PALM BEACH BALLET CENTER
Over a Half Century of Excellence
Joan Miller, founder and artistic director of Palm Beach Ballet Center is a Florida dance icon. In every corner of the South Florida dance world, someone, at some point, has taken classes at Palm Beach Ballet Center under Miller’s direction. Her students have gone on to many prestigious schools such as Miami City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Alvin Ailey, Ohio Ballet, the former Ballet Florida, Joffrey Ballet, and many more. She has produced outstanding dancers for companies around the world. (See insert).
On a recent visit to Miller’s Lake Park studio, I was impressed with what I called her Hall of Fame. Walking through her studio was like entering a museum of dance history. Pictures covered entire walls, showing the beginnings and accomplishments of many of her students. There was also the usual hallway line-up of costumes, since they are in the midst of rehearsals for their December 9th production of Scrooge at Palm Beach Community College’s Eissey Campus Theatre.
Miller was busy teaching when I arrived. I was invited to sit in class as she continued to teach. Her students were very poised. They stood very still, in position, as Miller walked from one to another correcting, offering words of encouragement, adjusting here, turning out there, and administering light touches to reassure those corrected. Needless to say, the class demonstrated the signature level of professionalism for which Miller has become renowned. Her touch reverberates through other studios around Florida where former students-turned-teachers have moved on to open their own studios or teach elsewhere.
Miller began her training at the Grace A. Thomas studio in Lake Worth, FL at the age of nine under the guidance of Grace A. and Virginia Thomas. She continued her training there until age 18, at which time she left to continue her studies in New York with teachers from American Ballet Theatre, Carnegie Hall and at Luigi’s. Soon after her arrival, she performed in Carousel under direction of Zachary Solov for the Metropolitan Opera Ballet.
Returning home due to her mother’s illness, she began teaching in Lake Park, FL from 1959-1963. During this time, she performed for the Ballet Guild of Palm Beach and was soon promoted to Director of the Junior Ballet Guild.
In 1996, Miller established the Palm Beach Ballet Center. The Children’s’ Ballet Theatre was formed as a non-profit organization and students were bussed in from all over Palm Beach County to view such ballets as The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Die Puppenfee and others.
In 1973, the studio moved across the street to where the post office now stands. A year later, the Palm Beach Ballet Center students performed the full- length Sleeping Beauty in Santo Domingo. Their popularity soared, and in 1976 the dancers were invited to perform for the Super Bowl in Miami. Another opportunity presented itself with an invitation to perform for the Archdiocese of Miami at the Orange Bowl. In 1979, they performed A Christmas Carol at the Royal Poinciana Playhouse in Palm Beach.
A Palm Beach milestone was achieved when Palm Beach Ballet Center and American Ballet Theatre united for a magical evening gala on Saturday, November 30, 1985 with a full orchestra. Guest artists included Deirdra Carberry (a student of Miller’s), Ethan Brown, Susan Jaffe, Kevin McKenzie and Gabrielle Brown. Even more exciting, perhaps, for the students, was having rehearsals directed by American Ballet Theatre Ballet Mistress Elena Tchernichova.
On October 23, 1992, the students performed for the Miami City Ballet Jewels, a luncheon and fashion show event. And, for nearly two decades, the dancers from the Palm Beach Ballet Center have performed for Herme de Wyman Miro’s International Society of Palm Beach gala.
In 2003 the PBBC moved to their present location in Lake Park, FL.
During my visit, I was introduced to Kurt Putzig, teacher and Ballet Master at PBBC. Putzig studied at the Fort Lauderdale Atlantic Arts Foundation, and then became a soloist with Houston Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. Putzig has been with PBBC for many years. He was very humble and reserved about all of his dance experience over the years. But, needless to say, he loves teaching at PBBC and will be around for a long time. “We are growing older together,” said Miller, with obvious appreciation for her entire group of teachers. PBBC has 17 teachers on staff and offers classes in Classical Ballet, Jazz, and Modern, Tap, Hip-Hop and more.
“Palm Beach Ballet Center is the best ballet school in South Florida,” said Stacey Downs. Downs is one of many faculty teachers at PBBC. An established teacher and choreographer, originally from Binghamton, New York, she has been on staff with Palm Beach Ballet Center since 1999. Downs choreographed the audition piece for Tommy Batchelor which landed him the role of Billy Elliott on Broadway. This choreography was originally created for his performance at the Youth American Grand Prix. She’s looking forward to Batchelor’s visit to the studio in December. “I always remember his birthday. It’s the same as mine. Easy to remember,” she smiled.
“Many of our alumni return to visit us even as they have moved on into other endeavors”, says Miller. Her students are faithful to her and very appreciative of her as their mentor.
Outside the classroom, I remained enthralled by all the pictures, yet my eyes kept following one person who was busily fixing costumes, calling the dancers individually out of class and fitting them. She could have been the seamstress, but I knew better. She had to be a mom. Yes, Debra Caicedo travels 45 minutes from Delray Beach to Lake Park five times a week with her daughter Anna who takes dance lessons at PBBC.
“The first time I walked into this studio, I knew I had found the right place for my daughter to study ballet,” Caicedo gushed. As a former dancer, she knew what she was looking for from a dance studio before deciding to place her daughter with PBBC. “We commit at least fours hours a day five times a week to dance classes, including the drive to and fro,” Caicedo added. For many parents, a long distance drive to attend a good dance school is a sacrifice they are willing to make for proper dance training for their children.
Anna has been with PBBC for seven years. She is dedicated and enjoys her classes, which consist of ballet, jazz and modern. When asked what she likes about PBBC, she answered without hesitation, “The teachers! They are good and professional.”
I spoke with another student, Molly, who has been training with PBBC for nine years. When asked her if she, too, travels a long distance to study with Miller, she laughed. “I live right around the corner; I’m here in five minutes,” she chortled. Molly takes ballet, jazz and modern classes, spending an average of three hours three to four times a week at the studio.
When classes ended, the students filed quietly into the hallway, to the rehearsal room to see the principal dancers working on their piece for Scrooge. The young students’ poise, verging on reverence, was so respectful my eyes brimmed with tears for the beauty of it.
Other pleasures during my visit included slipping into the rehearsal of Lorena Jimenez, and Fernando Moraga (both principal dancer and teachers), practicing their pas de deux for the upcoming production as well as meeting Tracy Mozingo who, with Douglas Gawriljuk, is co-artistic director and co-founder of Explore Dance Theater, a not-for-profit professional dance company in its beginning stages (www.exploredancetheater.com). Mozingo is a dancer and teacher at PBBC who will partner in the December production with Rachel Pino and Lorena Jimenez.
At the end of my visit, Miller, took me for a walk along memory lane, showing me pictures of students who have long-since left the nest but who return frequently to share the news of their latest exploits and reminisce.
Featured Article in The Dance Magazine of Florida – December 2009