“My body became my art form – my expression.”
Something broke in Sarah that first time she leapt through that proverbial barrier of ballet; it then consumed her.
“I was engrossed with the attention to detail and the exacting of each muscle.”
I have had the honor of watching my dearest friend continually excel at her passion. I have been inspired and impressed by her tenacity to cultivate, nurture, and foster the talents of strong and gifted dancers.
Her performances move one to tears; to witness young students dancing with such tangible passion and emotion is staggering. And that sight always affects me, mostly because it is Sarah’s doing; she doesn’t just teach these dancers how to dance, she teaches them to believe in something, to stand up for a cause, and to work on their craft.
At 10 years old, Sarah danced with the Lake Erie Ballet Company, performing “Paquita” under the direction of Robert Steele. She was challenged by Steele to learn the steps, while her mother, the executive director, was attending meetings.
“I would spy on the rehearsals out of awe and curiosity, and one day he called me out, told me to get my point shoes on, and learn the piece,” she said, a fond, faraway look in her eye recalling such a memory as we sit in her apartment overlooking the bay. “He would single me out and work with me on my technique – he knew I had it in me. I didn’t dance a lead, but it was the first time the magic of ballet moved me.”
By the time Sarah turned 12, Sharon Filone becoming both the school director as well as one of the most influential figures in Purvis’ life. By 17, she started teaching part time at Lake Erie Ballet.
“My vocation was to teach,” she said. “There was never a question; it’s what I was meant to do.”
She and Filone would gather weekly to analyze classical ballet and its teachings by preparing a syllabus. “We broke down every step! She gave me this gift that I still use today,” she said, intensely.
In 2003, Filone passed away; Purvis knew it was the time to start her own company – a diverse, inclusive company that would holistically embrace the vast richness of dance.
“To be a whole dancer, you need to speak the many languages of dance – jazz, modern, tap,” she said, while petting her cat, Oliver.
By starting the Erie Dance Conservatory Company, Sarah’s students would have the opportunity to learn not just ballet but other dance forms as well; her students remain invigorated by absorbing these various forms as they simultaneously build character and learn self-discipline.
“These students need to work for this – they need to want it,” she said.
Thus, with hard work come performances.
“We put on several shows each season, which goes from September through May,” she said in a flurry of excitement. “’The Grinch that Stole Christmas’ is celebrating its 10th year in 2013! This is a big deal for us. We started ‘The Grinch’ within one month of opening our doors back in 2003. Then we continue our year with a mid-winter show, the Spring Gala, an end of year show, Celebrate Erie, then Regional Dance America, which is our most prestigious event.”
Sarah explained that Regional Dance America is so esteemed because it is a national organization of dance teachers, directors, choreographers, and dancers.
“In 2005 we evaluated to become a part of RDA as a pre-professional company,” she said. “This means a springboard into the professional dance world. This organization mandates that you bring in outside choreographers to expose the company to dance as a whole.”
An adjudicator is sent to ensure that the correct forms of dance are being taught. They watch teachers interact with dancers, then critique them. Sarah earned high marks because of her holistic approach to dance.
“It isn’t just technique that I teach my dancers – I also teach them to be culturally aware. I teach them that there is art in activism,” she said, assured and fervent about shaping this vision. “Dance has a legitimate role in society and I want my dancers to be able to use that voice to express themselves.”
One Billion Rising, an organization started to help end violence against women, is EDC’s means of allowing artists to use their medium to bring awareness.
“One billion women violated is an atrocity. One billion women dancing is a revolution,” she said.
So what’s next the EDC revolution?
The Spring Gala, which, for the first time in five years, is open to the public.
“We do this because we want to show off our choreography. We have really young and talented dancers and we want to showcase this,” she said with a giddiness in her voice. “We want Erie to know what we offer as a company.”
EDC is also starting a capital campaign to fund a building that will be closer to the city and better meet the needs of the dancers and choreographers.
“We have done so much in our infancy. Now – 10 years later – we are still growing. We have amazing company members that have gone on to be very successful. The foundation that we stand on is this: We want the dancers and the Erie community to experience the art of dance and recognize that it is rich in tradition and inspires creativity, growth, self-expression and discipline.”
She continues, “People dance. My grandmother is 90 years old and she still dances at weddings. It is a fundamental form of communication and expression; it’s therapeutic and we want to be a part of that and we want to foster the growth of that in this community and beyond.”
This article by Leslie McAllister, originally published in the Erie Reader on Apr. 17, 2013.