Featured photo: Kira Arauz ties her point shoes in the new Gate City Theatre studio in Greensboro, N.C. (photo by Juliet Coen)

Years of unorganized management, unequal pay and differences in creative vision have caused a bulk of the staff at Greensboro Ballet to leave the organization in the past several months. In a series of interviews with Triad City Beat, former Greensboro Ballet dancers as well as the former artistic director are sharing their experiences of working at what they describe as an outdated, poorly managed organization that didn’t value them as employees.

“What I felt like was the biggest problem was that it was very hard for them to understand that this is not a hobby,” said Jessica Fry McAlister, former artistic director of Greensboro Ballet. “This is not an afterschool activity. This is a legitimate career. Some of the dancers went to college and majored in this, and this is a job; this is not just for fun.”

In March, McAlister said she was fired without warning. A week afterwards, three of the dancers resigned. And while the exodus of staff happened recently, McAlister said that the problems within Greensboro Ballet have existed for some time.

In fact, she said, it felt a bit like déjà vu.

From 1999-2003, McAlister danced with Greensboro Ballet, but was ultimately let go for financial reasons.

“They said all of the funding ran out and all seven of us dancers were let go,” McAlister said. “They said, ‘We’re so sorry, we can’t afford to keep you.’”

In the years since leaving the first time, McAlister worked as principal dancer for the Ballet Theatre of Maryland, and as company dancer at both the Montgomery Ballet and the Winston-Salem Festival Ballet. In 2018, she returned to Greensboro Ballet.

“They initially offered me a teaching position and a ballet mistressing position,” McAlister said. “But within the first year, they fired their artistic director and I came on as the interim artistic director.”

While McAlister said she can’t talk about why the former artistic director was fired, she told TCB that Maryhelen Mayfield, who had been with the organization for 38 years, had been planning to retire.

“It was time and people make mistakes and they asked me one morning, ‘Can you take over the position?’” McAlister recalled. “And I said, ‘Okay, sure.’”

McAlister’s second stint with Greensboro Ballet was cut short this past March. This time, McAlister said, the organization’s leadership cited creative differences as the reason why.

“I felt suckerpunched,” McAlister said.

Jessica Fry McAlister dances in the unrenovated portion of the Gate City Dance Theatre studio in Greensboro, N.C. (photo by Juliet Coen)

TCB reached out to Greensboro Ballet leadership including Executive Director Jennifer Savage Gentry, members of the Greensboro Ballet board of directors  and School Director Nina Bass Munda. When asked about McAlister’s termination as well as the exodus of the dancers, Gentry sent the following statement: “We want to acknowledge that there are many emotions right now for Jessica McAllister and the dancers who are no longer with the Greensboro Ballet. We want TCB to know that the board and the staff are truly committed to Greensboro Ballet moving forward and thriving. For now, our main concern/focus is providing continuity and elevating the training for our students. Regarding staffing changes, it is Greensboro Ballet’s policy not to discuss personnel-related issues, and it would be unethical.”

McAlister, three former Greensboro Ballet dancers and a former student told TCB that they believed the organization’s board of directors, led by Board Chair Jennifer Jones, and Executive Director Jennifer Gentry, created an unhealthy environment. They cited lacks of professionality, of consistent pay and of communication and transparency as reasons why they left. Now, the group is working towards starting their own company, a place where they say ballet dancers can thrive.

“I think it was maybe a little bit of a silver lining,” said David McAlister, Jessica McAlister’s husband and a former ballet dancer. “This has been mentally, physically and emotionally taxing for everyone involved. It has been so unbelievably hard on the dancers.”

‘We’re just a student company’: Creative differences cause a rift

Jessica McAlister started dancing when she was just three years old. And despite having brown hair and a 5-foot-3-inch frame, she found success within the ballet world, dancing for companies such as the Delta Festival Ballet, Ballet Austin and even the Joffrey II in New York City.

So, when McAlister got the opportunity to work in a creative leadership position at Greensboro Ballet after performing for years, she jumped at it.

