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Grande dame of ballet in Falls starts dancers on right foot

NIAGARA FALLS – Elegant and poised in a casual summer dress, Beverley Feder recently gave a tour of her ballet school, the Feder School of Classical Ballet. It’s tucked behind a purple door on the Portage Road side of the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center, 1201 Pine Ave.

The ballet school – and the nonprofit Greater Niagara Ballet Company, which shares the same teaching space, with separate offices – are celebrating their 50th year.

Feder, the grande dame of ballet in the Niagara region, founded both in 1967.

Born in Niagara Falls, N.Y., she grew up in Niagara Falls, Ont., and retains dual citizenship. She received two decades of training at the Spear School of Ballet Arts and the National Ballet of Canada and earned a Licentiate Certification in Sarasota, Fla. She later earned an Advanced Certificate in Lillishall, England. In 1994, she was awarded the distinction of Fellow of the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dance, London.

Feder long maintained studios in both countries and currently continues to teach ballet twice a week at her Niagara Falls studio, as well as twice a week at Danceworks in Niagara Falls, Ont. She also still travels the U.S. serving as a Cecchetti examiner for Cecchetti USA.

Feder also continues to serve as artistic director for the Greater Niagara Ballet Company, which is holding auditions for its popular “Nutcracker” performance, slated this year for Dec. 8 and 9 at the Niagara Falls High School Performing Arts Center, 4455 Porter Road.

Feder’s husband, H. William “Bill” Feder, recently recalled that when Niagara Falls Mayor E. Dent Lackey asked Beverley to start a ballet company in this city, she responded with the founding of the Niagara Civic Ballet. It was reorganized in 1999 as a 501(c)3 not-for-profit with the new name of Greater Niagara Ballet Company.

“Mayor Lackey said, ‘Every great city has a ballet company,’ ” Bill Feder recalled. “And, the Greater Niagara Ballet Company competes with anything you’d see at Shea’s (Performing Arts Center in Buffalo) or anything in Hamilton (Ont.).

“Beverley came here on a mission after we got married and I didn’t realize how focused, how dedicated she was to ballet,” he said.

“Our first performance was ‘La Valse’ and it was with the philharmonic – the Niagara Falls Philharmonic – because we used to have one here,” she recalled.

Feder’s husband, who holds a Ph.D. in history education and taught at LaSalle High School and the University at Buffalo, also served as a Niagara County legislator for 26 years. Bill Feder refers to himself as his wife’s “helper,” photographing and cataloging her many accomplishments and proud to show off the many kudos she has received over the past five decades.

“I have a story,” said Feder of his wife. “I remember Beverley had a number of students years ago who were challenged, with iron braces and all types of maladies, and she was able to get 75 to 80 of these children on the stage to do what they could do, to perform, and there were tears in everyone’s eyes.

“The Ontario Department of Education heard about it and came down to learn how she achieved this, how she was able to help them learn this and how it empowered these children,” he continued. “And, at the same time, I thought, ‘I’ve got to marry this girl.’ ”

They’ve been married 53 years.

Today, large, framed photographs line the walls of dance school and ballet company’s lobby and main studio, and the couple recently pointed to each picture and recalled the performer and performance with great fondness, as if it had occurred only yesterday.

Beverley also frequently gave an update on the current whereabouts of these former students, explaining that a great many still keep in touch with her.

“I’m in touch with so many of these girls,” she said, pointing to different photos taken long ago. “This one dances in Japan, that one is a pharmacist now. This one is a teacher ….”

She has created a repertoire of nearly two dozen different, major ballet productions over the years, including “Degas” and “Swan Lake.”

The GNBC productions are open to all ballet students in the U.S. and Canada by audition and provide the students with the opportunity to partner with professional dancers from such esteemed groups as the National Ballet Company of Annapolis, Md., the State School of Ballet, Poznan, Poland; the National Ballet of Canada, Toronto; and the New York Theater Ballet, New York City. They perform at Artpark, Niagara University and Brock University in Canada as well as the Niagara Falls High School stage.

