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Sarasota Ballet School gets a new principal

Jennifer Welch Cudnik is a former dancer and longtime arts educator.

Jennifer Welch Cudnik is the new principal of the Sarasota Ballet School.
Jennifer Welch Cudnik is the new principal of the Sarasota Ballet School.
Photo courtesy of Mikenna Bowers
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"We are artists. We have to give illusions. We have to give the illusion that we're floating across the stage," Jennifer Welch Cudnik tells the young women in leotards and pink tights elevated by toe shoes as they rehearse in a studio near the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. 

It's 3 p.m. on a Friday in summer. The Sarasota Ballet School's Summer Intensive recital is still two weeks away, so it's forgivable if the buzz in the building on Tallevast Road surrounds a student trip the next day to entertainment wonderland Orlando.

While Welch Cudnik plays classical music on her iPhone, her young students appear mature and sophisticated as they bourrée and take tiny steps with gracefully outstretched arms. The next minute they look like children as they drop their ballerina masks, lean casually against the barre and await Welch Cudnik's next instructions.

The new principal of the Sarasota Ballet School knows what it's like to have one foot in the world of adolescent hijinks and the other, clad in a toe shoe, ready to pirouette on stage in front of adoring audiences.

A native of St. Louis, Welch Cudnik was just 15 when she moved to New York City to study at the School of American Ballet, the education arm of the New York City Ballet. There she learned the repertory of iconic choreographer George Balanchine, or "Mr. B" for short, at the school that has produced  ballet luminaries such as Suzanne Farrell, Jacques d'Amboise, Gelsey Kirkland and Darci Kistler.

At 46, Welch Cudnik is remarkably youthful. In her workout gear, she looks as slim and toned as her young students. Unlike the stereotype of the intimidating ballet mistress of yore, keeping time by rapping a cane and barking directions, Welch Cudnik comes across more like an older sorority sister.

She and her family, including a daughter studying at the Sarasota School of Ballet's five-week summer session, have only been in town a few weeks. Welch Cudnik took over from the school's previous principal Sarah Krazit, who wanted to focus more on her family as they relocated from the Gulf Coast.

When Welch Cudnik was studying ballet in New York as a teen, she says she was in a "safe bubble" because she was living in a dorm with other dancers and had chaperones. The real test of her maturity came later, when she was 19 and moved to Philadelphia on her own to dance with what was then called the Pennsylvania Ballet. (The company rebranded in 2021 as the Philadelphia Ballet.)

"I wasn't ready," she confesses. Nevertheless, she made it through, dancing with both the Pennsylvania Ballet and St. Louis Ballet for a decade. Given the level of professionalism that she embraced at such a young age, it's not surprising to hear that Welch Cudnik took a break from dance for five years.

Originally, Welch Cudnik believed she had quit but ballet called her back. She earned a master's of fine arts in dance at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia, and has been involved in arts education for more than two decades, teaching in universities, dance schools, charter and public schools and community arts centers. Along the way she had two daughters, now 13 and 8, and also co-founded and directed the nonprofit Ballet Initiative.

Jennifer Welch Cudnik prepares students at the Sarasota Ballet School for the recital performance of the Summer Intensive session.
Photo courtesy of Mikenna Bowers

Welch Cudnik came to the attention of the Sarasota Ballet and its education director, Christopher Hird, and Deirdre Miles Burger, assistant education director, through her work at the Center for Creative Arts in St. Louis. COCA holds large auditions where students from the area can try out in front of representatives of dance companies and schools from all over the country.

"It was really through Dede that Jennifer came to Sarasota," said Jason Ettore, Sarasota Ballet general manager, in an interview along with Welch Cudnik, in a computer lab where Sarasota Ballet School students do their homework during the academic year.

Timing and chemistry aside, one of the reasons why Welch Cudnik landed her new job is that she is a certified teacher in the American Ballet Theatre national training curriculum. The program has been used by the Sarasota Ballet School since the 2020-21 season, pandemic notwithstanding. 

Designed for all ages and skill levels, the ABT curriculum has been considered the gold standard for ballet training  since 2006, when an act of Congress made the American Ballet Theatre the country's national ballet company.

For students with their sights on a dance career, the Sarasota Ballet runs the Margaret Barbieri Conservatory. It is overseen by Barbieri, a former prima ballerina with The Royal Ballet and assistant director of the Sarasota Ballet. During the 2023-24 academic year, 160 students in total are expected at the Sarasota Ballet School and the Conservatory.

While the nearly 200 students between 11 and 18 in the Sarasota Ballet School's summer intensive get a rigorous training in nationally accepted ballet basics, they are also exposed to other dance styles like jazz funk and hip hop. 

A partnership with Ringling College of Art and Design allows them to live in dorm rooms with fellow students, gaining some independence and allowing them to build social skills sometimes lacking in today's tech-obsessed youth.

The daughter of two teachers — her mom taught English and her dad taught history — Welch Cudnik has strong ideas about who can study dance. Asked to define her philosophy, she declares, "Anyone can learn ballet, from 2 to 82." To be sure, she's not saying it's easy; she's saying it can be done.

Jennifer Welch Cudnik demonstrates a pose to students in the Summer Intensive session of the Sarasota Ballet School.
Photo courtesy of Mikenna Bowers

In addition to teaching the ABT curriculum, Welch Cudnik has served as a consultant to families whose children want to pursue dance training and careers. She keeps in touch with dozens of students and their parents via text, phone and email.

Her view of the ballet community is expansive and inclusive. In their interview, both she and Ettore bemoan the fact that many young men won't pursue the discipline because of stereotypes about masculinity, despite the strength, grace and coordination it fosters.

Between the rigors of the ABT curriculum and the breakneck pace of the summer intensive, there's still room for fun. Welch Cudnik encourages her students to have a playful streak. 

To teach one young dancer the proper way to bend sideways, she tells them, "Just think, 'I'm a little teapot,'" quoting the childhood nursery rhyme as she demonstrates the correct motion.

Welch Cudnik's talents as a choreographer will be on display during "In Motion," the recital for the Summer Intensive program on July 27-29, where one of her new works will be performed. 

The show will include new choreography by Sarasota Ballet principal dancer Maximiliano Iglesias and Assistant Ballet Master Octavio Martin.

Also on the bill is "Concerto in D" by Ricardo Graziano, the ballet's resident choreographer, and "An American Hymn" by Miles Burger. Principal dancer Macarena Gimenez will perform excerpts from "Coppélia."



Monica Roman Gagnier

Monica Roman Gagnier is the arts and entertainment editor of the Observer. Previously, she covered A&E in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the Albuquerque Journal and film for industry trade publications Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.

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