I could have missed the pain, but I’d have had to miss the dance. — Garth Brooks, “The Dance”
Main Street of historic Ellicott City rests uneasily on a slope. Near the top, in relative safety, are the record store, the brewery, and the old firehouse, where Ballet Conservatoire XIV occupies the second floor above the local wine store, The Wine Bin. Near the bottom are the art galleries, the clothing shops, and the Italian restaurant. Closest to the Patapsco River, these businesses lie in the splash zone, to put the matter lightly. Three streams — the Tiber, Hudson, and New Cut — feed into the river, running down the slope, behind and beneath and around the Main Street buildings.
On May 27, 2018, an unusual amount of rain fell on the city: 8.4 inches. At least ten other reports have provided a more scientific explanation than mine, but in childlike terms, this is how I picture the scene. I imagine the Patapsco as a bathtub with rain pouring in like water from a faucet, faster than the drain could filter out. Then I picture the three streams as hoses flowing more water into the tub. Add to these streams the showerhead, or runoff from the top of Main Street, racing down the incline. Very soon in this scenario, the tub overflows. In reality, a catastrophic flash flood swept across lower Main Street, the second in as many years.
Two days later, Howard County authorities allowed business owners and shopkeepers and waitstaff to return to their storefronts to count their losses or blessings, not knowing exactly which until they opened their doors. Angie Tersiguel, the owner of Tersiguel’s French Country Restaurant, found tables upended and kitchenware scattered. Trash and ruined accessories littered the floor of A Divaz Boutique. But on upper Main Street, Donna Pidel and Hans Nelson, co-founders of Ballet Conservatoire XIV, found an entirely different scene upon returning to their classical ballet studio in the city’s historic firehouse. Bottles of champagne and empty glasses of wine covered the studio floor — the unexpected remains of a celebration in the middle of a disaster zone.
Apparently, when the storm began, a wedding reception had been underway at La Palapa Grill & Cantina, the local Mexican restaurant down the street. When the party was forced to evacuate, they sought refuge up the street in the old firehouse. The sympathetic Wine Bin shopkeepers invited the bedraggled party inside and supplied refreshments. When the officials advised moving upstairs to higher ground, the group kicked in the door and continued the celebration in the second-floor studio. Pidel laughed as she described cleaning up the bottles and mild water damage as if she believed the school could serve no better purpose than a haven for beauty amidst crisis.
Ballet Beginnings: The Making of a Dancer
Donna Pidel began dancing, she says, by chance as a little girl growing up in Wales. On rainy days, school children had to bring two pairs of shoes — one for indoors and one for outside — to avoid tracking in mud. Her friend Avril happened to bring a pair of red ballet slippers as her change of shoes. Pidel was enchanted. When she came home from school, she announced to her mother, “I want some ballet slippers that are red!”
Her mother replied, “Well, you don’t take ballet.”
“But I will!” said Pidel, around six years old at the time.
And she did. Pidel fell in love with ballet at her first class (though she ended up having to wear pink slippers instead of red). She excelled in her lessons, taking classes up until her late teenage years when many of the ballerinas around her started auditioning for professional companies. However, after winning a choreography competition in London, Pidel says she knew instead she wanted to teach and choreograph. Pidel’s characteristic generosity shines in her desire to teach not primarily to pay the bills and not because a stage career didn’t work out but for the pure delight in helping others grow in confidence and skill.
Pidel moved to Antwerp, Belgium, where she taught classical ballet and jazz at Mercator Ballet in the early 1980s. A couple of years later, while visiting family living in Baltimore, Maryland, Pidel’s brother suggested she look into teaching at the Baltimore Ballet School and Company. The school leadership invited her to teach a class and, on the same visit, offered her a contract, which Pidel accepted in 1982.
When the Baltimore Ballet folded in 1986 and the Washington School of Ballet began renting the office and studio space as a “branch” location, Mary Day — co-founder and longtime artistic director the Washington Ballet — invited Pidel to teach with the school. The young choreographer split her time between the Baltimore branch and the Baltimore School for the Arts. In 1987, Donna Pidel opened her own school, the Ballet Royale Institute of Maryland, which quickly gained prominence as a premiere classical school and training ground for pre-professional ballerinas. Within six years, Ballet Royale was teaching more than 500 dancers between ages 3 and 18.
One of the most well-known is Alicia Graf Mack, who recently was named the director of The Julliard School’s dance division. After training with Pidel, Mack was hired as an apprentice dancer for Dance Theatre of Harlem by Arthur Mitchell, an iconic dancer and choreographer known as ballet’s “grandfather of diversity.” Mack’s portrait now hangs in the studio of Ballet Conservatoire XIV.
Another is Katherine (Katie) Williams, a recently promoted soloist with the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) who calls Pidel one of the best teachers she has ever had, the reason she pursued dance professionally. Williams, known for both her uncommon kindness and a striking debut as Giselle’s Myrta at the Metropolitan Opera House, admitted that when she first joined Ballet Royale, she was terrified of Pidel, whose classical training was rigorous, strict, and focused. “Her class is still probably one of the hardest I’ve ever taken,” Williams said. Pidel emphasized the discipline of ballet and the serious study required to become a professional dancer. She took her students to national competitions — including Youth America Grand Prix, which Williams won in 2003 — allowing them to imagine themselves in the dance world, should they choose to pursue ballet as a career. Not all of Williams’ class danced professionally. But, Williams noted, “We all carried the lessons she taught with us. And everyone became successful in whatever they chose to do,” from ballet to banking.
