FOR MICHELLE HARVEY, DANCE HAS ALWAYS BEEN PART OF HER LIFE. SHE STARTED TEACHING IN HIGH SCHOOL AND WOULD LATER OPEN HER OWN DANCE STUDIO BEFORE RETURNING TO WORK WITH LINDA FORD AT LINDA LAVENDER SCHOOL OF DANCE AND THE TWIN CITY BALLET COMPANY.
ARTICLE BY STARLA GATSON
PHOTOGRAPHY BY KELLY MOORE CLARK
“There’s no place like home” isn’t just a well-known mantra from The Wizard of Oz. It’s a phrase that sums up the path of Michelle Harvey’s career. For her, dance — particularly when it’s done in a Linda Lavender School of Dance (LLSD) studio or at a Twin City Ballet (TCB) performance — is home, and it has been since she first donned a pair of pink ballet slippers as a young girl.
“One of my neighbor friends started dancing,” Harvey recalls, “and my mother worked, so hers said, ‘Well, I’ll take Michelle, too.’ So, I went with my friend to dance at Linda Lavender School of Dance at age nine. That’s where it all began. I fell in love, especially with ballet. That was my favorite.”
Then, at age 10 with just one year of classes under her belt, Harvey expanded her training a bit. She would not only be dancing at LLSD but with the Monroe-based TCB, too. This experience only deepened her interest in ballet.
“That year was our Nutcracker,” she says of her first season as a company dancer. “I was a soldier and an angel, and I thought I was the star of the show.”
That was the first of many ballets for Harvey, and though she wasn’t technically the star then, she would go on to perform many roles during her tenure with TCB. She took the stage during TCB’s takes on several popular ballets including Coppelia, and at one point or another tackled nearly every role in the Christmas classic, The Nutcracker, including Arabian, Mirliton, Snow Queen, and Sugarplum Fairy.
Of all the company shows she was a part of, however, one stands out more than the rest of her 15-year Twin City career: a performance of The Nutcracker during which a 17-year-old Harvey shared the stage with her late parents, Meg and Charles Page, as they were included in the party scene of Act I.
She gets a bit teary-eyed as she shares this memory. It no doubt holds a special place in Harvey’s heart, but likely means a lot to many others as well given the Pages’ support of the local dance community. Through the years, the two of them proved to be just as dedicated to the ballet company and Linda Lavender studio as their daughter. Their countless hours of service, sponsorship, and commitment to the arts even earned them a Twin City Ballet Lifetime Membership.
Nowadays, Twin City Nutcrackers look a bit different for Harvey. Rather than commanding the stage as a gifted performer, she’s conducting rehearsals as one of the company’s four directors alongside Gretchen Jones, Linda Lou Bourland, and her own teacher, Linda Lavender Ford.
Teaching, Harvey says, stole her heart when she was just a senior in high school. Once she began assisting classes at LLSD, she knew dance instruction was the job she wanted to pursue. She attended the University of Louisiana Monroe and earned a degree in physical education, but she never really had plans to use it, she says. She was going to teach dance instead.
“It was challenging because you don’t think about yourself anymore,” she says as she remembers the transition from dancer and student to instructor and choreographer. “As a dancer, you worry about how you perform and how you look, but as a teacher, you’re more worried about your students. But I loved it. I found it very rewarding, and I still do.”
he satisfaction Harvey found in teaching drove her to create even more opportunities for herself to lead students through adagio, petit allegro, and pirouette exercises at the ballet barre. Instead of working solely at Linda Lavender, she decided to open a studio of her own and teach there, too. She explains, “I saw a need for a studio in Rayville, so I opened it in 1980. I taught some wonderful children over there, and a lot of them I still have contact with.”
Rayville wouldn’t be as far from home as Harvey would fly, though. When life — and her husband’s job — led her to the Lone Star State, she found herself closing her studio, leaving LLSD, and heading to studios in Cedar Park and Georgetown, respectively. Eventually, though, the Harvey family — Michelle, her husband Bill, and her son Matthew — reached the end of their time in Texas, and they made their way back to Louisiana to help care for a sick Meg and Charles. When she came back to Monroe in 2005, Harvey resumed teaching dance at the studio in which she grew up, and she has been a beloved LLSD faculty member ever since.
