Local ballet instructor raises barre for students

Back to Article
Back to Article

Local ballet instructor raises barre for students

The Southerner

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.

Email This Story

A profile of Kelly Oakes Dent: a dancer, mother and cancer survivor

By Isabel Olson

Photo credit: Daeya Shealy

Kelly Oakes Dent perfects her advanced ballerinas during their barre warm up.
Photo credit: Isabel Olson

The open studio seems smaller with the bustling ballerinas warming up confined to tight surroundings. The glazed windows open out to the gardens just beginning to bloom, and the soft light projects onto the ballerinas’ faces as they take their stances at the barre. The studio goes from chaos to order within seconds when the music begins to play and the dancers prepare to dance. It is only a few counts into the first combination before you hear corrections and remarks being made from the instructor at the front of the room.

As she paces back and forth with her turned out walks and held posture, Kelly Oakes Dent begins another day of teaching at the place she considers her second home and family, Callanwolde Center for Fine Arts.

“Callanwolde is not like other studios. Here it’s like a team,” Dent said, describing a place that has provided stability and support for her past, but continues to be a place to which she contributes vast amounts of time today.

While most jobs begin early in the morning and end late afternoon, Dent’s career as a ballet instructor is quite the opposite. The work begins around 3:30, when younger students start making their way from school to the studio, and at about 9:30 in the evening Dent returns home. Spending hours at the studio each day adds up, especially when you are as committed as Dent.

“She has been working here for more than 20 years. She has all the knowledge I wish I had,” says Jennilee Garcia, a co-instructor of Dent’s.

Her knowledge was not just gained through years of teaching; it was a process that has consumed much of Dent’s life.

Growing up, her mother was a dancer and instructor at a small studio in Maine. Her older brother had danced tap before her, and Dent took up the tradition as well. Beginning ballet and tap at the age of four, Dent spent large amounts of time at the studio with her mom in and outside of classes.

“I was a studio brat,” Dent said. “I was always there.”

Quickly the time at the studio was spent mostly dancing and sometimes even helping out with teaching.

“I started assisting since I was bored, and I didn’t want to do my homework,” she recalled.

From the young beginning to her teenage years, Dent’s relationship with her mother was only strengthened by the tie they had for the love of ballet. Dent’s father was never a dancer himself and was more of a “manly man;” however, he held an appreciation for the art.

“My brother and I were pushed in two separate directions,” she said. “Because of the times, he was told to get an education in accounting or engineering, and I was told to marry rich.”

School came easily to Dent, earning solid A’s and B’s, Dent dedicated most of her time and energy to dancing and performing throughout high school. From being the Mirliton lead in the studio’s productions of “The Nutcracker,” she pursued more dance and education at Virginia Intermont College.

Even at such a young age Dent knew her future involved dance.

“I just always knew,” she said. “I really didn’t have an interest in anything else.”

This intense passion carried her through important years of her life. Dent met her husband at college while double majoring in dance and teaching, then pursued a similar path as her own mother.

Already having learned some useful teaching skills from early on, Dent was able to put them to use when applying for jobs after college.

“After graduation I went to Southeastern Regional Ballet festival. I interviewed with a scout and went to Southeastern Ballet Mississippi,” Dent said. “That’s where I really learned to teach.”

During her time there, Dent was introduced to the Royal Academy of Dance syllabus which she continues to teach today. While those years spent in Mississippi were full of new experiences through dancing and learning, Dent never felt it was where she belonged.

“I didn’t really like it that much. I think I just didn’t feel comfortable there somehow,” Dent said.

By 1988, Dent had moved to Atlanta to a close friend, Ruth Mitchell’s, school. While Dent was teaching again, another passion of hers came into play. Dent was in several productions and danced into her 30’s until the company split and bankruptcy occurred.

Today Dent carries out her daily routine of teaching and directing the Callanwolde classes and productions. After hearing Callanwolde used the RAD syllabus, Dent applied for a position and has worked there ever since her acceptance.

During the early years at the fine arts center, Dent danced while teaching with a friend’s company that was just starting out.

“She was very dedicated to both the rehearsal process and the performance, strong in technique, committed to the role and easy to partner. I was delighted when she agreed to join my company,” said Douglass Scott, a former dance friend and employer of Dent’s.

After having her son, Dent never went back to ballet or performing. Teaching became a bigger part of her life along with being a mother. All three of her children: Carmen, Scott, and Lorin, were exposed to dance throughout their childhood, but not all of them took to dance like their mother did.

“Scott tried dancing; I didn’t let him do it,” Dent said. “He was a distraction in class, laughing, cutting up.”

Lorin, the youngest son, and Carmen, the oldest daughter, continue to dance. Lorin has pursued other interests and has loosened up on classes, but he remains playing significant roles such as the Nutcracker every Christmas.

