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Ballet instructor can also teach lessons on life

Sun., Oct. 24, 2004

Peggy Goodner Tan’s six-day work weeks melted away this summer when she sold her dance studio, Spokane’s Ballet Arts Academy.

Time opened up for searching the Inland Northwest skies for raptors and the forests for chanterelles.

Away from the barre, Peggy has found rare, midlife balance.

Since 1987, when Ballet Arts Academy began, Peggy often spent her Sundays vacuuming the dance studio and washing its mirrors. Since selling the school to former Spokane Ballet dancer Dodie Askegard, her Sundays are free.

Peggy’s love for ballet continues. It began during her childhood in Spokane and took her to the eastern United States and Europe to dance professionally. It brought her back to perform with Spokane Ballet and direct its school.

During the last 25 years, she trained at least a dozen dancers who went on to join professional companies and thousands more who translated the discipline and confidence of that artform into other fields.

More than a decade ago she watched one of Spokane’s ballet icons age. That teacher had only ballet, and the glory days of her career, to talk about as her days waned.

“When all those dancers were gone,” Peggy said, “there was nothing left except all those memories.”

So last summer, Peggy turned over the studio and set out to explore.

She hiked, canoed and picked huckleberries. She searched for owls. She watched graceful shore birds stretch their long legs and Canada geese choreograph V-formations.

She found new time to spend with her husband, retired architect Ron Tan, and her 84-year-old mother. She joined yoga and Pilates classes.

The tension in her face ebbed away.

And when fall began, she rushed back to Ballet Arts. No longer in charge, she loves teaching nine classes. She also heads rehearsals for 50 students dancing in “The Nutcracker.”

On a recent afternoon, a group of 6-year-olds gathered cross-legged on the floor around her, in rapt attention. Peggy’s neck stretched long and elegant, and her wide smile beamed.

The children were as mesmerized as if she were the Sugar Plum Fairy herself. When Peggy reached up one moment to scratch her arm, three little girls scratched their own.

When my daughters asked for pink leotards and ballet slippers, Peggy turned her gaze to them. One girl yearned for structure, discipline and movement; she found all three in Peggy’s studio. The other loved story and imagination; on Peggy’s recital stage she discovered a place to shine.

Peggy rehearsed them for parts in “The Nutcracker.” One year we applauded a soldier, another a mouse. Perhaps one day my daughters may realize what an undertaking that was, to prepare 50 children to perform on the Opera House stage with a professional ballet company and the Spokane Symphony. It may not dawn on them until they have children of their own, until one day when they struggle to control the Cub Scout pack or create order out of Halloween party chaos. But then they’ll look back at the ballet fairy godmother who did it all, who made it look so effortless, with wonder.

None of us fully appreciate the teachers, coaches and youth directors of our childhood. We soak them up through mimicry and love, and they change our lives.

Peggy developed wisdom during her 17 years of directing Ballet Arts Academy and its student company, Theatre Ballet.

“Somewhere along the line, I figured out it wasn’t about ballet, and it wasn’t about me,” she said.

On this day Peggy commanded her 6-year-olds to “ballet skip.” The little ones led with pink tummies and danced across the floor sticking out their tongues in concentration. Then she flew into the advanced class next door and directed strong, serious dancers through plies and tendus until their foreheads glistened.

One of the highlights of Peggy’s career has been training her own daughter, Emily Grizzell, now a soloist with Royal Winnipeg Ballet, who opened last week in the lead role in “Cinderella.”

Peggy has a few regrets: The times she made the wrong casting decision and left a worthy dancer out of a role she deserved, or the times she let an angry parent get under her skin. But mostly she looks back with pride.

In the studio, I watched as the piano music soothed me into an easy reverie. A diesel truck ground its gears on the street below. Red neon cast a deep rosy glow over a tree beyond the window. Yet Sprague Avenue’s gritty reality seemed far away from the studio, where the gray walls and mirrors reflected order and style.

A pianist tinkled his way through “You Made Me Love You” on the CD player as the dancers stretched up strong and high on their toes.

I remembered with gratitude all the afternoons I watched through these classroom windows as my daughters transformed from fuzzy cygnets into swans.


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