Karen Eriksson-Lee

Updated: Mar 29, 2020

My Blog posts so far have featured former dancers, and while that is my primary focus for this outlet that I call “dancingbyHisgrace” I will be interviewing some talented and fascinating people who were not my students, but who I greatly admire for their contribution to the arts, literature, and humanity. This Blog post, however, is about my journey to The Northern Virginia Academy of Ballet and about my parents who are the reason I began dancing in the first place…

When I was five years old, we lived in a lovely town in the Midwest. My dad was the Human Resource Director for Quaker Oats and for me and my brothers there were many perks to your dad working for a company that made cereals and cookies! Although my dad frequently sang “Here she comes, Miss America” as I descended the stairs in our home, the reality is that I was “an accident waiting to happen” according to my mom. My parents, doing what any parents would do with such an uncoordinated child, enrolled me in ballet classes and “Charm School” – YES! That was a real thing! I remember those classes well, and I loved every single minute of them! It is there I acquired at least a modicum of poise and etiquette!

My first ballet lessons were with a lovely Russian woman. My five-year old self remembers few ballet steps but, there are recollections of much twirling around with colorful scarves. Even now, seeing my little Musikgarten students dance with scarves evokes fond memories. Moving back to the East coast opened-up a new world of dance and theater. In my High School, we earned credits for dance classes and my teacher, the late Ms. Hicks, was a big influence during those formative years. She saw promise in me and drove me two days a week into NYC to take classes. It was just me and her, and I will never forget those days or the confidence she had in me.

Our town was only a short train ride away from NYC and much of my youth was either spent in the city or figuring out a way to get there. My mom took me regularly to Lincoln Center to see NYC Ballet perform and both my parents took me and my brothers to see Broadway and Off-Broadway Musicals. While North Jersey and NYC will always hold a special place in my life, my “home,” despite our families many moves, has always been Front Royal. VA.

My grandmother was the second oldest of fifteen children and grew up in the Limeton/Bentonville area. She and my grandfather were such an important part of my life growing up, as well as the numerous cousins living nearby. From the time I was a little girl, we always attended Good Shepherd Lutheran church when visiting, and my grandfather helped build the addition that was put on – it is the same room we now use for our dance classes. While I later converted to Catholicism, Good Shepherd has always been filled with people of faith – people whom I love and consider part of my “Family In Christ.”

In 1987 after graduating from Shenandoah University with a Bachelor of Science for Dance, my dad found a lovely space for me to open a dance school in Front Royal, and The Northern Virginia Academy of Ballet was born. In January of 1988 the doors opened, and we welcomed the first group of NVAB students. With some sixty steps or more up to our studio, I was in much better shape then, than I am now! I’m sure that all NVAB dancers from that time remember those steps…Every. Single. One!

October is a time for changes in weather and foliage and, it’s full of anticipation for upcoming holiday celebrations and events. Exactly 23 years ago this month, my mom was planning a 58th Birthday Celebration for my dad with a few local friends and, I was knee deep in rehearsals for The Nutcracker with my two-year old, Nastassia, and eight-month-old, Alexander, at my hip. There were so many people involved in that production. My dad was always stopping in during that time to say “hello” and give his grandkids and my dancers a hug on his way home. My mom, of course, had her amazing desserts from her bakery to share at the end of the day. Some of you reading this will go back in time to what part you were dancing in that Nutcracker, and you too will remember my dad stopping by, my mom’s amazing cookies, and the excitement of the upcoming performances...

I didn’t realize as Fall began that year how things would change and alter my family’s life forever. My dad was always my Drosselmyer in The Nutcracker and eager to learn his dance steps. He would work all day in DC, and then stop in at the studio to say hello and participate in rehearsals. The leaves were falling, things were turning colors and changing, and November was just around the corner… In the wee hours of November 15, 1996, I received a call from my mom. She was at Warren Memorial Hospital with my dad who had suffered a heart attack and passed away. That call will be forever etched in mind as well as seeing my dad lying in the hospital. He died two weeks before our production of the Nutcracker and my mom, my brothers, and me had no idea how to carry-on in life without him.