“There aren’t a lot of female artistic directors,” David said. “We didn’t think she’d get an opportunity like this again.”

Despite the fact that a majority of dancers and students within ballet are women and girls, positions of power within ballet, including choreographers and artistic directors, are usually held by men. According to data collected by the Dance Data Project from 2021, 71 percent of artistic directors at the 50 largest ballet companies in the US are male. During the 2020-21 season, 69 percent of all ballets programmed at those companies were by men, and during pre-pandemic years in 2019-2020, 72 percent were by men. Pay is an issue as well. According to the Dance Data Project, in the 100 largest American ballet companies, women earned just 60 cents for every dollar men earned as artistic directors. For executive director positions, they earned 80 cents for every dollar compared to men. And that kind of discrepancy exists when it comes to dancers, too.

David McAlister and his wife Jessica Fry McAlister dance together in the old cabinet factory that now serves as the Gate City Dance Theatre studio in Greensboro, N.C. (photo by Juliet Coen)

David and Jessica met at the Ballet School of Maryland in 2006. David had been dancing since he was 16 years old after starting in high school. He spent two years at UNC School of the Arts, and met Jessica when she was the Ballet School of Maryland’s principal dancer and the highest-paid female at the company. But when David joined the company, he came on at a higher salary than his future wife.

“That’s very common,” Jessica McAlister explained. “Men get paid four times as much as the women because there would be one of them for every 20 of us.”

When Jessica came on as the interim artistic director at Greensboro Ballet in 2018, she wanted to ensure her dancers were getting paid fairly.

“One of the biggest problems was because I brought the perspective of being the professional dancer in addition to being a director, because I had experience, I knew how this was all supposed to be done,” she said. “I told them they should be paying the dancers a salary and how long the contracts were meant to be and what the average payment should be.”

When she worked at Greensboro Ballet around 2001, Jessica said she was getting paid $325 per week.

“That’s not uncommon,” McAlister said. “Anywhere between $300-600 per week is average, depending on the area.”

However, when she rejoined Greensboro Ballet in 2018, she found out that the pay for the four dancers she was overseeing was unregulated and inconsistent.

“We never knew what we were going to get paid,” said Kira Arauz, one of the dancers who worked at Greensboro Ballet from 2014 until April of this year.

“We never signed contracts for what we were going to get paid or what we were doing,” added Michela Semenza, another former Greensboro Ballet dancer who joined the organization in August 2021. “The guest dancers had contracts, but we didn’t. So it was always unclear how much we were being paid and why.”

Michela Semenza, left, Kira Arauz, middle, and Elisa Arauz in the new Gate City Dance Theatre studio in Greensboro, N.C. (photo by Juliet Coen)

Part of the confusion was because Semenza and the other dancers say they were only paid when they performed. Their time rehearsing in the studios, making costumes, cleaning and setting up the shows was never taken into account. They got paid for teaching ballet classes in the school, but that was a separate business entity. When Jessica was hired, she pushed for the dancers to eventually be paid full-time salaries. In the meantime, she said, she asked the company to pay for the dancers’ pointe shoes which can run anywhere from $80-120 per pair and last a few weeks.

“These were the issues that I tried to bring to the organization’s attention,” McAlister told TCB.

They balked, Jessica said, when she pointed out how much the organization was going to pay four, out-of-town male dancers to perform in the annual Nutcracker shows.

“They were going to allow $2,500 total for the women and $8,000 for the men,” McAlister said. “The women are here all the time and not getting paid a full salary. I was met with a lot of, ‘Is that a problem?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s a problem.’ It’s insulting to the dancers that are here. That’s what I was trying to do was educate the organization and bring them up to date and say, ‘You can’t do this anymore.’”

In the end, Semenza said she was paid $1,000 for dancing in five shows for Nutcracker and $500 for two Cinderella performances.

“That’s not a normal price,” said Kira Arauz. “That’s on the low end of the industry for price per show.”

