This is a monthly feature focused on “gems” in the Sea Coast Echo’s circulation area. This feature appears the first Wednesday of each month.
Merriam-Webster defines the verb ‘teach’ as ‘to instruct by precept, example, or experience’. Teachers, however, can expand beyond the confines of that definition to impart much deeper knowledge through their ‘influence,’ which is defined as ‘the power or capacity of causing an effect in indirect or intangible ways’, and, ‘an emanation of spiritual or moral force’.
This month’s Gem taught classical ballet for thirty-six years, her retirement to commence upon her last recital on the 4th of April. The recital, as well as final classes and rehearsals, did not go forward due to the coronavirus. Tears began to flow when our Gem spoke of her heartbreak because her students didn’t have their moment under the stage lights to showcase the ballet skills they learned over many years and countless hours of hard work. While her last class may not take the memory of their last recital into adulthood, they likely will take with them values and spirituality more lasting, precious, and impactful to their adult life, all imparted by their teacher’s influence.
Sharon Loiacano came from a family that valued the arts, including classical ballet, so it was natural that she began ballet lessons at the age of four in her hometown of Parkersburg, WV. Her love and devotion for ballet grew as she did.
“I decided when I was twelve that I wanted to be a ballerina. I was taking ballet five days a week. I gave up everything else and focused on ballet. I started going to summer intensive workshops for six to eight weeks. I was real serious about it,” Sharon related.
A job transfer to Port Bienville Industrial Park brought Sharon’s parents to Bay St. Louis when Sharon was a freshman at Texas Christian University, one of a handful of schools with a degreed ballet program. Her younger brother joined Loiacano’s Health Club, and through her brother she met her future husband, Jimmy. Marrying and settling in Bay St. Louis, though, derailed her budding professional ballerina career.
“There are no professional companies around here, so Jimmy said, ‘You love kids, why don’t you teach?’ It was just a natural switch to take what I love and teach it to kids,” Sharon said. “I never would have looked forward and said, ‘I’m going to be a teacher,’ but then, once that happened, it struck something in my heart that performing had never struck before. Teaching kids and sharing the beauty of ballet with them actually taught me more about my art. You have to be so purposeful and think about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. It took me to another level of love for the art that I didn’t have before I taught.”
Her love for ballet is rooted in the uniqueness of the art.
“It’s an incredible art,” she said. “It’s been around for over 500 years and has changed very little. You can take a classical ballet class anywhere in the world and know what you’re doing if you’re classically trained, even if you don’t speak their language, which is an amazing thing. There’s very little in the world now that’s still around like that.”
Sharon opened her studio in 1984 as The Ballet Place, on the corner of Necaise and Easterbrook, in a building that used to be her father-in-law’s grocery. She started with 50 students and quickly outgrew the building. In 1991 she built a new studio on the corner of Main and Necaise and changed the name to The Coast Youth Ballet Academy. The biggest change was yet to come.
“About 10 years into the studio, it’s like God had a talk with me and said, ‘Why do people separate what they do from Me? I gave you this gift, I gave you all the opportunities, the training, the experience. I gave it all to you. Why don’t you do it openly and fully for Me?’’’ Sharon said. “That’s when I started getting away from secular ballets, which is what I grew up on and what I performed all my life. God started showing me how to do what I do, openly for Him and purposely out loud. He put dance in us and He wants us to do it in a way that honors Him.”
“That next year I did a ballet about creation and that was the first year I started doing it openly and out loud,” Sharon said. “After that He started giving me stories. I would integrate the classics into the recitals, but use the classics to point people to Jesus. Our theme became, ‘Let them praise His name with dancing…’ (Psalm 149:3) and my advanced ensemble began to share the gift of liturgical ballet in many local churches. After a while, our religious theme became what Coast Youth Ballet Academy was known for,” Sharon said.
Sharon’s influence spread beyond ballet.
“I knew as a parent it was hard to find places where I could feel like my child was not just getting coached or taught, but also, that she was being mentored and discipled for Jesus,” she said.