“The great thing about Lorin is he’s not worried about the stereotypical thing of gayness. I just wanted him to have a normal childhood, and it’s easier in swimming than ballet.”

While this often rings true for the male dancers in the world of ballet, Carmen Dent pursued dance more than both of her brothers. Taking classes from her mother and helping out around the studio was typical for Carmen in her early years, but her passion continued to grow. She remains dancing today and plans on pursuing a teaching career at public schools soon in the future.

“I never knew she had a passion for it until she didn’t get the Dawn variation in one of the [Callanwolde’s] shows. I told her I hadn’t cast her on her birthday. It wasn’t a good decision on my part,” Dent said.

While teaching itself may be a challenge, it doesn’t get much harder than having to teach your own daughter.

“You have to be really careful. I tried not to show favoritism, but parents did complain to Casey (director) that she was getting leads,” Dent said.

While favoritism can be difficult, teaching her own daughter was more difficult at times when it came down to respect.

“She wasn’t taking in my corrections, as a parent you feel like it’s personal. It was really hard keeping it on a professional level with your child.”

Dent passed on the love of dance to all of her children. Scott still helps out with productions, and he recently helped come up with the end of the original ballet that will appear this spring, “The Wolf’s Tale.”

“I have the greatest respect for my mother,” Carmen Dent said. “I don’t know anyone as committed, hardworking, and passionate as my mother. I look at the life I had growing up and what a unique experience it was to grow up surrounded by art. I don’t want to leave that world and my mother showed me that it’s possible to do that.”

Her children are by no means the only ones who have been impacted by Dent’s love of ballet. Through teaching at Callanwolde for over 20 years, Dent has taught and sculpted generations of students.

“She and the way she teaches is down to earth. She’s strict, but she’s down to earth,” said Giselle Gilmore, a former student of Dent’s who now teaches RAD at Atlanta Ballet. “She inspired me to get my teaching degree. She was the reason I pursued ballet.”

During the Callanwolde years, Dent faced some of the most challenging times of her life. After being diagnosed with breast cancer, she continued to teach, refusing to take time off of her schedule.

“I discovered breast cancer December 2003, had a biopsy a couple days before classes in January. I was called on a day I was supposed to teach. It was quite shocking,” Dent said.

Luckily for Dent, Callanwolde is a tightly knit community, and with a single phone call, Dent was able to have a student cover her class that day.

Years later, Dent faced cancer once again, but this time it was a specific form of lung cancer isolated in the breast. She went through chemotherapy and many treatments hindering her body and agility.

“I remember my husband telling me, ‘I think you should get a wig,’” said Dent laughing when looking back on the moment. “I was so scared that the students wouldn’t recognize me.”

The students and parents were supportive throughout the challenging years. Dent went to every class and rehearsal besides one, even though the doctor advised against it.

“Once I was subbing a class for Amy, and my wig fell off during class,” Dent said. “I grabbed the wig off the floor, it was like a dead rat, and I ran out of the room. Eventually I came back down after running away.”

Even through her period of cancer and medical trouble, Dent was consistently able to expand Callanwolde and create a better community. With the constant support of the students and especially the parents and her family, Dent recovered from lung cancer, returning full time to her teaching.

The years dedicated to getting better did leave Dent missing out on parts of her and her children’s lives.

“I remember she (Carmen) had just gotten her driver’s license,” Dent said. “It was the weirdest thing having her drive to Callanwolde before me.”

While some losses came from being sick, Dent was sure to inspire others even through the rough times.

“Because she was sick, I was there every class before mine. I would leave school early and come here at the start of her day. There were times she was too sick to keep going, so I would stay and teach,” Gilmore said. “Her dedication and drive to keep going regardless of her illness, to take care of the dancers, is really what pushed me.”

Dent has inspired most of her students to go forward and make ballet and dance a larger portion of their lives even after graduation. Under her leadership the program has grown in size and quality.

“I think I regret that I chose not to dance professionally. I had a fear that I wasn’t good enough, and I was,” Dent said. “I’m still intimidated in life. I’m so disappointed I limited myself from fear.”

While Dent’s career was never everything she wanted it to be, she works every day to insure other young dancers have even more opportunities.

“She choreographs all the time in the kitchen with her ihome,” Carmen said. “I’ve caught her dancing a few times around the house. One time I saw her dancing in the backyard. Ask her about tap dance; just mention it, and she will start tapping.”

This never-ending passion for the art radiates from Dent, and the overcrowded studios show this more than anything. Dent’s charisma and love for the art has inspired so many others which can be seen late into the night when the ballerinas continue to work for their chance in the spotlight. Once the lights go out, the vastness of the studio returns: the blank mirrors, the open floor, the empty barres, it all awaits another day of ballet.



Print Friendly, PDF & Email