Jenna Lavin has been teaching grand-pliés and soubresauts for nearly two decades. But this year, her role in shaping the minds of young dancers takes a new routine as the new principal of the pre-professional division of the Ballet Academy East.
Her mentors — founder and director Julia Dubno, and artistic director Darla Hoover — made the decision, making the promotion at the Carnegie Hill school in Manhattan all that much more special to Lavin, who lives in Riverdale.
“They both surprised me very well, and I was really, really excited,” Lavin said. “It’s always nice to feel like you’re being challenged, and just that you have an opportunity to grow.”
Lavin is known for pushing her students toward becoming well-rounded dancers who know multiple forms of ballet like classical, contemporary and romantic. The pre-professional division ranges in age from 7 to 19. Although Lavin’s title has changed, the dancer can still be found in the studio taking on additional classes.
“I always loved teaching, and even as a professional dancer, I would teach whenever someone would ask me to teach,” she said.
Before moving to Riverdale, Lavin danced across the country. For 18 years, she performed with a number of companies including the Miami City Ballet, Atlanta Ballet, the Chicago City Ballet — which was run by the legendary prima ballerina, Maria Tallchief — and even spent a season in the national ballet.
Yet throughout her two decades dancing professionally, Lavin’s always spent her time inside of ballet studios. For her, dancing had a certain charm, which eventually grew into a passion.
“I just remember being in my first ballet class and my teacher asking me to do these things, and I remember being so fascinated that my brain could tell my body what to do,” Lavin said. “Putting my arm over my head in a certain shape, I just remember being so completely fascinated with that, and I remember going home and practicing.”
Eventually, the Queens girl found her way back to New York City, dancing freelance and performing different guest artist gigs until an opportunity at the Manhattan-based academy opened up in 2003. Lavin has choreographed and instructed for Ballet Academy East students ever since.
In her new role, Lavin’s goals have grown with her responsibilities.
“I would help ensure that the students are really being the best that they can, communicating with them, and of course being in the studio and teaching with them and just having a more intense relationship,” she said.
It’s also a family affair. Her husband, Cornel Crabtree, is a dancer and instructor at the school for the adult and enrichment division, while the couple’s two eldest boys — Sky, 13, and Grayson, 9 — also attend the academy. Her youngest son Cooper, 6, is still figuring it out, but Lavin and her husband don’t push anything.
But in class, Lavin does press her students to express passion in their movements —and to be on point.
“I try to have that well-rounded vision, and I don’t want someone to dance technically and not expressive,” she said. “I don’t want someone to be overly expressive and not have the technique to back it up.”
The most rewarding part about teaching for Lavin is the growth she witnesses in her students. She teaches a range of dancers, but the progress is most evident in her beginners who enter September not knowing very much. By June, however, they’re stronger, their knees are straighter, and it’s interesting to see how far they’ve come.
“That’s probably like the coolest thing,” Lavin said. “They literally grow up right before your eyes. And now they're graduating at 18, and they’re young men and women, and it’s just amazing to watch that growth. I see it in my own home because I’m a parent. And I see it here, and it’s just a beautiful thing.”
Ballet isn’t all pink tutus, perfect buns and pointed toes. Some days there is no beauty, Lavin said, only sweat and tears.
At its core, ballet takes self-discipline and strength. However, at the same time, the academy is a nice and loving community, she said. Sometimes dancers miss their prom or weekend parties, but are willing to make the sacrifice because they — like Lavin — love the art that much.
“And I don’t know when that exact moment was, but I still remember my first ballet class,” Lavin said. “I was so fascinated with it from the very beginning.”