The organization that today is the Omaha Academy of Ballet was founded in June 1962 by a group of community leaders headed by Emmeline Skinner, Robert D. MacIver, and John Reddick Jr.
Emmeline Skinner was the new Academy’s first director. Later that same year, an English dance teacher named Valerie Roche joined the faculty. When Emmeline Skinner moved on to other interests, Valerie became the Academy’s director, and its driving force for the next 40 years.
Valerie Roche at work, circa 2001
The group’s initial goal was to develop a company of professionally trained dancers for Omaha, but its initial focus was solely on teaching. By 1965, it had progressed to the point that its performing unit, known as the Omaha Ballet Company, was ready to give public performances. Among those performances was Omaha’s first production of the classic holiday ballet The Nutcracker, beginning a tradition that has continued to the present day.
Academy-trained dancers performed in productions by the Omaha Opera Company and the Omaha Community Playhouse. The Academy also started a one-week summer dance camp in 1964, at Camp Esther K. Newman near Omaha. The camp brought in top dancers from major companies as faculty, and Nebraska Arts Council assistance made it possible to offer camp scholarships to talented young dancers throughout the Midwest.
Growth and expansion
In 1968, continued growth led the organization to incorporate as the Omaha Civic Ballet Association, with the Academy, performing company, and summer camp under its aegis. In 1969 the Omaha Ballet Society was formed to support the performing company, and in 1970 the Academy was set up as a separate corporation, distinct from the performing company and with its own board of directors.
Valerie Roche continued as director both of the Academy and of the performing company (by then known simply as the Omaha Ballet) until 1975, when she was recruited to start a dance program at within Creighton University’s Department of Fine and Performing Arts. She also continued to direct the Academy, while the Omaha Ballet acquired a separate team of directors, professional dancers Thomas Enckell and Katharyn Horne.
In 1987, the Academy helped revive the tradition of an annual summer dance camp, which had lapsed when Camp Esther K. Newman had closed. Working cooperatively with a group of dance teachers and studio owners in other Nebraska cities, Academy faculty members began conducting an annual one-week summer camp at the Nebraska National Forest near Halsey. The Nebraska Dance Camp continues today, with students coming together each summer at the forest’s Nebraska State 4-H Camp facility for an intensive program that combines dance instruction and traditional outdoor and recreational camp activities.
A 40-year milestone
Valerie Roche continued to lead the Academy and the Creighton dance program until 2002, when she retired after 40 years of service to the art of dance and the Omaha community. In her honor, the Academy presented a 40th anniversary gala performance of The Sleeping Beauty. Its cast of student and alumni dancers was headed by some of Valerie’s many students who had gone on to careers in professional dance, including Sandra Organ (Houston Ballet), Sara Mau (American Ballet Theater), Brian Bender (Royal Winnipeg Ballet), and Kelly Holcombe (MOMIX.)
Flanked by alumni guest artists, Valerie Roche takes her final bow at the close of the Academy’s 40th anniversary gala performance in 2002.
Shortly after her retirement, Valerie moved with her husband, Percy, to his native country of New Zealand. At the date of this writing (2008) she remains active as a dance teacher.
Meanwhile, the Academy moved into a newly-remodeled studio space at 4950 Dodge Street, and to a system of leadership by co-directors. Today, the co-directors and a dedicated faculty continue to work together to carry on the Academy’s tradition of quality dance training in a traditional, non-competitive academy environment that emphasizes caring, individualized instruction and a focus on personal accomplishment.
This early-1960s photo shows Valerie Roche leading a pre-performance warmup (note costumed dancers) in an early Academy studio space: a converted chemistry lab at Creighton University.
A rented building at 40th and Cuming streets was the Academy’s home for many years. This 1988 photo shows Valerie Roche teaching a character-dance class in the Cuming Street main studio. Among the students in the picture is current co-director Sheila Nelson (second from left.)