape Architecture,” she says, “because I thought it sounded interesting.”
It wasn’t. One of her professors asked her what she was interested in, because it was clear to him it wasn’t landscape architecture. “Dance,” Jacque answered.
In her sophomore year, Jacque got a job teaching dance. “It was nice to have that in my back pocket,” Jacque says. She taught for three years while in college and for a year following her graduation in 1996. When she moved to Charlotte in 1998 to be closer to her boyfriend (now husband), she continued to teach. All over town. Finally, her husband suggested she open her own studio. “I never know where you are because you are teaching at five different studios,” she remembers him telling her. “You should just open a studio.”
So she did. They were vacationing at the beach when he asked her what she was going to call her new studio. Jacque knew she wanted the name to reflect what she wanted the studio to be. “The body image thing really affected me,” she says. “And I wanted my studio to be an open door where everyone is comfortable.” Jacque remembered a 35-year old woman taking a class with Jacque and her 12-year old peers because there were no adult class options for her in Fredericksburg. Jacque knew she wanted her studio to be a place where anyone was welcome and could find a home. “I didn’t want anyone to be put off by body, or what you had to wear, or your skill level or your age,” Jacque says. “I wanted a community that was open to everyone.” Open Door Studios opened in 2005 and is a testament to Jacque’s image now more than ever.
The studio offers 30 classes each week in ballet, modern, jazz, contemporary and tap. There is also an inclusive dance class called Step Together that is open to people with disabilities but also includes dancers without disabilities so that the class is a community of dancers rather than a class geared specifically to one group. There are eleven teachers at the studio, including Jacque, and over 275 students ranging in age from three to sixty five.
Jacque also dances with a modern dance company called Movement Migrations, whose dancers range in age from twenty-five to fifty-five. She is also trying to create more performance opportunities for the adults at Open Door Studios. “It is the best feeling to be able to do something with your body and move with music,” Jacque says. “I love the meditation of dance.”
She appreciates how dance lets her not only express herself, but do good in the world. The Step Together class is an example of the way she can use her passion for dance and her studio to, as she puts it, “see what is going and what I can do.” Another way of giving back is the foundation she started, Open Door Dance Foundation, that provides scholarships to dancers ages fourteen to nineteen. Jacque has seen the impact that the financial awards (over $8000 awawarded thus far to students across the country) can have, enabling students to attend university programs, workshops and summer intensives they could not otherwise afford. “It is amazing to know something seemingly so small changes a person’s trajectory,” Jacque says. “It reminds me of how that one teacher changed mine.”
Jacque worries about the day her body will give out and not let her move the way she does in dance. “I feel so free when I dance,” Jacque says. “And I don’t know how else to get that feeling. It is very organic.” It is fortunate that all of the students at her studio get to enjoy dance thanks to her. Jacque still remembers a 4-year old walking out of a pre-ballet class Jacque was teaching and announcing to her mom, “That was so fun! It was NOT ballet.” To Jacque, that was the highest compliment. It was, in fact, a class that taught many ballet concepts, but Jacque is delighted that the primary takeaway was that it was fun.
On a personal note, Eliza took classes at Open Door Studios and had Jacque as a teacher. The interest Jacque showed in Eliza, who started taking ballet in middle school and felt painfully behind her peers who had been dancing for years, made such a difference in Eliza’s confidence and enjoyment. Eliza still thinks of Jacque as a beacon of light in a difficult time in her life. Pursuing a passion is a great thing to do. But pursuing it in a way where you share it with others, and make it your mission to ignite It in folks who might otherwise be left out of the equation… that is a gift you are giving the world.
For more information about Open Door Studios or to contribute to the Open Door Dance Foundation, visit www.opendoorstudios.com.