In order to help pay her dancers more, McAlister pushed for the idea of Greensboro Ballet becoming a professional dance company. This would mean full-time, paid dancers, stagehands,  production and wardrobe departments. Up until then, all of the extra work had been done by the dancers themselves, and they weren’t being paid for most of it, according to Jessica.

“The Greensboro Ballet has none of that,” McAlister said. “We were very fortunate that we had two dancers who happened to be really good seamstresses.”

Rather than having a designer or a costume director, McAlister said that Kira Arauz and her sister, Elisa, would stay up late and work on hand-stitching costumes using garments they would buy at TJ Maxx.

“I said I understand that money in the arts is skimpy anyways,” McAlister said. “I told them that we can pay [the dancers] to perform with the understanding that we are working with them to get them to a salary, but after about a year and nothing was said, it was very clear that this was not the case, that they were not interested in that.

“They said, ‘We’re just a student company,’” McAlister recalled. “I said, ‘No, I didn’t come to run a student company.”

In November 2021, right before performances of the Nutcracker opened, Semenza, the Arauz sisters and one other dancer decided to bring their own concerns to the Greensboro Ballet board after they felt like McAlister’s attempts had failed. Kira had just hurt her back which acted as a glaring reminder that none of them had health insurance.

“It was tough,” Semenza said. “We don’t get health insurance, we’re not getting paid enough at all. I mean how can she go see a doctor to keep going in this career?”

When they requested to meet with the board members, they were told that they couldn’t address the whole board but that they could meet with Board Chair Jennifer Jones and Vice Chair Rayna Stoycheva.

“It wasn’t a productive conversation,” Semenza said. “A lot of it seemed like they were blaming it on COVID.”

“They just kept saying, ‘We’re just not ready for that,’” said Elisa Arauz.

“We felt like if we went to the board as dancers, as a team, hopefully we could get through to them, but obviously we didn’t,” Semenza said.

‘I felt used’: McAlister’s termination causes confusion

After the success of the Nutcracker, the organization quickly moved on to planning their spring performances of Cinderella. The dancers continued to talk about what they hoped for as far as their futures with the company with Jessica and David, but most of their time was focused on the next production.

“It was tough because as teachers and dancers, we had to put it aside and focus on Cinderella and making it a success,” Semenza said. “And that’s all we were thinking about.”

While the dancers were practicing new choreography and teaching their classes, McAlister was bringing up pay with the executive director and the board.

“We dove into the same financial quandary,” McAlister said. “I was saying, ‘This is what needs to happen. This is how much we need to spend on professional dancers who are going to be working with us.’”

McAlister knew how successful the Nutcracker shows had been. In an interview for the News & Record leading up to the opening of Cinderella, Executive Director Jennifer Gentry said that the Greensboro Ballet was doing “pretty well financially” and that it had received COVID-19 relief grants and forgivable loans. It ended 2020-21 with a budget excess, according to Gentry.

A look at ArtsGreensboro’s 2020-21 funding report shows that Greensboro Ballet Inc., which is a nonprofit, received $40,990 through ArtsGreensboro and county CARES Act funding. Greensboro Ballet’s financial reports, which are public record because they are a nonprofit, have not been updated online since 2018. According to their tax filings from 2014-18, the organization has operated in the red, with losses ranging from close to $60,000 in 2015 to $6,000 in 2018. Greensboro Ballet’s 2019 tax return shows that the organization made $34,257 in revenue after expenses.

David McAlister says that the boost from COVID-19 funds should have helped the organization take time to plan out their finances.

“Coming out of the pandemic would have been a great time to take a knee and plan,” he said. “I don’t think any of that planning is happening. I guess it was survival mode but Jessica was doing these performances, and they were making money off of these performances. Some of these dancers came in during the pandemic. Where was the plan to get them paid?”

