Miss Jackie Balls retires, leaves a legacy of dance

When I was a young student at St. Ignatius Catholic School (known at the time as Our Lady of Perpetual Help), one of my favourite extracurricular activities was dance.

Ballet classes, catering to a range of ages, were taught by ‘Miss Jackie’ Balls and held in a separate building on the school grounds, before her studio moved to Pasadora Place in 1995.

Now, after years of encouraging hundreds of children to take up the art of dancing, and moving locations several times, she is closing her School of Dance. Miss Jackie is hanging up her dancing shoes to focus on her personal life and family.

The Christmas show at Camana Bay was one of the highlights of the dance school’s annual calendar of events.

The contribution that this lady has made to the arts in Cayman cannot be overstated. She has touched the lives of so many and first instilled the joy of ballet in her students almost 50 years ago.

Early days
Her family moved to Cayman in 1972 and, in January 1973, she opened The Ballet School with 32 pupils.

Miss Jackie produced a number of shows, with the first ones held in the Town Hall in George Town, and there was no greater excitement among the dancers than when the costumes arrived. I got to be a tiger lily in one ballet and a reed in another. To have a professional tutu to wear at that age was a dream come true.

Those who were in Cayman back in the ‘70s and ‘80s may remember such early productions as ‘Easter Parade’, ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Christmas Fantasy’. The latter had Miss Jackie’s husband, Peter, don a dress with a huge skirt and walk on stilts to play the part of Mother Ginger.

Extraordinary contributions
Her body of stage work speaks for itself, not to mention the scholarships she has awarded to students over the years, and the educational trips she organised.

During its tenure of almost half a century of dance in Cayman, Miss Jackie’s school has been instrumental and integral in teaching hundreds the fundamentals of dance. She has instilled core values, discipline and determination in generations of dancers, and has been a presence in students’ lives from young ballerinas to teens, young adults, mature women, mothers, aunts and even grandmothers.

Miss Jackie’s ballet school in its early days.

Over the years, there have been over 20 school recitals – including three in recognition of Voices for Hospice – and, since 1978, students have performed almost annually for the Pink Ladies.

In addition, she has choreographed various performances at the Government House Garden Tea Party, along with creating the magical Christmas Recital show at Camana Bay.

Royal blessings
From an early age, Miss Jackie has been inspired by dance. When she was only 11 years old, she was asked to perform ballet for Princess Margaret, who whispered in her ear, “Never stop dancing.” She took that advice literally, continuing her own pursuit of the discipline before passing on her knowledge to others.

In celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s 86th birthday, Miss Jackie was awarded the Certificate and Badge of Honour for promoting dance in the Cayman Islands.

Miss Jackie dances as Alice from ‘Alice in Wonderland’.

Donation to UCCI
It was announced on Monday that Miss Jackie is donating many of the costumes and much of the equipment from her dance school to the University College of the Cayman Islands’ dance programme.

She plans to bequeath much of her inventory to MoniKa Lawrence, UCCI’s director for the performing arts. The two women have been friends since Lawrence began taking lessons from, and doing choreography for, Miss Jackie about six years ago.

“She is phenomenal,” Lawrence said of the iconic dance teacher. “She has a wealth of knowledge that surpasses anyone that I know. I’ve found being around her to be extremely inspirational.”

The donation, Lawrence said, will “complete our space”.

Currently, the school’s dance studio, located on the second floor of Sir Vassel Johnson Hall, only has a few mirrors and no barres for the dance students. Miss Jackie is donating both mirrors and barres to UCCI.

“All students will have space and be able to see themselves,” Lawrence said, which is a critical element in teaching and training dancers.

“I’ve been keeping track of what they do and their love of dance,” Miss Jackie said of the programme’s dancers. “I thought they could really use this.”

Lawrence said she was humbled by the gesture.

“It really is an honour when somebody does that,” Lawrence said. “There are so many other places she could have given it to.”

MoniKa Lawrence and ‘Miss Jackie’ Balls

Lawrence said Miss Jackie has been involved with UCCI’s dance progamme for some time. She has provided scholarships for students throughout Cayman, including some who could not afford the fees to take classes at UCCI. She has also provided dance lessons on Saturdays for UCCI students, primarily in ballet, but also in kick-line dancing.

Lawrence joined the staff at UCCI in 2010 and began taking classes from Miss Jackie four years later.

“I’ve grown to love her,” Miss Jackie said of Lawrence. “She comes from the same ‘old school’ background that I do.

“UCCI students have a passion to want to learn. I’ve really enjoyed teaching them. I’m hoping to keep my hand in and give some master classes.”

Lawrence noted, “The whole idea of the arts is passing it on. It’s not something you keep to yourself. You want to see it illuminated in others.”

Miss Jackie reflected on a lifetime devoted to dance. “I have had the honour and privilege of continuing to be friends of students who have passed through the school since its inception and I can’t tell you how immensely proud I am to have been their teacher, instructor, companion and friend,” she said. “I wish to thank hundreds of parents for allowing me to be part of your child’s future. It has been my pleasure watching the little ones grow into the future generation of the Cayman Islands.

“Thank you.”

Our thanks
On behalf of myself and so many other students who went through Miss Jackie’s school, I can honestly say that we are the ones who are grateful.

Thank you, Miss Jackie.

Kerrie McMillan contributed to this story

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