Along plum-hued office walls hang framed photographs of ballet dancers posed in white tutus, as do senior portraits of past students, some surrounded by tattered pointe shoes. There are dozens of
such photographs, a tribute to 20 years of history that Allegro School of Dance and its artistic director, Beth Barry, celebrate this year.
Just outside the office comes the echo of pointe shoes knocking on marley floors as dancers rehearse. One group of dancers sits patiently on the floor in front of a line of costumes dangling off ballet bars. Others practice a scene from their upcoming performance and listen for sound cues signaling their entrance onto stage.
For its 20th spring performance, Allegro will present “The Princess and the Frog” on Saturday May 12 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. at Helena Middle School. While the glittery costumes and graceful dance moves will surely impress, what is most astounding is the process involved in bringing the story, and Barry’s vision for it, to life.
Barry explained that all of her performances start as an idea, often striking her on her daily hike up Mt. Helena or on a bike ride. From there it just “trickles down.” While Allegro has a tradition of basing its spring performance on a Disney movie, the fall performance in November is always an original creation by Barry, something she prides herself on.
“We need new ballets for this generation,” quoted Barry of something she read once and keeps in mind. “I like to show the girls that dance doesn’t have to only be Cinderella, The Nutcracker and Swan Lake.”
Past Allegro performances—including those based on the journey of Lewis and Clark, the Enchanted Highway in North Dakota, and “The Planets” symphony by Gustav Holst—are a testament to that statement.
After forming an idea, Barry begins choreographing. She admits that her dancers’ input, particularly from her soloists, is where a lot of the heart of the dancing comes from.
“If [the choreography] is too planned out, it loses the beautiful parts that can come up in rehearsal,” she said.
While the choreography blooms, Barry also faces the daunting task of selecting music. Barry keeps a secret creative weapon at her disposal: a notebook comprising listings from some 70 musical soundtracks. The notebook
lists every song on the soundtrack, how long it is and what type of personality it has. Once Barry knows what type and length of song she needs, she just flips through the notebook to find something that will work.
The music Barry chooses to pair with her classical ballet choreography once set her apart from other dance schools.
“Allegro was one of the first dance schools in Helena to use more popular, mainstream music in its performances,” said Barry. She strives to keep her studio true to its ballet roots while paving the way for reinvention
with the help of current music.
Barry spends some 80 hours piecing together a performance on top of teaching her regular classes. After 35 original performances over the past 20 years, it is a wonder that Barry continues generating new ideas time after time.
“It’s by the grace of God,” she said.
Barry was first introduced to dance in the third grade, and while she danced and worked with several professional ballet schools over the years, she always knew she wanted to be a teacher. She decided to open her own studio when she looked at the options in Helena and saw that there wasn’t a place for nontraditional dancers to learn ballet. She wanted to create opportunities for dancers of all sizes, talents and abilities. She also rejected a couple common beliefs about ballet: that students had to practice nearly every day of the week and that they should wear outfits that signaled their level. What she sought was to create a “family school.” Barry has caught flack for this over the years but says, “I can’t worry what people are doing outside of here and what people think of me.”
In 1992 Barry opened Allegro at its first location with only 60 students. Today she is at the second of two custom-designed studios with around 150 students. In 20 years— and having taught around 700 students—Barry has
proved she is a successful dance instructor, but perhaps her greatest achievement has been with the lives she’s touched along the way.
Barry explained that not only did she want to create a studio where anyone could learn to dance, but she wanted it to be a safe haven.
“This is a safe place from all the chaos,” she said, adding, “Kids need a second mentor on how to deal with the struggles they face.”
She hopes each of her dancers leave her with a good body image, integrity, a strong work ethic and respect for those around them.
If Barry ever questions whether she has influenced the lives of her dancers, she needs look no further than the box under her desk. It is filled with letters collected over the years from students, parents and others. One such
letter came from a student 12 years after leaving Allegro. In it, the ex-student thanked Barry for all she did to prepare her for the future, lessons it took 12 years for her to finally realize and appreciate.
When another of Barry’s past students, who left in 7th grade, was recently accepted into medical school, Barry sent a handwritten note congratulating her.
“From Alice and Wonderland to medical school,” it read.
Another former student is getting married this summer in Oregon, and Barry plans to attend. “I want every girl that walks out of here to know that she gave me as much as I gave her,” she said. Allegro marks its 20th anniversary this year, but Barry is just getting going. “No matter what I’m going through, I’m in my element when I’m teaching,” she said. “I just can’t ever imagine quitting, can’t imagine my life without this.”