There were many amazing families in our studio who carried on with the Nutcracker for me that year. You all know who you are, and I love each-and-every one of you! What the program read that year was both necessary and true. It stated “For him, and because of him, the show must go on…” My dad was such a fan of our productions and always so proud of not just me, but of all my dancers. He loved participating and I know he was there in spirit when one of our ballet dads and my dear friend, Rick Vancuren, filled his shoes. Another ballet dad and dear friend, the late Hollis McBroom led the chorus of “Bravos” at the end of the show, knowing my dad would have done so had he been there in body. My mom and I were sitting in the back of the house when Hollis started his "Bravo" - it was both touching and unbearable at the same time...

One year after my dad passed away - to the day – NVAB Faculty member Anastasia Kubanda was born, and exactly one week later my youngest, Marlene Adele, was born. We were all in the same home school community, but who knew that years later our children would be dancing together at CPYB and Annie would become an integral part of the NVAB? While Marlene never met my father when he was alive, she told me at age two or three that “grandpa taught me a song.” It was a song I hadn’t taught her…ever! I have felt my dad’s presence with me through the years and like to believe he has been watching over my family and the studio all this time.

For over 30 years it’s been a privilege to watch students grow-up and go out into the world to make a difference and follow their dreams. When my oldest was nine years old we too moved on to PA to pursue a professional life in ballet. While I kept the studio open for a time traveling back-and-forth, it was time to close the doors once I joined the faculty of the Central PA Youth Ballet and enrolled all my children in classes there. It was a sad decision to make at that time, but the right one for my family. While my children in the end, chose not to pursue ballet as a career, life-long friendships were made, and I had the opportunity to teach under the direction of one of the greatest ballet teachers of our time.

Being mentored by the late Marcia Dale Weary as a student, teacher bringing students, and then as her faculty, was one of the highlights of my life. I remained on faculty for 10 years until resigning in 2016 to finish my Master of Education from Shippensburg University. Marcia was ill that year and after I resigned, friends said she never really made it back to the studio much. The last conversation I had with her was Fall of 2018. She told me when she answered the phone that she “Had one foot in the grave.” I had never heard Marcia speak like that and I choked-up so-much-so that I could barely say goodbye. She passed away this March 2019 leaving such a lasting impact on the world of ballet and, she is mentioned in ballet history books and her obituary was in the NY Times. The small group of people who were trained and mentored by Marcia directly were blessed indeed…and I am grateful to be one of them.

Ballet has been a constant in my life. As a profession it gave me the ability to support my children on my own, expose them to classical music, classical ballet, and instill in them a strong work ethic. A well-trained classical ballet dancer has fortitude and the motivation to do things well. Commitment is so important to a child’s ability to succeed in life as they grow. If you’re on a team then be there for your practices and games! If you’re in a production, then be there for your rehearsals and performances. The time and effort put in to doing something well builds character and self-esteem. It’s not always easy, but nothing that’s worth something ever is!

I have come full circle in moving back home to Front Royal – something that brought me so much peace. This is my home, my children’s home, son-in-law and beautiful garndson, my mom’s, and my brothers and their families spend as much time as possible here too. Front Royal has had a rough year, but the abuses of some do not take away from the beauty of the Shenandoah Valley or of the people who live here. Thank you to everyone who has blessed me with their time and friendship and, to the small businesses that make-up so much of the fabric of our town. I want to especially thank Lee Bowen, who was a friend of my dad’s, and has always extended kindnesses through the years in helping my mom, me and the studio with things that we need. Small Town – Big Hearts! There are so many that I could mention here from Front Royal who will forever hold a special place in my heart – my prayer is that each of you knows who you are!

The NVAB, and me specifically, has, is, and always will be dancing by HIS grace! I want each of you to know that no-matter what trials or tribulations come your way that God loves you, and while your trials may seem too much for you - they are never too much for God!

I’ll see you all in the studio soon! God bless you and keep you until then!



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