Despite having dreamt of being a dancer since she was a little girl who saw a photo of a ballerina on a magazine cover — “I just thought, ‘I want to be that,’” she reveals — Harvey says her younger self would be surprised to see just how long her career has spanned and how many students she’s crossed paths with.
“When I first started teaching dance, I probably couldn’t foresee that I’d still be teaching at this age,” she admits. “I probably didn’t see how much I could impact [the students], but it’s definitely eye-opening to see what you can do and how much you can shape and mold dancers and guide their lives in the right direction.”
The shaping and molding of which Harvey speaks aren’t just teaching children to stretch their feet, straighten their knees, and bourree across the stage in pointe shoes, though. Dance, she explains, gives students traits they can carry into many other aspects of their lives.
Harvey says, “Not everybody goes on to be a professional dancer, but I feel like dance training takes them even further in their careers than they realize because they have confidence and discipline. Those contribute to whatever direction they want to go in.”
The characteristics and habits students pick up in a ballet class like the ones Harvey teaches are not unlike the ones she gleaned from her teachers. She draws inspiration from all kinds of instructors and choreographers, she says, from those who guest-teach and choreograph at Twin City’s summer workshops to those she encounters at the Regional Dance America Southwest Festivals the company attends annually. Two of her most prominent influences are TCB’s first ballet company mistress and former Sadler’s Wells Ballet Company dancer, Madame Cecelia Kelly, and her successor, Linda Ford.
Like many men, women, and children in the Monroe-West Monroe area, Harvey has a soft spot for Ford. Ford’s selflessness and big heart, she says, are what make her an inspiration not just to Harvey, but to the numerous students she has had a part in training since opening her studio over 60 years ago.
“I’m not even sure I can express into words what she means to me,” she says of her teacher, employer, and friend. “She’s always been my role model. I think of her as my second mom. She made me accountable and dependable and shaped me into the person I am today.”
Accountability and dependability weren’t the only things Harvey got from her beloved Ms. Linda. Impeccable technique, showmanship, and a genuine love of dance were also part of the deal. These gifts, especially the latter, are some she hopes to pass on to the young dancers she educates.
“I just want to teach them to come into the studio and love what they do, enjoy being around other children, take direction, and experience the joy of movement,” she says. “Just getting their bodies moving is so important nowadays with all the video games and cell phones and things that distract them and keep them sedentary all the time. I think it’s so important to keep moving. It’s vital.”
It doesn’t always happen, Harvey muses, but perhaps after learning to love moving their bodies through dance, a few of her current students will join the ranks of other TCB and Linda Lavender alumni and dance professionally. While creating prima ballerinas isn’t necessarily her primary objective, she says she hopes to see some of LLSD and Twin City’s dancers shoot at a few dance-related targets, adding, “I strive to do my best every day with all the dancers by encouraging them and trying to instill the love of dance because that’s what’s in me. I want to pass it on to them, and hopefully, they’ll realize how important it is and want to have dreams and goals like I did.”
Harvey knows dance to be a friend that sticks around, even long after the pointe shoes, tights, and leotards are hung up for the last time. Whether or not her influence leads her students down a path like hers or in a different direction, she says she believes they will always remain connected to the art form.
“There’s nothing like it,” Harvey says of dance. “Even if you leave it, it stays with you forever. You’ll always be a dancer, and I feel like I will be, too. It’s in your heart.”
The appreciation for the performing art is what fuels Harvey, and her passion is no doubt the secret of her over four-decade-long career. It runs so deep, she says, that she can’t picture who she would be had she never taken a dance class.
“[Dance] is my world,” she declares. “It’s my every day, and it has guided my path. I wake up every morning, and it’s what I think about. I just feel like this is what God wanted me to do, and I’ve enjoyed every second of it. When you go to work and you love what you do and you enjoy being around the kids, it’s not work. It’s pleasure. It’s joy.”