Starting around 7 a.m., the 12 students enrolled in the inaugural class of The Margaret Barbieri Conservatory of Dance go to school like the rest of their non-dancing peers. They solve algebraic equations, conduct chemistry experiments, write essays on Shakespeare and learn about the great wars of history. Some are home-schooled; some attend classes at local schools.
What’s different about these students is that after ending a full day of school, they begin another full-course load.
At 2:30 p.m., when many of their peers go home to do homework and relax until bedtime, these talented students take classes such as pointe, pas de deux, character, Pilates, contemporary and more. Then, at around 9 or 10 p.m., they go home. They average 40 hours per week studying dance alone.
“As a dancer, I find you never become stagnant and stop learning,” Margaret Barbieri, assistant director of the Sarasota Ballet, says.
These 12 students, ages 9 to 17, auditioned and were selected because the school feels they have the potential to eventually join a professional dance company.
Barbieri was 16 when she began her studies at The Royal Ballet School in London. She grew up in South Africa, where she received personal dance coaching, and by age 10 she had caught the attention of The Royal Ballet School.
“My father kept saying, ‘You’re not old enough. You can’t go there,’” she says. Edward Barbieri, her older brother, finally convinced her father to let her study at the school.
Like many of the school’s students who go on to dance in professional companies, Barbieri joined The Royal Ballet Touring Company, which launched her 25-year dancing career. She hopes the students in her namesake school will one day feed into Sarasota Ballet’s company, for which her husband, Iain Webb, is the director.
“He always felt (Sarasota Ballet) needed something special for the gifted students who have potential to get into a company,” Barbieri says of Webb.
There is already an educational program in place, the Sarasota Ballet School. That school provides instruction for students of all ages and skill sets. But Barbieri’s school is a specialized program devised to help prepare young dancers so they might turn their passion into a classical ballet career.
In 2012, Webb and Sarasota Ballet’s Managing Director Mary Ann Servian approached Barbieri about the idea of the program and asked her if she’d be OK with them naming the program after her.
“Initially, I was just putting my name to it,” she says. “But, when you put your name to something, you want to be a little more involved.”
Barbieri worked with Webb and Education Director Dex Honea to create a well-rounded curriculum that will achieve the best results. Honea says she’s not the mom, but more the “queen” of the conservatory.
“She has the big experience and the most experience in the whole company and program,” Honea says. “She’s very hands-on.”
That “big experience” he’s referring to was in 1990, when Barbieri started the Classical Grauduate Programme at London Studio Centre.
“I’ve been teaching for 22 years directing a vocational program, which I devised myself,” she says.
Eventually, the program became a three-year bachelor of the arts degree program, and she has the same hopes for the Sarasota program.
Barbieri oversees everything, from who is accepted into the program, to fine-tuning the schedule of classes, to making sure the students aren’t over-worked. She meets regularly with the faculty.
She has watched the students make what she calls an “incredible progression.” She mentions the impressive growth they made from November, again in December and January to now.
The reserved strawberry-blonde’s eyes light up.
“I was quite staggered, which to me can only indicate the program is good,” she says.
She’s proud of the students and was impressed with their performance in December at the regional semifinals of Youth American Grand Prix in Tampa — the world’s largest ballet scholarship competition featuring the nation’s top ballet schools.
“I thought they stood out as being one of the top schools,” she says. “And I’m not being biased. I wouldn’t be saying it if I thought it wasn’t good.”
In fact, a 14-year-old conservatory student, Caitlin Gish, will compete in the finals this spring in New York City.
And that’s not all. The conservatory’s Yamil Maldonado will join the company of Sarasota Ballet in the next season, setting the precedent for other graduates in the program.
Barbieri thinks the program is on point, but she still has hopes for further growth. She’d like the conservatory program to become a degree program, so students have the option of studying professional dance while working toward a degree.
“I’d certainly hope to do some teaching, but this year hasn’t been possible,” she says. “But they have wonderful teachers. Why do they need me?”
So far, Barbieri is enjoying her role watching from the wings.
“It’s important for the conservatory to find its feet and for the teachers to know they are in charge, not me,” she says.