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Good Neighbors: Profiles of Stellar Seniors

Photography by Donovan Roberts Witmer

Ballet’s Heartbeat

Presenting Marcia Dale Weary

The scene is cinematic, dreamlike. Beautiful girls in black leotards and pink tights, their hair in neat buns. Handsome boys and young men in black tights and white t-shirts. They file into the room quietly. Some take their places along barres on the walls. Others, in orderly twos and threes, set up portable barres in the middle of the studio floor. The music from a boom box starts—piano versions of Puccini and Verdi arias—and they move as one in graceful steps. Suddenly the music stops.

“What happened?” says a soft but firm voice. It comes from a tiny woman in a cardigan sweater and a flowing skirt, who circulates among dancers six decades her junior. “What happened?”

A dancer’s bellybutton and backbone weren’t aligned properly.

“Be like a rock,” says the woman. “What happened to you? You didn’t think about that. You know how hard it is? Hard.” She repeats, getting two syllables from a one-syllable word. “Ha-ard.”

For 55 years, Marcia Dale Weary has taught young dancers that anything worthwhile—especially if that worthwhile thing is dance—is hard. Her get-tough-on-art attitude has put more than 65 people at the pinnacle of one of the world’s most competitive and rigorous professions as dancers with major ballet companies. Weary is the founding artistic director and beating heart of Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet (www.cpyb.org).

This summer, in July 2011, many CPYB alums return to Carlisle from their far-flung posts for a gala honoring CPYB’s 55th anniversary and Weary’s 75th birthday.

At the beginning, Weary founded a dance company to provide quality training in the little college town of Carlisle. She was lucky, then, to have one special student. Her name was Jenny, and “she used to sit up on a pillow with her baby bottle and watch.”

One day, Weary told Jenny she could do a port de bras. As she tells the story, Weary rises from her chair, ever the instructor who still teaches classes and runs most rehearsals for CPYB’s annual performance of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. She demonstrates how she taught an enamored little girl her first dance move. “You take your arms forward—and open and back—and she had a look on her face like she was the greatest ballerina.”

Jenny never achieved a professional career, but in those early days, Weary assumed there were plenty of “Jennys” out there, born to dance. Not every student had Jenny qualities, but word spread about the preprofessional school in the middle of Pennsylvania but accessible to major cities. “I had strong rules,” says Weary. “They had to adhere to them because there was nowhere else to go.”

One of those strong rules—CPYB students can’t wear fancy leotards. Too distracting. They attend class every day because it’s the only way to improve. Missed rehearsals carry consequences.

Yes, it’s “ha-ard,” Weary knows. But before long, children find out that hard work is fun. She tells parents, “These children have fun. Look at their happy faces. They’re radiant on stage. They love it. They’ve learned to find that they can reach a goal by hard work.”

In its early years, CPYB renovated a barn where students—they might be as young as five —learn the fundamentals of dance. The youngest are called “barn babies,” whose skills are known to strike fear in the hearts of students who join CPYB as teens. Seventeen-year-old dancer Leah Hirsh moved to Mechanicsburg from New York at the advanced age of 13.

“I had a lot of catching up to do,” she says as she straps on her toe shoes for class. “They were all so amazing. I was old.”

But Hirsh and classmate Carly Topazio, 18 and another out-of-state transplant, persevered to catch up, and they’re seeing the difference as they audition for dance companies. “Whenever they see that you go to CPYB, they definitely give you more attention,” Topazio says.

Attention is paid because Weary’s discipline yields dancers whose bodies are ready to soar. The dancer’s body requires the proper turnout of the leg from the hip socket—“Trying to make the seam of the shoe look up to the ceiling”—and a foot that can almost form a fist. The dancer’s body, Weary says, is a great instrument ready for artistic expression.

“Once you have a good instrument, it’s like having a good violin,” she says. “Then you can hear the soul in the violin or hear the soul in the piano. Unfortunately, you can’t buy an instrument. You have to make it yourself with your body. And then the better your instrument is, the more free you are to really use your soul.”

Dancers respond to Weary’s instincts, says CPYB CEO and resident choreographer Alan Hineline. “She has this way of making them feel that this world they are a part of is so very special, and they are so privileged to be in it, and that’s her soul speaking when she says that. They wouldn’t ever want to let her down.”

They are, forever, her little girls.

