Colleen O'Neill Dillon

Updated: Mar 29, 2020

This year has been one of coming full circle for me by returning to Front Royal, reopening the studio, and teaching former students and even their children. The NVAB has always been like a family, and while I am not opposed to making money teaching my beloved art form, money has never been my motivation. My motivation has always been my students and the connections made, lessons learned, and hearts touched through music and movement. Some, I know, would call this naïve’. I however call it living with purpose, and glorifying God by using the gifts He has given me. He has enriched my life with countless friendships and I will be forever grateful.

There is no price that can be put on true friendship – something God has blessed me with through the years here at the NVAB. The next alumna I want to introduce you to has been a part of the studio since she was in utero – true story! Her older sisters Peggy and Erin – both adorable dancers – were part of my very first group of “baby ballerinas” although they thought they were big kids back then. When their mama, who helped me create many of our costumes in the early years, became pregnant again, everyone was excited – most especially my parents who lived across the road from them. All three girls grew up on my parent’s farm in many respects, and my parents were like surrogate grandparents to them. Their friendship, true friendship, became more like family, and we’ve been there through good-times and bad, celebrations and tragedies, and helped each other along the way.

When this next young woman was born to John and Joannie, she was a sparkly little sprite that brought light into everyone’s life…and drove her sisters crazy too! From the day she entered the studio in her tiny little leotard, tights and ballet slippers she was in her element. A natural dancer with gorgeous feet she was always so joyful, while at the same time so disciplined about classes. I could always count on her to be there for classes and rehearsals – no excuses – which led me to eventually ask her to help me teach as well.

She studied ballet year-round, as any serious dancer would, and loved every minute of it! She would travel each Summer with me to study in PA and, eventually when her parents bought a home there we would stay with them for five weeks each Summer. Without further ado let me introduce you to one of my favorite people on the planet – who comes from one of my favorite families on the planet - Miss Colleen O’Neill Dillon…

I remember when you were born, being that your parents lived across the road from my parents, and your older sisters danced at the studio. What is your earliest memory of our families?

My earliest memories are the Viking Festivals your mom and dad used to have at the farm and the bake shop your mom used to have on Chester St here in Front Royal. We always felt so welcome over at your mom and dad’s, they always treated us as family! I also remember feeding the baby goats and playing at the farm…specifically the area I named my “Secret Garden.”

What is your earliest memory of the NVAB?

One of my earliest memories, and one of my favorites, is dancing in center at the studio and, through the big windows watching the snow fall on the street while we were practicing tendus and our head placement while the music played on the record player! Such a magical memory I have always treasured!

You danced in many roles through the years, and I wonder what your favorite role was, and is there a role you wish you had danced?

My favorite role, that is a hard one…but it would have to be dancing as a snowflake in “The Nutcracker.” I always loved the music, the costumes and balance of peace and energy in that piece. Your choreography of that piece was always so symbolic of an actual snowfall…and felt so “real”, it is kind of hard to explain but again, very magical! One role I always wanted to dance was a mouse from the fight scene in The Nutcracker…it always looked so fun!

You were one of my students that went for years to study at the Central PA Youth Ballet during the Summer with me. It was not a program for the feint at heart, and I wonder what inspired you to go?

I think I really wanted to have the experience of different teaching styles and meeting other dancers. I think as young dancer, it is important to dance with other teachers that can provide different styles for class and seeing different dancers of different ages and talents. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was a way to “broaden my horizons” as a young dancer.

You most certainly danced in many productions of our version of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker Suite.” What was your favorite part to dance? And what was your favorite memory either on stage or back stage?

I remember very many productions of “The Nutcracker”. I remember starting as a soldier, then party doll, to Mother Ginger puppet, to Arabian, Snow, Spanish, and of course Waltz of the Flower. Again though, my favorite part to dance was Snow, however I also loved Arabian and Spanish.

My favorite memory would probably be getting ready backstage…we always had so many parents and family members helping to try and keep running things smoothly backstage, which is no easy task. I distinctly remember getting ready with stage make up, hair and of course the MANY costume changes. It made me feel like such a “prima ballerina.”

