As a new generation of dancers is keeping Bayou Artist Linda Lavender Ford on her toes, she takes the time to reflect on the value of performing arts, what makes a dancer dance, and the transformative power of ballet.
article by Michael DeVault | photography by Brad Arender
Every movement is studied, her still delicate frame betraying her dancer training. At any moment, were she to break into a solo en pointe, even the most casual observer would be unsurprised. After all, Linda Lavender Ford has spent a lifetime on the boards, first as a dancer, then as a dance teacher, and finally, as the artistic director of the Twin City Ballet, the company she helped to create.
Today, she’s not in the studio teaching a new routine or minding the instruction of any one of the dozen or so teachers who help tend the burgeoning flock of dancers. Joe East, a renowned New York choreographer, is in command, freeing Linda to enjoy a bit of time with something far more exciting. She’s bouncing a cooing baby, the latest addition to the family of one of her teachers. Over more than 45 years of leading the Twin City Ballet, Linda has seen more than her share of new generations of dance students.
“I want everybody to appreciate what we’re doing and understand that there’s talent all around us,” Ford told BayouLife. “These kids need the chance to perform and to be trained, to have the opportunities, and I want that to continue forever.”
That a ballet company exists in northeastern Louisiana is as much due to Ford’s drive as it is to the bounty of raw talent. When Ford was a child, she took dance lessons from two sisters, Mary Lou and Pat Young. West Monroe was not exactly a metropolis, but the town did have a good dance school. “They had a wonderful school here, and they were my lead teachers,” said Ford of the sisters. “In those days, we didn’t have a lot of ballet. So I was really trained in tap, and Jazz was just starting in those days.”
But ballet was her first love, and she began to dance in the Eldorado Ballet, just a few couple of hours north as she continued her education in the parish school system. In 1959, she graduated from West Monroe High School, part of the fourth graduating class, and later that year she began studying at Northeast Louisiana State College, today’s ULM. It’s a period of great transition and challenge in the lives of most, but for Ford, the year she left high school included one more twist. A West Monroe woman had a piece of real estate in which she hoped to put a dance school, and she approached Ford, who leaped at the opportunity.
“I had my own school because a lady offered to build me a place,” she said. “So I started teaching right here at home, and I’ve been here ever since.” Being here is a relative term for Ford, who continued to dance with companies throughout the country. She married Joe Ford, a contractor, and the couple began raising a family that would eventually grow to three children–two sons and a daughter–and seven grandchildren. All the while, she continued to train. “After I started my school, I certainly kept on my training. You never get through learning,” Ford said. In the life of a dancer, training and practice never cease. “I’m still learning.”
During these early days, as Ford’s dance school grew, she continued to take part in the Eldorado Ballet, traveling north with her students so they could gain the experience of performing. In 1970, though, the Eldorado company shuttered. Suddenly, dancers had to face the possibility that there would be no ballet. Ford joined a dedicated group of dancers, parents, and arts supporters, sprang into action, and immediately hired the Eldorado Ballet dance mistress Cecilia Kelly, who became the first director of the newly minted Twin City Ballet Company.
The founding of the company in 1970 provided a glimmer of the drive that would, eventually, propel Ford to the apex of the Twin Cities arts community. It’s a drive she instills in her students through quiet encouragement, criticism and grace, according to fashion designer Suzanne Perron, who danced for Ford from 1979-1987. Perron said Ford sets lofty, seemingly impossible goals, but she does so in such a way that empowers students to achieve them. In Ford’s world, you don’t have a choice.
“We would just do it,” said Perron, underscoring that failure was never an option. “She just brought that out of you.”
The tools she used then she continues to use today–strong encouragement, complimenting success, and, when a dancer misses the mark, constructive criticism. Perron said that last part was one of the more valuable takeaways from a life in Twin City Ballet. “She taught us to take criticism as a compliment, to take it as corrections,” Perron said. It was a lesson that proved invaluable later in life, when Perron entered the high stakes world of fashion design. “In the fashion world, when someone is critical of something I’ve created, I know I can make it better.”
At times a disciplinarian, at others an encourager, Perron’s memories of Ford are of a profound influence in her life. So profound was that influence that both Ford and the ballet company she created that Perron continues to keep in touch and, perhaps more telling, to be involved. Now living in New Orleans, Perron recently took part in Ballgowns, Ballet and Bubbly, a one-night-only fundraiser featuring performances from the ballet and gowns designed by Perron, who specializes in creating one-of-a-kind wedding dresses and Mardi Gras gowns. During the event, dancers modeled some of Perron’s greatest creations–including many dresses Perron borrowed from their owners specifically for the event. For Miss Linda, any effort is worth it. After all, she’s one of the greater influences in Perron’s life.