Sharon began to integrate prayer and Bible teaching into all her classes and even began to write and lead Bible studies for her advanced dancers.
“After an hour and 45 minute class, for them to want to stay another half hour and do our Bible study, and to do daily homework for the Bible study - that’s huge!” Sharon said.
Sharon’s eyes lit up when she spoke of her student’s spiritual experiences she witnessed, on stage and off, but one story came from a surprising source.
“My favorite was about a dad, and that’s something because the dads dreaded coming to the ballet,” she said. “I had this dad come up to me right after the performance and he was crying, and he said, ‘I had forgotten my faith. Seeing my beautiful daughter up there looking prettier than I’ve ever seen her look in her whole life, and dancing for Jesus, reminded me I had forgotten God in my own life.’”
The Academy’s reputation and enrollment continued to grow, until August 29th, 2005.
“About 150 students was the biggest I got before Katrina. After Katrina I downsized on purpose. I just started praying and asking God to give me the number of students I could handle because everything was so stressful. The studio had flooded and we had lost our house.”
Her prayers to get the dance studio reopened quickly for the mental health of her students were answered by volunteers from far away.
“A church in Pennsylvania adopted our family and they wanted to see my studio made whole and our house made whole,” Sharon said. “They came down the second week in January, 2006, with an 18-wheeler with the flooring, the doors, and volunteers. We reopened near the end of January. We repainted with the exact same colors because I felt like the kids needed to come back to what they remembered and that was a huge thing. When they walked in they all cried and said, ‘It’s the same, Miss Sharon!’ That was important because everything else had changed. I wanted them to have that safe place to come back to where they got to do the thing they loved.”
A mere five months after Katrina, the Coast Youth Ballet Academy’s classes resumed in preparation for another full-length production, one of the forty-one Sharon directed in her career. As important as it was to teach the skills required to excel on stage, the assumption that Sharon’s goal was to propel students on to careers in professional dancing would be wrong.
“If a girl or boy wanted to be a professional dancer, I would do whatever I needed to do to help her or him do that, but it wasn’t my goal to make all my kids professional dancers,” Sharon said. “So, when my dancers got in high school, many would say, ‘Miss Sharon, I love ballet so much, but I don’t want to be a professional dancer. When I go to college, I don’t know what I’m going to do.’ I’d say, ‘Well, if you love it, keep doing it until it gets in the way of something else God wants you to do more.’”
Her life lessons seem so simple, but mean so much. Sharon made a habit of repeating to her students of all ages, “Remember that God loves you, remember that you were put on this earth for a purpose for Him and that’s what matters.”
Succeeding in that purpose was framed in terms of ballet movement.
“Do not allow yourself to put your foot down in a turn. Just don’t give yourself that option. If you give yourself the option to fall, you’re gonna, every time,” Sharon would emphasize. “And then I would tell them, ‘You can look at life that way. Don’t assume the option of failure. Assume you can do it well.’”
Of all her influential messages, she repeated one so much that a student made a plaque with her words, “Why do anything if you’re not going to do your best?”
Classical ballet classes often conclude with a moment of reverence, in which ballerinas show respect to the instructor – often with applause. The thousands of children and young adults she has touched are, no doubt, now giving her a cheerful standing ovation.
In a final moment of somber reflection, Sharon summed up what she hopes her life has meant to the thousands of girls she has taught and influenced.
“I wanted what I do on this planet to have some eternal value. Teaching ballet, well, it’s just ballet in the big scheme of things, but if it can have some eternal values for these kids, then that became my first and last purpose,” she said. “And I wanted them to know that I loved them and that God loved them enough to sacrifice his Son, Jesus, for them. If I did those things, then I did good.”
Instead of dwelling on the disappointment of having to cancel the final recital, Sharon revels in the memories of her and her thousands of students serving the Lord. A tear of joy emerged as Sharon summed up her career, saying, “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.” (Psalm 126:3).
If you would like to nominate someone to be a Gem, contact Bill Currie at email@example.com.