Hilton  Head Dance  Theatre celebrates 25 years

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  • John Carlyle works with a cast member during rehearsal for “The Nutcracker” in 1988.
    John Carlyle works with a cast member during rehearsal for “The Nutcracker” in 1988. File/The Island Packet

    The first performance of the Hilton Head Dance Theatre was "The Nutcracker." And not even the full show. Just the second act.

    The performance had modest ambitions, founders Karena and John Carlyle remember. They booked space at the now-razed Community Playhouse on Dunnagans Alley. It was intended as a small recital for parents and family members of the young performers -- nothing major. After all, the dance theater opened just seven months earlier with only 17 students.

    But its attendance grew, and by showtime, their supposedly small recital had sold out.

    That's when the Carlyles knew they had something. Maybe this small tourist island could be a home for a dance theater.

    The Hilton Head Dance Theatre celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. About 300 students take classes at the dance school, which is the teaching arm of the dance theater.

    Dance school instructors teach a range of styles from ballet to tap. The theater typically holds four major productions a year, including the full "Nutcracker."

    At first, its founders had doubts a theater could succeed on Hilton Head. "Isn't this a retirement community?" John Carlyle remembers asking. But he was assured by the group looking to start a dance school -- there are families here, and there will be more. The Carlyles saw the chance to start something new, something of their own, in a place they felt they could finally settle after a busy career in ballet.

    John Carlyle and Karena Brock both grew up with similar lifestyles. John's father was in the Air Force, so his family moved frequently. Karena's father was in the corporate world, so relocating was the norm.

    Their professional lives could be just as hectic. John moved to New York to study dance, performing professionally across the country. Karena danced 15 years with the American Ballet Theatre in New York, rising to become the principal soloist. She partnered with Mikhail Baryshnikov and some of the leading dancers of the time.

    Life as a professional dancer can be short-lived, and in her 30s, Karena moved to Savannah to become an artistic director of the Savannah Ballet Company. There, she met John, whose parents lived in the city. They soon married.

    The Savannah Ballet was having financial trouble when Karena moved South. Eventually the company went under. John and Karena never saw their lives without dance. So, they listened when a group of islanders invited them to consider starting their own school.

    "The opportunity looked so wonderful to build something from the ground up," Karena said.

    The school started in the Jazzercise building off Arrow Road. They figured the small initial class was a result of starting the program in May, right before the traditional summer break from school. They were right. By the start of the next year, the school's attendance increased nearly fivefold. The next year, the theater moved into the place it now calls home, an L-shaped building up the road.

    The theater held numerous shows at the Community Playhouse before it closed. They now hold shows at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina and Hilton Head Island High School's Visual and Performing Arts Center. This year, they'll combine with the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra for a performance of the comedic ballet "Coppelia."

    Kelly Broome-Smith grew up on Hilton Head and danced with John and Karena through her school years. She left for college and returned to her hometown. She began volunteering with the dance theater and rose to become president of its board two years ago.

    She recognizes the success of the theater due to a steady volunteer base, the dedication of the Carlyles and Hilton Head's strong support of the arts.

    "I know we're not a big city, but we're a community that loves arts and culture," she said. "You look at the people who live here, and it seems that everyone is involved in one organization or another."

    A moment came several years ago when John was on stage with "The Nutcracker." In the early years, he used to perform a lot because of a lack of male dancers in the area.

    He took a bow and realized that he had known many of the lead girls since they were 3 years old. They were now in high school. "Waves of emotion" came over him, he remembers. It wasn't just the success of the show. It was the fact that he had actually spent more than a decade in one place.

    He and Karena traveled throughout their lives because of family and career. The dance studio they built had finally given them a home.