It’s always interesting when you learn from individuals within an organization that have held multiple roles over a period of time. A wonderful example at Cincinnati Ballet is Sarah Hairston. Sarah is the Otto M. Budig Academy Director and before that was a Cincinnati Ballet Principal Dancer for multiple seasons. She’s been with the Company for almost 20 years!
Here is Sarah’s take on her background, her dance career, her Academy teaching career, her family, and what it took to get her where she is today (including a love of Cats on Broadway!):
Tell us about your family when you were growing up. Where did you grow up, what did your parents do, and do you have brothers and sisters? If so, what do they all do now?
I was born in Charleston, South Carolina and grew up on the Battery. My mother was a retired nurse and my father was a cardiac and thoracic surgeon. I have two brothers and two sisters. My father passed away when I was seven from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and my mother was later re-married to my amazing step dad, George. We moved to Columbia, South Carolina, because he was a SLED (South Carolina Law Enforcement Division) agent. He was on the SWAT team, as well. Losing my dad was devastating for my family, and I will always be grateful to George for being so good to us.
At what age did you first start to dance?
I began dancing at age two, but truly just a few months before I turned three!
Did you know early on that dancing had to be a major part of your life? What made you realize it?
I knew very early on that I loved ballet, but seeing Cats on Broadway made me want to be a performer. I wanted to be in Cats so badly that I would put on leotard and tights and a tail and dance to Cats music all day in my house. But I was afraid to sing in public, so I decided to stick to ballet.
Did/do any of your family members have any artistic talents, too?
I think my mom did a little tap and my sister took ballet when she was younger, but no one stuck with it.
You’re coming up on your 20th Anniversary with Cincinnati Ballet in a few years, correct? Tell us about a few of the highlights of your time with the Company.
It’s hard to believe that I am coming up on 20 years here. I had a wonderful career as a dancer and have been very lucky to take on the role of Academy Director. There are so many moments that stand out. I think the fondest moment was when I stepped out onstage to dance Giselle after a difficult recovery from an ACL tear in my left knee. The way the dancers, staff, and audience supported that journey and my first moment back on stage was something I will never forget.
What are the two or three favorite roles that you danced in your career at Cincinnati Ballet…and why?
I could name so many. The Queen of Hearts in Alice (in wonderland) was one of my ultimate favorites. She was so dramatic, and the costumes and makeup were amazing. Of course, dancing Juliet in Romeo and Juliet was a major highlight. But, I think my all-time favorite would be the second movement of Balanchine’s Symphony in C. It truly had a special place in my heart, and always will.
Did you have a favorite choreographer in terms of dancing their works? If so, who and why?
I loved dancing Balanchine ballets. They were always so challenging yet rewarding, and set to some of the most beautiful music. However, Adam Hougland was probably my favorite choreographer to work with over my 16 years in the Company. He choreographed many works on me, and they always seemed to come at the right times in my life. He knew how to bring things out of me that I didn’t know were there OR that I was afraid to show. He did a piece on me called Firefly that will stay in my heart forever.
Speaking of choreography, you have choreographed in addition to dancing. Did/do you enjoy it? What is the most challenging part of designing a piece and making it come to life?
I have choreographed on students for our Academy Showcase pieces, and a few small things for our Trainee Program. I would not consider myself a choreographer at all, but I do feel I am able to put appropriate pieces and productions together that highlight our students in the best way possible.
I love working with students and seeing their journey from the studio to stage. I would probably not have the courage to choreograph on professionals. I did choreograph for the Cincinnati Opera and a production of Music Man two years ago at Indiana University. I was pleasantly surprised at my work. It was a great experience, yet extremely nerve-wracking!
What part(s) of your previous role as a dancer did you find to be most helpful when you took on the role of Director for the Otto M. Budig Academy several years ago? How difficult was the transition?
The transition for me came at the perfect time in my life. I was very prepared to take on this role and I had a lot of time to get my head wrapped around retiring from dancing. It was a tough decision for me, but when the opportunity was there, I knew that it was what I wanted for my future.
Maybe it’s because I was always one of the dancers in the Company that was super involved in other aspects of the organization. I was on the AGMA Committee and Artistic Committee. I taught in the Academy and other academies all over the city. I also was the Shoe Coordinator for the Company while being a principal dancer. I was also always thinking of what was next after I retired.
Marrying my husband and having two children enter my life instantly put everything in perspective and made me realize I needed a plan after I retired. It all worked out just perfectly. I took on the role in August of 2016 and retired at the end of September, 2016. I was a principal dancer and Academy Director for two months at the same time. It was a little crazy, but it was exciting and fun at the same time.
I think the hardest challenge has been making my own schedule and having to prioritize my time. As a dancer, we are used to someone else telling us what to do and where to be. Now I have to do that for myself and others. I am still getting used to that!
What is the most fulfilling part of being the Academy Director?
There is just nothing better than giving to children what you love so much. Knowing that I am contributing to a child’s future – no matter what they become – is so rewarding. Learning to dance teaches kids so much, not just dance steps. There are kids joining the Company who I taught when they were eight years old. It couldn’t be a better feeling.
What, in your opinion, sets the Academy’s training apart for all others in the Cincinnati area?
The connection to the professional Company. These students are able to experience so much just by walking down the hallways and looking into the studios. You will not find this anywhere else in our city.
What is your dream for the Academy several years down the road?
Being able to offer more types of classes to ensure our students are getting every type of dance training possible. We have recently added tap, and I want more classes like that.
I want to be able to offer classes to students who want to dance recreationally and professionally: a two-track system, a professional and recreational track. Not everyone who dances wants to be a professional, and that is absolutely okay.
I would love to see more musical theatre in our building. This teaches personality, rhythm and teaches them how to truly perform. This will benefit kids in their life no matter what they grow up to be.
If you weren’t doing what you do now, what would you be doing, and why?
I would definitely be a stay-at-home mom. I am sure I would also do some volunteer work and enjoy watching my baby grow up.
Tell us about the important things in your personal life now. What matters most to you, and why?
My family! I am married to the Master Carpenter for the Ballet, and I have awesome step children and a baby boy named Wrigley who is now 17 months old. I have never been so in love😊