In July, the ballet company presented, “Re’ver’once of 50 Years of Elegance: Born to Dance” at the Niagara Falls High School Center for Performing Arts, highlighted by excerpts from a number of performances through the years.

Always on the go, Feder recently took a little time to chat about her love of ballet, her five decades as a ballet instructor, and what drew her to this vocation in the first place.

Q: Let’s start right at the beginning. What first drew you to ballet?
A: It all started with my teacher. I had a very bad teacher. (chuckle)

But, she retired within that first year and gave up her school to Jean Spear, who was a certified ballet teacher. I was 10 and took tap and jazz, too, but became interested in ballet and Jean took an interest in me. I started taking the ballet exams given by teachers certified by the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dance, in England.

My parents were all for it. My Dad would drive me five nights a week to lessons – maybe even more than that – because I’d follow Jean as she taught in Dunnville, Port Colborne, Niagara-On-The-Lake and Fort Erie. I just loved the work. I loved the gracefulness of ballet.

There’s something about ballet that gets into your body and mind and you can’t give it up ... in some ways it feeds your body.

I started to assist Jean to earn money for all of my lessons. I knew that I wanted to teach and Jean was excellent. She left a legacy to all her students.

Q: Can you teach ballet to anyone?
A: I can, with the method I use, the Cecchetti Syllabi.

If you start at age 8 or 10, it takes six years before you really look like a dancer – and that’s with taking more than one dance class a week.

I teach ages 4 to adults in this studio.

Q: What’s the perfect body type for a ballet dancer and do people realize how physically demanding this is?
A: Long legs, nice instep, strong ankles and a beautiful upper body with lovely arms.

You must be very strong, very flexible, have strength and coordination and timing. You have to be able to partner with others, which is very difficult – so that two are dancing as one.

Q: Do you still dance?
A: I danced until I was 70, but I still swim twice a week and work out to keep my body toned.

Q: You and Bill have three children and seven grandchildren. Any dancers?
A: Our daughters, Cara and Colleen, both danced and our son, Kevin, is a special ed teacher in Albion and very involved in theater. Colleen works for the Lockport School District now. Cara danced for many years with me and would dance opposite Julie Traver, who is still my assistant here. Cara is a PhD like her father and lives in Baltimore now, where she works with Save the Children and continues to dance with the Baltimore Ballet Company. Our grandchildren are ages 2 to 21 and we have one granddaughter who did dance, but is now a singer, and a grandson who is a writer. They’re both still in college. They are all very loving grandchildren. I like being a grandmother.

Q: Do you have any other artistic talents?
A: I paint. I started taking oil lessons with Ruth Thomas here at the NACC about five years ago. I find it releases a lot of stress.

Q: When you produce a ballet performance, are you following strict guidelines or able to bring your own creativity to play?
A: Some ballets are traditional and you have to get someone to come in and set it for you. For others, I’ve had my own interpretation, like “Send in the Clowns.”

Q: After all of these years, what keeps you interested in ballet?
A: It’s as though the dancers are suspended in air. It takes great strength in the abdominal muscles and leg muscles; balance and coordination.

The first big ballet production we did was “Swan Lake.” It was performed in the period, but ballet has become more modernized now. I’m not sure I like a lot of the things they are doing in ballet these days. But then I’m not sure I like a lot of things people are doing these days in life. (laugh) I’m a traditionalist.

I tell my students when they dance: ‘You have to be delicate, very airy, like cotton balls.’

We’re in auditions now for “The Nutcracker.” The children are so sweet and I have so much fun with them. I tell them they’re full of vinegar. (laugh)

I hope to continue bringing the classics to Western New York. It’s difficult at times – we could do so much more if we had more money – but we keep plodding along. It’s very rewarding to see the ballet completed, to see it performed. It’s so beautiful.

I’m very lucky. I’ve always had my husband behind me and my students are very loving. They’re good kids. I’m blessed.

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