By Emily Weitz
Sara Jo Strickland is coming full circle.
When she first came out to the East End in 1989, she found a home at the Conservatory of Danse Arts, housed in the Bridgehampton Community House. She danced all the main roles in the company, and went back and forth to the city to dance in regional companies. But the Community House was her base. Much of her training, both as a dancer and as a teacher, came from the founder of the school, Aras Ames.
“He was my mentor,” said Ms. Strickland. “I didn’t leave his side for 20 years. I danced under him, and taught under him.”
Many students passed through the ballet school at the Bridgehampton Community House, and Ms. Strickland became an experienced teacher. When Mr. Ames passed away in 1999, Ms. Strickland continued at the helm of the ballet school, alongside Mr. Ames’ partner. But eventually, she struck out on her own.
Now, she is returning home to the space where she first danced on the East End—the Bridgehampton Community House, a place full of memories for Ms. Strickland who hopes to make many more as her Hampton Ballet Theater School continues to expand.
Ms. Strickland came to ballet at the age of six. A gymnast, who would letter in the sport at the University of Pittsburgh, ballet was a part of her training regime. It was dance that would bring her first to New York City after college, and then to the East End, where she met Mr. Ames and began a local career as both a dancer, and a teacher.
“I love to dance,” said Ms. Strickland. “I love music of all kids and I always, from a young age, loved to move and create performance. My parents loved to dance and took me to “A Chorus Line.” We sat in front row seats and that was it. Somehow, I was going to be a dancer.”
Under Mr. Ames, Ms. Strickland danced principal roles in “The Nutcracker,” where each winter she appeared as the Sugar Plum Fairy, to “Coppelia” as Swanilda. Found in the studio at the Community House virtually every day—whether in class or teaching one—Ms. Strickland said the discipline of ballet has taught her many lessons, lessons she hopes to share with her own students.
“I have learned life lessons: success, failure, time management, working really hard, team work, body confidence—which is so important for young girls—self esteem, and I want to carry this on as a director and teacher,” she said. “As a director and teacher I try to instill structure, order and discipline in young peoples lives so they can use these tools to become whatever they may become—maybe dancers, maybe a Supreme Court Justice.”
“In my opinion, children thrive by being challenges, and I love the vehicle of dance as a tool to help them become wonderful young people,” adds Ms. Strickland. “It is not just about dance.”
It was this philosophy that drew many parents to her Hampton Ballet Theater School when Ms. Strickland opened the company in 2007. The school grew quickly, and now 125 students take classes between the Bridgehampton and Montauk locations.
With the growth of the school, when Ms. Strickland was informed by the board of the Community House that the current incarnation of Danse Arts would not renew its lease, all it took was a trip down memory lane to convince the ballet mistress it was time to come home.
“I went upstairs to the attic,” she said, “and I stopped in my tracks. Everything that we had created – old programs that I had danced, pictures – it was all there. There were costumes that Aras’s sister had made that I wore, things I had always wondered about. It was a step back in time.”
She remembered the atmosphere of the place that had formed her in so many ways. She remembered the sense of family, and the drama.
“It was a dance studio life,” Ms. Strickland said.
In addition to a dance studio, Ms. Strickland said she wants to see the Community House truly belong to the Bridgehampton community again, offering classes including adult ballet, Pilates and ballroom dance. The company has also spent the past month painting and redoing the floors, renovating the space back to its former grandeur, and giving Ms. Strickland the chance to create the school she always intended to create, in the space she always intended it to be in.
“I wanted to put a lot of love back there,” she said, “get the kids back in there, get life back in there.”