“I have my little girl back there teaching,” Weary says, nodding toward another studio. “She’s in her 60s. I’ve had her since she was seven.” 

As barn babies, all her little girls and boys learn a dance in the first year, “the port de bras, little balancés, and they do a little walk.” The dance is called the “baby ballet.” When those barn babies grow into principal dancers in the world’s greatest companies, it feels “wonderful” to see them reunite for CPYB galas. Weary will never forget one reunion, when the curtain opened after her stars’ separate performances.

“They were onstage together, and they all did the baby ballet. I cried, because I could remember when they were babies starting out. It was so beautiful. That was such a surprise. They had such fun doing it.”

She turns to a CPYB staffer.

“But I saw one of them, Zach, I think”—that would be Pennsylvania Ballet principal dancer Zachary Hench—“make a mistake.”

Did Weary point it out? “He knew,” she says. “He was laughing about it.”

Pretty soon, the class for Leah Hirsh, Carly Topazio, and the other dancers is about to begin. “I love this,” says Weary as her little girls and boys file past and take their places. “I love them.”

Woven Together

Brad & Gloria Oldenburg

The best thing she ever did, says Gloria Oldenburg, was teach a nun to weave in one day. Of course, zip lining over the gorges of Costa Rica wasn’t bad, but the impact was personal, not global.

Gloria and Brad Oldenburg live in a shorefront home on Adams County’s Lake Meade. From their cathedral-ceilinged, glass-fronted home, they can live the aquatic life—bird watching, kayaking, a bit of sailing. But in a quiet way, their influence has spread from their modest southcentral Pennsylvania home to span counties, continents and generations.

Gloria Oldenburg, easygoing and quick to laugh, is skilled in the ancient art of weaving. The large looms in her basement studio produce chenille scarves, evening bags, table runners, and placemats that are sold in the Village Artisans Gallery in Boiling Springs and of an annual craft show in York.

The craft of weaving dates to ancient times, when the earliest humans wove fibers for netting, shelter coverings, and pouches. As a child during the Great Depression, Gloria Oldenburg would wind shuttles for the rag rugs her parents produced on a loom. Gloria always remembered that loom and, around 1980, acquired it from an aging uncle.

“I had lessons before I had the loom back,” she says. “I fell in love with it.”

Through Oldenburg, the tradition continues. She’s treasurer for the Central Pennsylvania Guild of Handweavers and active in many other guilds. Her portable loom, small enough to fit on a tabletop, has been to Girl Scout meetings, preschools, and an American Girl party celebrating the heritage of New Mexico. She has also taken the portable loom to her grandsons’ elementary school classrooms and left it there for students to use.

“Those kids just loved it, and their edges were so straight,” she says. “They were better than the women I was teaching.”

Teaching is integral to Gloria Oldenburg’s weaving life. She taught preschool for fourteen years, and sometimes her students would weave yarn potholders on Styrofoam looms. For 20 years, she taught beginning weaving, knowing that even students who didn’t continue their studies would develop an appreciation for the craft.

“She had these boys weaving, and they sold blankets to buy shoes and books so they could go to school,” Gloria says.

In the early 1990s, Gloria heard from a Catholic nun preparing for an African mission. Sister Felicia wanted to teach weaving to help villagers earn money and become self-sustaining. The sister contacted Gloria and asked for a lesson—in one day. They spent the day in Gloria’s basement, and then Sister Felicia took the small loom to her own sister’s home in York and spent her last pre-departure days practicing her new skill. The next thing Gloria knew, some photos arrived.

“She had these boys weaving, and they sold blankets to buy shoes and books so they could go to school,” Gloria says. “This is the best thing I ever did.”

Brad Oldenburg, a retired chemical engineer, supports his wife of 58 years by repairing looms, building benches, and helping set up at craft shows. He serves on a committee to protect Lake Meade’s water quality. She sings alto for the Lake Meade Choristers.

Together, they travel the world. In Costa Rica, Gloria flew on zip lines over spectacular gorges. “I was thinking, ‘Why am I doing this?’ But I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it, because I don’t like heights.”
And wherever they go, the Oldenburgs seek out weavers. In the dining room is a table runner a memento of a day in Peru when they shared coffee with women who weave without looms and improvise their intricate patterns.

“It tells me that those people have a lot more ability,” Gloria says. “We have to have these special looms and all this equipment, and these ladies in Peru are sitting on the ground and have these patterns in their heads.”

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