When an audience watches a ballet, they see grace, beauty, athleticism and precision, as dancers leap and spin and twirl across stage in what seems like effortless rhythm.
What the audience doesn’t often see are the countless hours spent learning and perfecting those moves and positions, the years it took the performers to get to that very moment on stage, nor the people who got them there in the spotlight.
For nearly 40 years, it was Carol Sullivan, known for years as Carol Jakes, who was responsible for finding, shining and inspiring the ballet talent in the Flathead. And in January, Carol took her final bow as a dance instructor.
She just turned 60, and though her mind is still very much in the dance studio, after a lifetime of ballet, her body has decided it is time to move on.
“I miss it, but how could I not miss it; I’ve done it for 37 years,” Carol said in an interview last week. “I miss the kids. I’ll always love ballet, but it’s time to move on.”
Nearly every ballet dancer to study in the Flathead has felt Carol’s influence, whether they took lessons from her directly or from the dancers she taught who eventually became instructors themselves.
“Carol has been an imperative part of ballet in the Flathead Valley,” Marisa Roth, director of the Northwest Ballet School and Company in Kalispell, said.
It didn’t start out that way, Carol said. Back in the 1970s, she moved here with her husband and son. She had grown up with ballet, having performed with Marin Ballet in San Rafael, Calif., but dancing went on the backburner when she started her family.
Carol was working in a local arts and crafts store in 1977 when ballet began pulling her back in.
“I said, ‘There’s more to life than this,’” she said. “And I thought, ‘Why don’t I open a dance studio?’”
She started in the basement at the Sons of Norway Hall, pregnant with her second son. She put an ad in the newspaper about her classes and, within three days, she had 50 students.
“Talk about being at the right place at the right time,” Carol said.
That October, she gave birth to her son, and in December she put on her first Nutcracker performance, held at Flathead High School. From there, the school blossomed, spending a few more years at the Sons of Norway Hall before outgrowing the space.
The school moved to a building behind Wheaton’s Cycle in Kalispell, where it stayed for a decade until the growing pains set in again. Carol spent a few years looking for the perfect spot, and in 1994 founded the Dance Art Center on First Avenue West.
Two years later, she added the second story to the building, allowing for three studios and better waiting room.
At this point, her students were performing all over the Flathead, and the annual Nutcracker show was sold out. Ballet was finally taking root here, she said.
“We educated the valley,” Carol said.
In 2004, Carol was starting to feel burned out. She took some time off, leaving her studio under the careful and talented instruction of one of her longtime students, Marisa Roth, while she was gone.
“By 2006, I was done,” Carol said.
She sold the ballet school to Roth, and went back to college; she had completed two years at Gonzaga University before getting married and moving to Kalispell. Carol earned her teaching degree from the University of Great Falls via Flathead Valley Community College, and started looking for jobs
in the valley.
In June 2010, the teaching job hadn’t materialized, and a former employee, Natalie Molter, called and asked if she’d be interested in starting a new dance school, this time in Columbia Falls.
The venture ended up being Noble Dance, which eventually moved to its current studio space on Whitefish Stage Road north of Kalispell. For several years, Carol taught Storybook Ballet, during which the students, ages 3 to 8, dance, dress up, have tea parties and read storybooks.
Molter is responsible for teaching the beginner through advanced students. When she met Carol, Molter was bit burned out on dance herself, having grown up in the brutal ballet scene on the East Coast. It had taken the joy out of dancing, she said, but that changed when Carol hired her as an instructor in 2002.
“Carol created a loving atmosphere,” Molter said. “I never had been introduced to a loving atmosphere with ballet and it made me want to be involved in ballet so much more.”
Carol taught her how to teach ballet in a way students would understand and would leave them with a sense of accomplishment, Molter said, a sentiment Roth echoed.
“I feel that her influence is still very prominent, and kind of what I still do at the Northwest Ballet,” Roth said.
Northwest Ballet Company performed its 20th annual Nutcracker show last year.
Carol recently got married, changing her name to Carol Sullivan, and last year she found out she has chronic Achilles tendonitis, making it painful to dance.
It was a sign that it’s time to stop and move on, she said. But like anyone who has lived her passion, Carol doesn’t plan on leaving ballet behind entirely; she wants to work on a book about teaching.
“It’s been a fun ride,” Carol said. “It was my total passion.”
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