“I would not be who I am, would not have the strength, courage, poise or grace that I have, if it were not for her,” Perron said.
Over the decades, it’s impossible to estimate how many dancers have come through her studio and through the Twin City Ballet, though the number surely runs into the thousands. Many of the women–and more than a few men–who have studied with her have gone on to careers in dance, touring the world as part of dance companies, performing some of the greatest works of ballet created. Still others have gone on to successful careers in business, finance, banking, medicine, education, law and industry, each taking away that drive to embrace a challenge and to accept criticism. At the heart of it all, a petite woman with elegant movements that belie a humility that is in no way studied or affected. In spite of her background and accomplishments, Ford is almost blind to her reputation.
“I grew up dancing on a children’s show on KNOE, when television here first started,” Ford said, underscoring the diminished view of her role in the arts community. “A lot of people really remembered me more for “Happiness Exchange” than for anything else I’ve ever done.”
Absent are mentions of growing a company from nothing, creating a dance studio from an empty space, and a myriad other accomplishments which include, among others, exposing a rural community on the western edge of the Mississippi Delta to international dance sensations and world-class performing arts. Along the way, she helped build the performing arts community, working along side her predecessors in that purest of artistic endeavors: the act of creation.
One of her early collaborators was Dr. George Bryan, the head of NLU’s theatre department. Alongside Little Theatre of Monroe director Chris Ringham and Monroe Symphony founding director Richard Worthington, Bryan had been integral in the creation of a thriving performing arts scene. He had brought in national touring companies, directed homegrown productions of great stage plays, and brought in Tony Award winners as guest artists. Ford’s ballet company rounded out the performing arts community quite well, and when she decided to begin a children’s ballet, Bryan assisted in bringing in the first company to perform a story ballet, a ballet aimed at a young audience.
“He came to me afterwards and said we could do our own, not bring someone else in,” Ford said. That idea planted the seed for homegrown production. Bryan would write the stories, Ford would choreograph them, and the Twin City Ballet would perform them. “He started writing story ballets, and was in all of them, and he came up with wonderful, wonderful ideas.”
Ford eloquently defends the value of performing arts in a community. In addition to instilling discipline and a sense of accomplishment, the friendships forged in the camaraderie of a company, troupe or symphony are the kinds of bonds that carry throughout life. Not only do the bonds form between performers, the audiences grow in experience and quality of life. That spills over into another area, and one that some might argue is vastly more important as the region strives to redefine itself as agriculture continues to wane as an economic driver, supplanted by business and commerce. New employers mean new opportunities, but getting those opportunities here require quality of life enhancements, those kinds of activities and assets provided by a thriving arts community. When new people arrive in any area, they immediately look around.
“Some of the first questions, besides education, are what do you have in the arts community,” Ford said. When people arrive in northeastern Louisiana, they’re often surprised. “They’re finding out that this area, northeast Louisiana, is one of the strongest arts centers in the south. That’s because we’ve had people that cared, that wanted to see what we do continue.”
Ford’s studio and the Twin City Ballet have been an integral part of that community for almost fifty years, a period of time that has seen the region grow, shrink, and then grow again. Along the way, she’s touched thousands of lives directly, and hundreds of thousands more through the performances at Christmas for schools. If you went to school anywhere in northeastern Louisiana, at some point you’ve seen a Twin City Ballet production. The path has not always been easy, but it is absolutely worth the long hours, the sacrifice, and the hard work. “I just can’t even fathom all of the talented dancers that are here, all these kids who have been training all their lives, not to have a local ballet company that lets them have their chance to perform, to do the classics, the contemporary dance,” Ford said.
Today, as she bounces one of the newest members of the next generation of Miss Linda’s dancers, she’s circumspect in her view toward the future. Showing no hints of slowing down, she’s at the studio every day, working with dancers of all ages to refine a line, to speed up a step or to get that pesky heel in precisely the right spot. To accomplish this, she relies on the faculty she’s assembled, a faculty she credits with much of her success. “In my school ,we have, I think, one of the best faculties you can find anywhere. You have to have a strong, strong base and extra strong teachers.”
Somewhere in her company right now is a little girl who will grow up to become the next teacher, the next director, the next designer, the next executive. She’ll enter the operating room or the courtroom with her head back, that elegant stride, a subtle flow to her movements, and most importantly, a powerful confidence. “When a dancer walks into a room, you know immediately she’s a dancer,” Ford said.