With a Renewed Emphasis on Individuality and Diversity, The Rock School’s Tradition of Excellence Lives On

Sponsored by The Rock School
January 18, 2023

The Rock School for Dance Education has turned out a veritable who’s who of the ballet world, training a long list of accomplished dancers, including Christine Shevchenko, Taylor Stanley, Michaela DePrince, Beckanne Sisk and Isaac Hernández (to name a few). The Philadelphia-based school, now in its 60th year, can credit some of its continued success to two factors: Its ability to keep up with an ever-changing world and its emphasis on the individual dancer. Since taking the reins of the organization as president and director a year ago, Peter Stark has doubled down on this mission with incredible results.

“My vision was twofold: To maintain the artistic excellence of The Rock School, and to recover from the pandemic and move forward into the 21st century,” says Stark. And, indeed, the school’s growth is best seen in the formalization of its curriculum, the revamping of its satellite school, Rock West, its updated Nutcracker production and its far-reaching community-engagement programs. “Peter Stark has enhanced one of the world’s finest and most respected dance institutions by paving a new path of awareness, relevance and care for its students,” reflects Rock School chairman emeritus Caro U. Rock. 

A Pathway for Every Dancer

The Rock School houses two tracks: the Ballet Division and the Professional Division. The latter is a full-time program including academics and a residential option designed for pre-professional dancers, ages 12 and up. The former, which starts with the Pre-Ballet Division, for ages 3 to 6, consists of after-school classes and trains dancers through the end of high school. “The Ballet Division was affected the most by COVID because a lot of children who were just starting dance weren’t enriched by trying to dance over Zoom,” says Melissa Stafford, chief artistic officer of the Ballet Division. But thanks to the combined efforts of Stark and Stafford, the Ballet Division has bounced back in the past year and is stronger—and more streamlined—than ever.

Melissa Stafford, chief artistic officer of the Ballet Division, working with students on their alignment. Photo courtesy The Rock School.

“We had a lot of excellent teachers that were working from known knowledge, but we wanted to formalize the process so that everybody knew exactly what was happening at each given level to support students’ progress through the curriculum,” says Stark. The Rock School’s team reinvigorated the pre-ballet classes and brought in Boston Ballet’s Luciano Aimar to train the faculty, creating a curriculum that is developmentally appropriate. “It offers an opportunity for people who want to learn ballet well, but not necessarily want to do it as a career,” says Stark. “And then my hope is the ones with talent and drive will audition and integrate very nicely into the Professional Division.”

President and director Peter Stark teaching a men’s class. Photo courtesy The Rock School.

The Professional Division is also thriving once again. The school’s housing is at capacity with 61 students in residence, including five Ukrainian refugees joining the school on scholarship; the remaining 30 students commute each day. The student body includes dancers from 10 countries and 22 states. “We’re serious about dance education, and we are caring for the individual’s path,” says Stark. He’s committed to providing students with a holistic experience: In addition to their academics and dance classes, The Rock has added on-site physical therapy and has contracted with a mental health counselor to meet with students as needed. Stark credits founding artistic director Bo Spassoff and artistic director Stephanie Spassoff with laying the groundwork for this approach. “They really wanted this to be a familial environment,” he says. “They take just as much pride in the star dancers as they do in the kids who don’t become professional dancers but participated positively in the program.”

Photo courtesy The Rock School.

Expanding The Rock’s Reach

Rock West, located in West Chester (about 45 minutes northwest of Philadelphia), has been under The Rock School’s purview for 14 years, but since bringing in director Etienne Diaz, it’s undergone a massive transformation in just a matter of months. Like many suburban dance schools, Rock West was a competition studio featuring an à la carte menu, allowing students to pick and choose the styles and classes they enrolled in each year. But under Diaz’s leadership, Rock West has become an official sister school to The Rock’s Philadelphia location, sharing a course of study and faculty. “The students are brought into a level based on age and ability and experience, and [they] progress through that curriculum,” explains Stark. “There’s much more stringent requirements.” Initially this was a hard sell for the school’s families, used to their children dancing only an hour or two a week, but those who’ve stayed are thrilled by the students’ accelerated growth.

Diaz has also implemented some tangible changes that make Rock West stand out from other nearby schools: Rock West now has sprung floors, live piano accompaniment and partnering classes. And, for the first time this year, the students now perform in The Rock’s Classic Nutcracker at Philadelphia’s Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, bringing the arms of the school together in one cohesive cast. “The culture at Rock West has shifted a little bit,” explains Diaz. “Before it was fun, it was a community, but now it’s a community that is being educated in this art form. The kids are already asking if they can do the summer intensive downtown.”

Rock West director Etienne Diaz coaches a student. Photo courtesy The Rock School.

Updated Nutcracker

“Our world has changed greatly, demanding greater diversity, equity and inclusion, so we changed our Nutcracker,” says Stark, explaining that The Rock’s previous production, titled 1776, celebrated Philadelphia’s origins and featured historical characters. The problem, says Stark, is that some of those characters were slave owners. The new production, Classic Nutcracker, which premiered in 2022, takes the story back to its fairy-tale origins—but not without a few changes. “We had Clara kill the King Mouse, instead of being rescued by the guy,” says Stark. “We’re mindful of how we can respond as an art form to the changing climate of the world with greater tolerance, inclusion and acceptance.”

Bringing in the Community

Another arm of The Rock that’s seen recent growth is RockReach, its community outreach program, which brings ballet into local schools and now reaches up to 75,000 kids annually. The organization brought in Anne White, a dance educator who’s shifted the program to reach an entire grade level at each school site, so that the students have more consistent exposure to dance throughout their time in school. The classes have also expanded to include percussion; students learn drumming and dance, and then put the two together. “We really want to get them excited about dance and excited about music,” says Stark.

The revamped outreach program also aims to bring students into The Rock’s studios with more regularity. Neighboring schools now visit the studios more frequently, and the faculty is always looking for ways to pull motivated students into The Rock on a more permanent basis. “Once we identify kids who we think have a propensity and an interest in diversifying their knowledge of dance training, we have these entry points to come into our school under a more rigorous ballet curriculum,” says Stark.

Rock School students. Photo courtesy The Rock School.

This year, The Rock paid for transportation to bring 830 kids to the Annenberg to see a condensed version of its Nutcracker. Thanks to a warm-up led by RockReach’s teaching artists, the students were dancing in the aisles before the first dancer even stepped onstage. The production included live narration, with additional audio descriptions available for students with vision impairments. The Rock also put on a sensory-inclusive studio performance. Stark remembers that after the performance, a nonverbal second-grader with autism who’d been dancing along in the audience approached the Cavalier and took his hand, a sweet example of The Rock’s ongoing mission to bring the community together through ballet. “We’re reaching across boundaries,” says Stark. “That’s really what it’s all about.”