Veteran teacher reflects on four decade career

Published 10:04 am Friday, June 4, 2010

In a few hours Yvonne DeKay Sinnott will celebrate a milestone.

At 7 p.m. tonight as her students bring to life the story of that perpetual youth Peter Pan and his utopic Neverland on the stage of the Paramount Arts Center, the Ironton dance teacher will mark 45 years in the business of turning movement into magic.

The day before the recital, her students were scattered throughout the Paramount waiting for Sinnott to fine tune what they’ve spent the past months honing.

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It’s 3:30 Thursday afternoon and Jessica Melvin, a Cathy Rigby look-a-like, is shimmying up red circus silks getting ready to give the illusion of Peter flying.

That out of the way, Melvin and Joy Durant, who plays Peter’s shadow, go through choreography under Sinnott’s direction.

“Put your hands together, “ she tells the two students. “Now take second position and go forward one, two, three. Then kick, kick and jump.”

Pleased with their performance, Sinnott comes back down stage to juggle a cast of Lost Boys and pirates, knowing full well, she won’t be home before midnight. That’s what it takes to put on a show.

But Sinnott’s own story is bigger than a single dance recital, no matter how ambitious. It’s the story of a woman whose dreams didn’t take off the way she wanted, at least when she was sweet sixteen.

Now almost five decades later, the dance teacher, choreographer and mentor to many teens can see it was all part of a plan that has brought her something better than fame. It’s called joy.

“The joy is to have a job you love. I wanted to be a professional dancer,” she said. “That was not what God wanted me to do. Now I see some of my students who are professionals, it lets me know that this is what I was supposed to do. Watching them bloom into graceful dancers, it makes me feel so proud.”

Sinnott was only 3 when she first stepped inside a dance studio, not just because that was what she wanted to do. Dancing had been her mother’s passion and her frustration.

“My mother said as soon as I was walking, I was always walking on my toes,” Sinnott recalled. “My mom looked like Liz Taylor and always wanted to take dancing. She said when she had a girl, she would put her in dance class. I always said ‘You marked me.’ ”

At each lesson, Sinnott’s mother was there taking it all in.

“My mother would sit in the back of the room,” she said. “My mother only had a sixth grade education and she would sit with a note pad and try to write the name of the steps and make me practice.”

Soon Sinnott discovered she had a talent for the graceful, yet rigorous, discipline of ballet. By the age of 7 she was already able to dance en pointe, pushing her toes into hard blocked pink satin toe shoes, to stand upright.

“I was strong. I could get up there,” Sinnott said. “Ballet is an athletic thing. You have to get in tune with your body and know the technique. It takes years. Your body is like a piece of clay that has to be molded. It takes years to train.”

Yet it was a commitment of time and physical endurance Sinnott willingly made to realize her heart’s desire: to go on stage in the corps de ballet, or even a prima ballerina recreating the classic dance heroines like Giselle or Princesse Odette.

“At 18, when I was ready to graduate, I asked to go to the Joffrey Ballet to study,” Sinnott said.

Her mother quickly said no to the idea of her daughter alone in New York City. However a few months later Sinnott was in Manhattan, but not alone, as a senior class trip took her to Radio City Music Hall where the New York City Ballet was performing.

“I sat and cried and cried and cried,” she recalled. “This is what I wanted to do.”

However, she quickly switched into Plan B and turned the studio at Third and Vernon streets she had bought from Ruth Hensley at the age of 16 into her new career.

“Ruth was a really good tapper and I wanted to learn to tap like her. She asked me to assist with her classes,” Sinnott said.

There Sinnott would work Saturdays. That is until Hensley decided to give up her Ironton studio. She sold the equipment to Sinnott and told her she could have the 35 students, if they wanted a new teacher.

“They stayed with me,” she said.

But simply regurgitating what she knew wasn’t how Sinnott wanted to approach the art of teaching dance. She also knew it wasn’t the way to keep her students.

“If I don’t learn more, my students are catching up with me,” she recalled. “That inspired me. I started to try to educate myself to be better.”

That meant trips to New York, Chicago, even Amsterdam to take a class whenever she could.

Today, Sinnott’s studio has grown to 200 students with a staff of four. In many ways it is a different world from the one when she started, one not always as compatible with what it takes to be an effective teacher.

“I find it harder now,” she said. “Most children are not disciplined at home. When you try to force discipline upon them, they think you are being mean. They don’t understand they are going to need that discipline to work, to get a job. It stays with you through life.”

But it is still her students who give her inspiration and satisfaction, even though she missed out on her dream to take center stage.

“It’s to find joy in helping others to make their life worthwhile,” she said.


Yvonne DeKay Dance Recital at 7 p.m. today and Saturday at Paramount Arts Center.

For tickets, contact 606-324-3175.