The years you danced at the NVAB were also charmed years in my life – I got married and gave birth to my three children. Our studio has always been family oriented, and I was blessed to have my children grow up there surrounded by much love from fellow mom’s and dancers. What are your memories of that time?

I remember feeling so safe and home in your studio. I remember if I needed a ride home, someone was always there to help! I also remember helping make costumes and back drops. I will always remember the time and energy that so many people over the years gave to NVAB. I loved how many of the adults always volunteer to help, even danced the party scene in The Nutcracker…everyone was always willing to give a helping hand to everyone!

You were always such a joy to have in class, and always so helpful. You worked hard, had gorgeous feet, were strong, and had a passion for ballet. Because of that I asked you to help teach. What are your memories as a teacher at the NVAB, and how did that feel to come full circle in the studio?

It was such an honor to be asked to teach. I loved teaching the little ones and seeing how all of them had different learning styles. Being asked to help teach also gave me such confidence in myself, and helped me improve as a dancer as well. As I helped younger dancers at the barre with things, it helped me concentrate on the very same things more when I was in class at the barre later.

What are you doing now, and how important was your exposure to the arts when making a career choice? How did all the classes and rehearsals help prepare you?

Today, I am a mental health worker in the community, which can be a very stressful job at times. Being exposed to the arts at such a young age I think helped me understand how people should always try to have an “outlet” or something that they can do for themselves, not for anyone else. It also taught me the confidence to follow my heart to do something that I am passionate about. I would hope to one day put these two passions together - perhaps as a dance therapist. I would definitely have to say, hands down, that the classes and rehearsals taught me discipline. Following your heart is not always easy and takes a lot of sacrifices. I remember “sacrificing” my Saturdays as a teenager and five weeks of summer vacation as I attended classes at CPYB. I did the same sacrificing as an adult going back to school to complete my education for my Human Services degree.

You still dance with the NVAB as an adult, and I wonder if you can share why you came back on my return to town, and how has your perspective as a dancer changed through the years?

I was beyond excited to hear that you had come back to town! I came back because I knew that I would be getting the proper technique again and experience your passion as a ballet teacher! I remember as young dancer that training was very much about “perfection” and building up strength and technique…and getting ready for performances. Now, as an adult, I still know those things are very important, but I also remember the “why.” As an adult it is easier for me to remember why I loved ballet…the music, the grace, and the feeling it gives me each time I put on those ballet shoes and point my toes. It is something I have always done for me, something that no one else can touch or take away.

What words of wisdom do you have for dancers just starting out on the journey of dance at the NVAB who have not necessarily been taught a graded ballet curriculum? How did the graded curriculum that we use help you to dance to your fullest potential and continue dancing to this day?

For young dancers on the beginning of their journey my advice would be to understand and remember that every dancer is different, like every person is different. We all have strengths and challenges. I think it is important to recognize those and accept them. Someone will always have longer legs (this was especially true for me…I am still only 5 feet tall), but you may have great flexibility or turnout that others strive for. Also, try not to compare yourself to others, only compare yourself to who you were the day before…I think that is how we get better.

I think having the graded curriculum helped me discover my own strengths and challenges as a dancer, I struggled with hyperextension, as many dancers do, so I had to learn to use what I had…and remember straight knees for some people were not the same straight knees for me. Now as an adult, I know I have to work on my hamstrings to strengthen them.

Is there anything else you’d like to add? Something that you found profoundly important for dancers and parents to understand?

I think I would like to add this: Be true to yourself as a dancer. I remember as a young child, I was one of the few dancers in my school and I had to take my ballet bag with me as class was right after school. Sometimes other kids would give me a hard time because I didn’t go to soccer practice…I went to ballet class! But I remember each year at our talent show I would choreograph my own piece and dance, just me, and it was the best thing I remember from school because no one could take that away. Also, you will make mistakes, we are all

human…but just dust yourself and get back out there…after all, the show must go on!

Where can we find you now?

Currently, I reside in Strasburg with my dear husband of almost 7 years and my dog and cat! I work at a local mental health facility and I’m planning to pursue grad school in hopes of becoming a licensed therapist. I also plan to be dancing at the NVAB studio this fall!

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