As demanding as Pidel’s training is, I can see glimmers of color, humor, and joy in her method. She usually will bring a spark of an idea to class, inspired by the shape of the light between the leaves on her morning run or an Ansel Adams exhibit or a song on the radio. She does not premeditate her contemporary choreography. Instead, she creates dances for her students in real time — a process, I imagine, is thrilling for her young dancers. Endearingly, she told me, “I find it very easy to throw [choreography] together, like eggs and bacon.”
Pidel owned and directed Ballet Royale for more than 20 years. Hans Nelson, co-founder and now the artistic director of Ballet Conservatoire XIV, was one of her teachers. Nelson came to ballet in the same way as beloved New York choreographer George Balanchine, while accompanying his mother and sister to sign her up for ballet lessons. An administrator — in Russia for Balanchine, in Maryland for Nelson — suggested he try out a class for boys. In the end, dance became a career for both men, while their sisters pursued other passions (Nelson’s to theater). Nelson studied at Balanchine’s own School of American Ballet in New York City, followed by the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, D.C., and the Ecole-Atelier Rudra Béjart in Switzerland. After traveling, learning, and choreographing throughout Europe, Nelson returned to the States and began teaching; eventually, he joined Ballet Royale.
Starting From Scratch: Creating Ballet Conservatoire XIV
The Ballet Royale Institute of Maryland closed after a snafu with the landlord — in which the landlord reneged on a contract for Ballet Royale’s new building but had already leased out the old one — and Pidel chose to take time off to care for her family. After a year, Pidel and Nelson partnered in establishing Ballet Conservatoire XIV, the XIV named for King Louis XIV of France, the great champion of classical ballet whom both admire (Louis XIV is the reason many classical terms, such as plié and bourrée, are French words). Pidel simply told me they started giving private lessons in her Clarksville, Maryland home. But Nelson elaborated: Pidel and her husband converted their bedroom into a small studio, complete with ballet barres and a studio floor, long mirrors and even a crystal chandelier. “It was very classy,” Nelson said, smilingly. Soon they outgrew the Pidels’ house and moved to a studio space in Ellicott City, offering coaching and classes. Within months, the fledgling school outgrew that space, too. In May 2018, they moved into 8390 Main Street, on the second story of the old firehouse. By then, Pidel told me, her husband had become an expert in constructing studios, and together they redesigned the upper floor, keeping the historical integrity of the firehouse — the bell tower, the steel framework — intact.
Ballet Conservatoire XIV consists of three studio rooms — two large and one small and long — all painted a creamy white, with incandescent lighting. My favorite is the Nureyev studio, presumably named for Rudolf Nureyev, a contemporary ballet choreographer like Pidel. Thick wooden beams slope along the ceiling, pointing up to the bell tower. A lattice-work of steel stretches from wall to wall overhead. At least four of my freshman dorm rooms could have fit inside. I could imagine at least 15 little dancers along the barre or perhaps 10 older girls. Nelson told me they need all of this space, especially as the dancers reach the upper levels of the American Ballet Theatre’s National Training Curriculum, designed for serious ballerinas considering professional careers. Three French doors stand as if stationed along the studio’s far wall. When I visited, their glassy fronts glowed with early evening light beneath sheer, white panels. On warm, spring-like days, the teachers will open up the doors. The room combines the delicate and the strong, like a graceful, muscled ballerina — indeed, like Pidel and the school and Ellicott City itself.
I attended Ballet Conservatoire XIV’s grand reopening after the May 27 flood: an ARC Barre Body class, which is Pidel’s version of the ballet-based exercise class. Unlike any other barre class I have experienced, this one involved exercise balls and resistance bands. Pidel’s was also the only one during which the other women and I laughed. For one combination, Donna lined us up along the wooden barre, everyone with a resistance band hanging from the wall above. We each wrapped the band around one of our feet and did sideways lunges, pushing against the resistance. Donna, lunging beside me, looked over at me and said, “This is fun, isn’t it?”, as easily as if we were sipping margaritas at La Palapa’s down the street. For those moments together by the barre, I could see the teacher she is for her ballerinas: in equal parts encouraging, exacting, and inspiring.
After class, I watched a girl with fair skin and a long, wavy ponytail, a year-round student and probably around 17, approach Pidel. She apologized for coming late, citing traffic on the highway. “And I wanted to tell you, I’m definitely taking classes this fall,” the girl rushed to say. This is the understandable question families and dancers have faced: whether to begin or continue classes at Ballet Conservatoire XIV at 8390 Main Street, with the ever-present risk of another flood. The school is less than 400 feet, about a five-minute walk from Tersiguel’s and A Divaz Boutique, places that experienced the worst flooding.
However, it’s a five-minute walk up Main Street’s steep incline that made even my runner’s calves burn. The old firehouse sits approximately 70 feet — the equivalent of seven building stories — above the Patapsco. This elevation protected the building on May 27 and makes the likelihood of being affected by a future flood even lower than the 1/1000 chance of another such flood occurring again in Ellicott City at all. But Ellicott City seems to be a place where the worst odds come true. As Pidel expressed to me, families’ concerns are valid and understandable. But, remembering the champagne bottles and the red slippers, the crystal chandelier and that magic combination of discipline and delight, I wondered if the odds of finding more devoted teachers at a more respected school with a more glittering roster of former students are even slimmer.
Before I left the studio after the barre class, I stretched my legs on the studio floor and listened to Pidel chatting with her students, most of whom she had never met before and many of whom she called out by name, paired with a “Nicely done!” or “That’s beautiful!” Katie Williams of ABT called Ballet Royale, Pidel and Nelson’s former school, a hidden gem in suburban Maryland. Considering Ballet Conservatoire XIV, recalling Pidel’s generosity and Nelson’s experience and the soft light streaming through those gleaming French doors, I would go even further: the school is a national treasure.