Students at the Diggs School of Dance in Gloucester soon discover the many ways this place is so different from “real” school. Even when it’s hard work—which it is—dancing brings a special kind of enjoyment. The time spent learning flies by all too quickly.
Headquartered within the school is the Bayside Youth Ballet, a separate organization also focused on dance. The school and the ballet company were founded by the same person, Debbie Diggs, and she remains the director of both.
Debbie always loved to dance. Classes were never a chore. Florida was her childhood home, so that’s where her initial training took place. Even as she was learning, she was dreaming of teaching. She began teacher-training classes in Orlando, then went on to follow the ongoing path of master classes that a dancing career demands. She made her teaching dream a reality in 1975 when she opened the Diggs School, initially in Mathews and later in Gloucester.
All the effort proved to be very much worthwhile. Asked to define why she still enjoys dancing so much, she replies instead with a list of the benefits that students realize, because these have become her reward as well. Perhaps most obvious, dancers learn to appreciate the art form. Even if they don’t plan to make dance a career, the introduction to the many forms of dance—as well as the variety of accompanying music—expands cultural awareness, particularly important now that many schools have scaled back or dropped their arts programs.
With the discipline involved in dance training, students grow physically, emotionally, and intellectually. They learn to manage their time, they develop a work ethic, and they gain self-esteem and self-confidence, all of which serve them well in many aspects of their lives. Besides all that, dancing is fun, and it promotes a level of fitness that’s hard to match.
The dance school itself could provide those benefits, so why form the separate organization of the Bayside Youth
“Though the school and the ballet obviously have a strong connection, there were two main reasons for starting the BYB,” says Debbie. “First, as the resident dance company of the school, the BYB provides more intense training for those who wish to prepare for a career in dance. Second, the group arranges a greater number and variety of performance opportunities, a major part of dance training.”
Dancers can audition for the BYB even if they’ve received their training at other studios—the group is not limited to students from the Diggs School. Most members of the BYB are ages 11 to 18, but a connected program called Chrysalis allows an early start for a few special 9- or 10-year-olds. Besides taking part in more performances, the younger members are mentored by the older dancers.
“Some performances are lecture demonstrations, some are community outreach presentations, some help to raise funds for charitable causes, but each is another chance for the group to dance,” says Debbie. “We’ve performed for the Boys and Girls Club in Mathews; for senior homes in Kilmarnock, Gloucester, and Mathews; and for schools in the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula. A while ago, we were part of a fund- raiser for Operation Smile, the organization that provides surgery to correct a cleft palate or a cleft lip. We recently raised money for cancer research because the daughter of a local couple was suffering from a rare form of the disease.”
In another outreach program, BYB offers a Summer Dance Experience, a four-day camp for children who have never danced before. Instruction is given by the school’s teachers. Equally important, assistance is provided by members of the BYB, giving them the chance to try their own talents at teaching. The campers have a great time.
The Bayside Youth Ballet is a not-for-profit 501(c)3 organization. It charges no fee for the dance camp, or for any of its demonstration or outreach performances, but the group can’t function without some source of income. Costumes and staging equipment are obvious necessities, but the BYB also needs to cover costs of travel, insurance, and all the other expenses any organization incurs. To that end, the group holds two major fund- raisers each year. The theme for last spring’s performance was a celebration of American composers and choreographers. At holiday time, the group presents the Twelve Days of Christmas, now to be an annual event. The Courthouse Community Orchestra provides the music, and the performance includes singers from the Middlesex Children’s Choir and the Mathews Children’s Choir, all adding the excitement and joy of live music to the featured dance. Next spring’s performance is An Afternoon of Dance, featuring numbers from classical ballet and Broadway musicals, as well as jazz and modern pieces.
The BYB also depends on grants and on the generosity of its sponsors and donors, and it’s gratifying for everyone involved to watch the group’s ongoing success. “We want to give the children other venues besides sports,” says Debbie. “One of the big advantages to classical ballet is that it exposes students to what’s out there, the music as well as the dance. Many Diggs School teachers are former students who came back after earning their college degrees in dance. A favorite success story concerns one of our male dancers. The boy showed special promise from a young age and went on to dance professionally in New York.”
Also factoring into the BYB’s success story are the many contributions of the parents whose children dance with the ballet. “They’re a huge help,” says Debbie, “sewing costumes, building props, doing some of the marketing and fund raising.”
The Diggs School/Bayside Youth Ballet recently moved its Gloucester studio, though the move was not far—they took space in a new building at their original location of Edgehill Center on Main Street. The square-footage didn’t change much, though the costume room is now five times as large as the old one, which was literally bursting at the seams. The sign out front reads “Diggs Dance.”
The studio always had a “floating floor,” a type of construction that allows some “give” under the dancers’ steps and leaps, thereby decreasing the risk of injuries to the students. In addition, the studio has a “Marley” floor topping the floating floor. This is a rubberized mat that helps prevent slipping. All studio rooms have the requisite floor-to-ceiling mirrors.
Hope Hunter teaches at the Diggs School, and she does choreography for some of Bayside Youth Ballet’s performances. She started dancing at age 3, but not for the usual reasons. For her, dancing was therapy to help correct a walking problem. By the time the therapy was over, dancing had become a necessary part of her life. “I started getting serious about it at age 11,” she recalls. “It was a time of many changes in my life—family moving, starting middle school—and dancing gave me a place of emotional security and a means of self-expression.
“My dream was always to become the teacher, not the star ballerina. I enjoy choreography as well as teaching, but they’re not really separate activities, because you must match the choreography to the dancers’ abilities. I encourage anyone at any age to give dancing a try.
It’s beneficial in so many ways.”
BYB’s codirector Danile Giesy began her dance career almost by accident. “I trained through high school,” she says, “not yet considering dance as my goal. But I kept on, did some local professional work, and eventually found I could support myself through dancing. When students now express an interest in pursuing a dance career, we (at the Diggs School) try to give them the knowledge and the path to get there.
“As would be expected, students have different favorites, thus different paths, among the types of dance they learn: classical ballet, modern, and jazz or Broadway show.
“At the demonstration performances, we always try to include classical pieces, but this depends partly on the venue having suitable flooring. I enjoy focusing on the classical—BYB is, after all, a ballet company. We like to present the classical influence and aspect. That will remain alive and well at Bayside Youth Ballet.” Diggs School of Dance/ Bayside Youth Ballet-6756 Main Street, Gloucester,
VA 23061 804-694-5900 Email: email@example.com