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By Randi Bjornstad
The Register-Guard
Photograph by Paul Carter
October 10, 2010



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The Oregon Ballet Academy has the usual throng of girls in ballet flats and leotards practicing their pirouettes and assuming their attitudes, which in ballet doesn’t mean being impudent but standing on one leg with the other lifted at a 90-degree angle.

But the academy also has something different than most: It has a bunch of boys just as dedicated to turnout, battement and jeté as their female counterparts. The main difference is that the studio offers a weekly class just for boys, and it’s free.

In the two years since they began their boys-only program, husband-and-wife OBA owners John Grensback and Megan (pronounced MEE gun) Murphy have seen their male enrollment grow from a handful to several dozen, ranging in age from 9 years to college age.

“We really wanted to do a program for boys, but we knew it would be hard to get them to come because ballet isn’t something most boys think about doing,” Murphy said. “But we were able to get some grants, and John does the teaching. It’s great to see what these boys have accomplished.”

Boys who want more than one class a week enroll in coed classes, and the sexes also mix during rehearsals, performances and special academy-wide social events.

The boys’ class regularly has upwards of 30 students enrolled, and sometimes it swells to at least 40. “It’s their own class, different from the girls’ classes,” Murphy said. “They do pushups, leaps, turns, big jumps — and they love it.”

Not only that, but some of the students, including Mayim Stiller, have excelled to the point that they can set their sights on a professional career.

“I’ve loved dance ever since I was a really little kid,” said Stiller, who turns 16 in December. “I did salsa dancing and hip-hop lessons first, and that was fun, but it was the year after I started ballet that I started thinking of dance as a career. I absolutely love all kinds of dance, but I really see ballet as my future.”

He started dancing with Grensback at OBA four years ago, back when there might be at most two or three boys in a class. Now, he hopes that in a year — two at the most — he will be dancing in an apprenticeship program with a major dance company.

“I work pretty hard,” Stiller said. “Dancing as much as I do now is like having a part-time job. My social life is mostly my ballet friends, and then I have school. That’s what I do.”

Grensback’s teaching “is really excellent,” he said. “He challenges you to go as far as you can and then a little further. Even if you can’t do something completely at first, eventually you get to the point where you can do it. It’s one of his strengths.”

But ballet, Grensback-style, is not for sissies. “You have to be really strong — you have to learn how to hold your arms, jump high and hold your leg out straight, and that takes a lot of strength,” Stiller said. “It’s not simple to lift a girl above your head, and we have to be able to do that. I do at least 200 pushups a day.”

Both Grensback and Murphy had professional dancing careers. She grew up dancing in Guam, then went on to the Atlanta and Houston ballets, “but I was not a principal dancer — I was lucky to be in the corps,” she said.

The pair met at the Houston Ballet, where he was a principal dancer, following stints with the Joffrey and New York City ballets. Murphy stopped dancing when they married, she went back to school and she had their first child. Grensback stopped dancing professionally at 34, because “I think it’s a good thing to go out when you’re still on top,” he said. “I’ve seen too many people wait too long to stop.”

His decision to retire “was a defining moment,” he said. “I was lifting a ballerina over my head, and she was mad about something and wasn’t helping, so it was really difficult. It was the mid-lift at the beginning of the snow scene in ‘The Nutcracker,’ and in my head I said, ‘I’m going to retire at the end of this season.’ ”

Teaching ballet was a natural next step. The couple relocated from Texas to Guam in 1990 to be nearer Murphy’s family and started a ballet studio, where they had 350 students within 18 months. After 13 years there, they wanted to return to the United States, so they started looking for the right place.

“I had performed in ‘Cinderella’ in the Hult Center’s first season, and I loved Eugene,” Grensback said. “Megan liked the size of the town, the University of Oregon and the fact that there were thousands of kids around, so we decided to come here. Now we have our footprint on the ground here — we are home.”

He teaches and she manages the studio and also works full time as a New York Life Insurance agent.  Their partnership dates back to the beginning of their 24-year marriage and the raising of three children who range in age from 21 to 12.

For Grensback, teaching ballet to boys is a matter of both looking back and paying forward. “I learned from Ed Parish in Chicago — he was kind of like the Father Flanagan (founder of Boys Town) of ballet,” he said. “He took eight kids at a time from the state foster care system, got them off medications and threw them into ballet every day. He lived next door to my family, and he ‘fostered’ me, too, and then shipped me off to New York — with my parents approval — when I was 15.”

Grensback started at the School of American Ballet, founded in 1934 by George Balanchine and run by the New York City Ballet. “I got into the New York City Ballet when Balanchine was still around,” he said, “but it really wasn’t my style. I stayed there 2½ years, and then I went to the Joffrey Ballet for 5½ years — that was an incredible experience.”

At 25, “I had my ‘midlife’ crisis. I quit and went back to Illinois to help Ed Parish on the farm he had bought to raise the boys,” Grensback said. “We called it Dance Farm. Some of those boys were really rough — I had to lock my suitcase, and then the suitcase was missing.”

Almost immediately a friend at the Houston Ballet, artistic director Ben Stevenson, called Grensback, who returned to the stage for another 10 years. “That was a world-class ballet company — they even flew their orchestra over to Paris to perform with the ballet,” he said. “But by the time I was 34, my body started saying, ‘no,’ ” and I knew it was time to go.”

At that point, “I kind of turned into another Ed Parish,” he said. “I had a younger brother, and I had pulled him along and he had become a professional dancer, too. Ed Parish influenced us to do something with our lives.”

He tries to instill the same work ethic and enjoyment of dance in his students, both male and female, “and I’d say 85 percent live up to the challenge,” Grensback said. “But dance has to be an enrichment, not just hard work. I like to say we have serious dance, and we have serious fun.”

It obviously looked that way to 8-year-old John Toomey before he started ballet lessons a year ago, his mother, Emilie Toomey, said. “John has a twin sister, and an older sister who’s 10 and started ballet at the academy,” she said. “After her first performance, my son went up to John all by himself and said, “ ‘Can I start?’ I think he saw all the other boys and the camaraderie they had even while they were working hard. He took a class with his sister for a year, and now he does two (mixed) classes and the boys’ class. One of the reasons we encourage them is John’s expectation that you have to work hard to achieve.”

In fact, when he asks his students what his favorite word is, Grensback said, the answer comes back instantly: “Focus!”

In contrast, if she asks the same question, Murphy jokes, the kids yell back: “Chocolate!”

Copyright © 2010 — The Register-Guard


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