By Morgan Owen
Teens shuffle around the dance studio at Westside School of Ballet. They all wear matching black leotards with skin-pink tights, laughing and stretching as the instructor and pianist prepare for class. Then they begin. Suddenly, the studio is alive with music. The dancers seem to grow several inches as they conduct their drills in pace with the pianist, disciplined and graceful.
The second students walk through the door, they present their best selves, says Allegra Clegg, the owner and executive director of 56-year-old dance school. Poise, etiquette, and perseverance are the values instilled in every student, in line with what Clegg’s mother, Yvonne Mounsey, intended when she began the school in 1967.
Clegg says everything in her mother’s life was about ballet. Mounsey founded Westside Ballet with Rosemary Valarie after being a principal dancer for the New York City Ballet in the 1950s.
After her mother passed away in 2012 at the age of 93, Clegg took over ownership of the school. Although Clegg now works professionally as an executive vice president at Paramount, she works closely with the current management and artistic staff at the ballet school.
“I could see how passionate my mother was about ballet and the lessons ballet taught the kids. No matter what the talent of the child, they learned to work hard to become the best dancer they could be. Most importantly she taught them that life is difficult, and you have to show up and work hard, day in and day out,” Clegg says. “It was something I didn’t want to let go of.”
Mounsey had a way of inspiring the children, Clegg says. She remembered once when a student’s brother came with her to class. Mounsey bent down and asked him, ‘why aren’t you in class too?’ The boy, four years old, says he didn’t know why. That boy, Clegg says, stuck with the program to the end of high school and is now studying at the Tisch School of the Arts in New York.
That passion and love for ballet are what Mounsey, and now Clegg with the current artistic staff — led by Artistic Director Martine Harley — hope to instill in every student. But ballet, like most children’s sports, is not free; that is why Westside Ballet has a robust scholarship program to help students fund their ballet education.
Clegg explains the artistic staff doesn’t just aim to teach students ballet; they strive to teach them valuable life lessons that launch them into adulthood. Clegg says that is what she loves being a part of the most.
“Being the owner, I love to see what Westside Ballet is doing for the community. I feel it’s essential to grow good adults, and kids that go through the school have a little extra … I think that’s a gift, and I love being part of it,” Clegg says.
When the world shut down three years ago because of the pandemic, Clegg says the camaraderie of ballet was a shining light for the students during a dark time. Even though they had to scramble to figure out how to teach ballet virtually, the community came together to support the school.
Westside Ballet is a small business after all, Clegg says, and they were in danger of closing if they could not raise money through performances and ticket sales. Their Volunteer Guild jumped into action with a crisis relief campaign. With community and alumni support, they raised more than $300,000. Between that, and special relief grants, Clegg was able to keep the school open.
That same summer, when the initial lockdown ended, the school reopened using their rear studio (which has a bay wall exposing the studio to the open air) and a new outdoor studio space constructed by Morley Builders.
“(My mother) would have been so proud. I feel like that was in my DNA, with my mother being the way she was. (I was) very strong and said, no, we are going to figure this out,” Clegg says. “My mother would have been very proud of our community. We came together and figured out how to save this amazing institution.”
Summer programs and year-round classes
Over the summer, Westside Ballet offers several weeklong intensive programs for different skill levels. The school’s staff have designed the programs to strengthen young dancers’ technique and allow them to improve at an accelerated rate.
For intermediate to advanced dancers, the school offers intensives in styles from ballet to jazz to modern. For advanced students aged 13 to 19, the intensives focus on “Swan Lake,” Balanchine, and international styles.
Westside Ballet also has children’s day camps throughout the summer. Each day camp has a different theme, including “Toy Story,” “Puss ‘n Boots,” “Swan Lake,” “Encanto” and “Jazz Extravaganza.” The camps are designed to bring children’s favorite storybook characters to life though dance and design.
But the school doesn’t just focus on teaching children the joys of ballet. Westside School offers adult and teen Summer Intensives, designed to strengthen basic form and knowledge of the discipline.
“All the adults, they just love it. They love hearing the music and experiencing the joy of dance. It doesn’t matter how experienced they are; they’re just having a good time and enjoying the music and the camaraderie,” Clegg says.
Students at Westside Ballet, whether they are children, teens or adults, form meaningful relationships with instructors and peers that shape their approach to life. The friendships students create often carry on throughout students’ lives, Clegg says, because of how much they have been through together.
“A great deal of (the students) say that the friendships they form here are such a gift. It’s because they’re performing together. They’re in class together. They’re struggling together, and they’re achieving together. And then it does give them that discipline,” Clegg says.
Students practice and perform together. On May 26 and 27, Westside Ballet will perform its Spring Showcase, “Masters of Movement: Ballet through the Centuries” at the BroadStage in Santa Monica. The program presents new and established classical and contemporary works. The Friday night Soirée includes a preshow special cocktail, hors d’oeuvres and special guest performers.
“I love going to performances and seeing our kids go from (playing little parts) in the ‘Nutcracker’ to doing the Sugar Plum Fairy. To see the trajectory is amazing,” Clegg says.
Performances like these, especially the “Nutcracker,” are great learning opportunities for students to practice performing with a live orchestra. Unlike many dance studios Westside Ballet trains their students with live music, giving them important skills.
Westside Ballet begins teaching children as young as 3 years old in its Creative Movement classes. From there, they progress into pre-ballet. From ages 3 to 7, students generally attend one or two classes a week. At ages 8 to 9, they begin their first performances with the older dancers. By the time students are in high school, they are in the studio anywhere between 15 to 25 hours per week, which can add up in cost.
“We average about $100,000 in financial aid to families who can’t afford ballet for their children per year. I never want to turn a kid away — my mom was like that. If they have that desire, why shut the door? I think (ballet) gives (kids) the grace and grit you don’t learn in many places,” Clegg says.
Clegg says she wants to grow Westside Ballet’s adult and boys programs. Even though there is still a stigma, Clegg says she feels many of their male students wear their ballet skills as a badge of honor, proud of all they have accomplished.
Another avenue the school is exploring is expanding its home-school training programs for advanced students with professional potential. Many of those students, she says, train at the level of Olympic athletes and have built their life around ballet training.
“I think my mom would be very proud of the direction Westside Ballet is heading. Since her death, the goal has been to ‘Raise the Barre’ and continue the legacy she and her partner, Rosemary Valarie started,” Clegg says.
“My mom was always looking for ways to make things better, to grow the school and the company. She always wanted to do more, to reach more children and to introduce more children to the wonderful world of ballet.”