“One, two, three, four, five, six and down. Present the foot, yes, that’s it.”

Pink-clad feet follow the directions of Phyllis Rothwell, their rapid, graceful rhythm creating a hypnotic effect on the watcher.

Ballet pointe shoes whisper in silky tones and tap lightly as Rothwell employs the romantic vocabulary of the art form to guide eight dancers in matching hair buns and leotards to plié, glissade, chassé and more on a recent Tuesday evening.

Here the teacher tickles a hand to coax a slightly higher rise. There she taps a knee to drop an inch or so. Praise is generously deployed.

Rothwell is teaching her advanced class of ballet students, known as the Collective. The advanced ballet class is a recent addition to Walla Walla’s dance education options.

She opened the doors of her Rose Street studio in September 2020, a “very difficult” time to jump start a long-held dream, Rothwell said with a laugh.

“We couldn’t have open classes until January and then they had to be really small classes,” she said.

Rothwell is no stranger to rising to the challenge, however.

She was 6 years old when her gymnastics teacher suggested to Rothwell’s mother that her very active daughter could use the grace offered in dance classes.

Rothwell was immediately hooked on the art and continued to dance and do gymnastics.

As she got older, the difference between the two became clear, she recalled.

“When you go to a gymnastics competition, the judges are looking at what you did wrong. And when you dance the audience likes what you are doing right.”

As an adult, Rothwell moved from the Washington, D.C., area to join the Eugene Ballet on the west side of Oregon.

That company sent its principal dancers to assist with the Whitman College Summer Dance Lab, giving Rothwell a yearly immersion into the local community.

When it was time for her to retire from the stage three years ago, Rothwell had good memories of her time in Walla Walla and headed over from an on-stage career wrapped up at the Ballet Idaho company.

The dancer realized her next goal was to create a space where students could find the same support, confidence and joy she’d had the good fortune to experience as a youngster and then as an adult.

That’s how an unfinished commercial building space next to a paint store on Rose Street is transformed several evenings a week into another world, one filled with music, moments of laughter and a fierce concentration on movement.

About 25 girls attend classes where Rothwell helps them learn to dance untethered from fear and reaching for happiness within themselves.

“I never belittle a dancer, I focus on the positives,” Rothwell said.

“We focus on attainable goals so they always leave class in a relatively good mood.”

Her biggest contribution to her students’ growth is teaching them how to be “tough, not rough” — to strive for skills and overcome adversity while maintaining support and kindness for fellow students and other humans, Rothwell said.

In May, the Washington State Youth Ballet presented its first performance at Amavi Cellars and it offered the perfect moment to demonstrate that attitude.

“That performance took a village,” Rothwell recalled.

“Of course it chose that day to rain. It rained all morning and we tried to build the stage and then rebuild it. I had to cancel dress rehearsal because it was still raining.”

The special floor surface had to be dried out, which delayed the opening act by 30 minutes.

The end was worth it all. Under an evening sky dressed for the occasion in fluffy white and light pink clouds, Rothwell’s students repaid the efforts of the day with performances that shone with the enjoyment of the craft, the instructor recalled.

She could not have been prouder, she said, giving credit to the audience for its grace and her students’ parents for their contributions of time, labor and enthusiasm.

Next up is a version of “The Nutcracker” in December, Rothwell said, noting that the Eugene Ballet isn’t able to come to Walla Walla again this year.

“But we have to have a ‘Nutcracker,’ so we’re going to find a way.”

Details will be announced at washingtonstateyouthballet.com.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers health, social services and city government in Milton-Freewater, Athena and Weston in the Walla Walla Valley.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.
Posting comments is now limited to subscribers only. Become one today or log in using the link below. For additional information on commenting click here.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.