Lila White: The transformative power of ballet

November 15, 2016


Jon McCoy
Zenith News

For a professional dancer, Lila White was a relative latecomer to ballet, taking it up at the age of 15. “You can’t just jump in in a situation like that. I actually started taking dance class with the adults. In other words, with all the ‘old ladies,’” she says with a laugh.


Originally from Kansas City, Missouri, her father was an orthopedic surgeon and her mother a schoolteacher. The value they placed on education is reflected in the range of White’s work. She’s a professor of dance in UMD’s Theatre Department, a lead teacher at the Minnesota School of Ballet (MSB), and a physical therapist.

Her approach to teaching is that ballet should be accessible—regardless of the dancer’s natural ability. “People can say tough love is a good thing—and it does make you tough—but it was not something that I wanted to pass on...I made the decision not to be a yeller. I wasn’t going to break people down. I decided to be encouraging because I wanted people to love ballet.”


 Photo by Brett Groehler/University of Minnesota Duluth

Lila White’s approach to teaching ballet is to encourage, so that her students will love to dance as much as she does.


White’s desire to be inclusive is due, in part, to an injury she sustained years ago while dancing. A lengthy stint in physical therapy is one of the factors that led her to become a physical therapist. “Not too long after [my injury], we did a state-funded grant program, a two-week session for children with physical challenges...We still have a weekly class for kids with physical challenges. Some children cannot leave a wheelchair; some are very mobile. We work with everyone on a case-by-case basis. It’s been a remarkable experience, and it’s shown me how accessible and powerful dance can be for so many different people.”

Also a choreographer, White prefers to develop her own original pieces. “There are a lot of choreographers who don’t want to work with women en pointe [a ballet technique in which the dancer supports her full body weight on the tips of her extended feet], and a lot of productions don’t have storylines. It’s all very abstract and sculptural. And to be fair, you can get a lot of beautiful movement by using that approach, but sometimes the emotional element is lacking. I tried to do a story ballet recently as a sort of nod to the dancers of the ’50s and ’60s, who did these psychological ballets where there was a scarred hero or heroine in the story, which can be very dark and dramatic. I love that stuff. I love dance history.”

White hopes to continue her work in the Twin Ports for as long as possible. “When I first came here, I almost immediately fell in love with the place. I didn’t own a car at the time so I walked everywhere.

"The community support here is incredible. I think the MSB is a perfect example of that. We’re the oldest ballet in the state. Why wouldn’t it be in Minneapolis? Well, it’s not—it’s here. The school is one of the most polished and professional and legitimate ballet schools you’ll find...One of our kids could go into a proper ballet class anywhere in the world and I think they’d be very well prepared. It’s a very unique resource within the community.”

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