Elisa Arauz, left, Michela Semenza, middle, and Kira Arauz dance in the loading dock of an old cabinet factory that now serves as a studio for the Gate City Dance Theatre in Greensboro, N.C. (photo by Juliet Coen)

According to Jessica McAlister, the amounts that the dancers would be paid was suggested by her but would then have to be approved by the executive director and the board. Going into the shows for Cinderella, McAlister said she sent Gentry a list of dancers’ names and amounts that they should be paid for their performances.

“It was a list that had people’s names and numbers next to it, but it said at the bottom, ‘This is not finalized, this is a place to start,’” McAlister explained.

After she sent the list with suggested pay, she said, three of the dancers on the list were cut from shows.

“That would mean we didn’t use as many dancers so some of the numbers went up, but no one followed up with me,” McAlister said.

After the final performance of Cinderella, dancers were handed checks for their work, but because they were written using the outdated list, the pay wasn’t accurate McAlister said.

“The dancers were furious,” she said. “The checks were off by about $200-$300.”

Part of the reason they were angry was because of the way they got paid, Elisa says.

“We would always get our checks at the end of the last show,” she said. “In my experience of talking to other dancers, that’s not normal. Usually you’re paid beforehand or after the first couple of shows.”

The following morning, McAlister says she woke up to an email from Board President Jennifer Jones asking what happened and why.

“She asked me, ‘Jessica, did you know that the dancers were upset,’” McAlister said. “And I said, ‘I do know. This is what was sent but I can’t be held accountable for someone not following instructions.’”

Part of the reason, according to McAlister and the dancers, is Gentry’s lack of communication.

“It’s very hard to communicate with someone who only wants to communicate through email and won’t talk through phone calls,” McAlister said.

The dancers said they had issues communicating with Gentry as well.

“She just never answered her phone,” Semenza said about Gentry. “She didn’t communicate with Jessica at all but the executive director and the artistic director need to work hand in hand. The executive director made decisions for the artistic director without asking her what she wanted. In my opinion, she was the problem.”

“We never knew when we would get a response when we texted Jennifer Gentry,” Kira Arauz added.

The evening after the last show of Cinderella, the board held a meeting but McAlister told them that she wasn’t going to attend.

“I was extremely stressed out and I sent an email to the board of directors saying that I wouldn’t be at this meeting and that I needed to take care of myself,” McAlister said. “I got nothing back.”

The following morning, she received a Zoom link with a note stating that she was required to attend. During the meeting, McAlister was told that she was fired and that her last paycheck would be the last one she would receive. They didn’t give her a reason.

“They said, ‘You’re done, do not come back,’” McAlister said. “This was two days after I had made them a crapload of money; I felt used.”

After that, McAlister called the dancers to let them know what had happened.

“I think after Cinderella they were planning to fire her,” Semenza said. “I didn’t understand how the [board] couldn’t see the issues with Jennifer Gentry. Why did they not fire her? In my opinion, it was like they could only have one or the other — the artistic director or the executive director, and they were never on Jessica’s side. They never agreed with her or her vision; I feel like she was always pushed aside.”

On April 6, days after McAlister was fired, Board Chair Jennifer Jones sent out an email regarding Greensboro Ballet’s future and McAlister’s termination.

“In order to stay true to our vision as a community ballet organization, the Board of Directors has made a decision regarding the artistic leadership of Greensboro Ballet,” the email reads. “We want to thank Jessica McAlister for her contributions to Greensboro Ballet, and we wish her well in her future endeavors. As we continue with our strategic planning, we look forward to opportunities to engage with you. We will update you about next steps in the strategic planning process.”

That evening, there was an emergency staff meeting where Jennifer Gentry explained what was going on. But the explanation wasn’t clear, according to the dancers.

“She was telling us stuff that had nothing to do with why they fired Jessica,” Kira Arauz said. “All I could think of were the kids. I started crying in the meeting talking about it. We had eight weeks left in the season and they couldn’t wait. They couldn’t take the time to think about what was supposed to happen. To me, it seemed like a reactionary decision. The kids got caught in the crossfires. We didn’t know what the kids were going to do for the next eight weeks or who was doing what for Jessica’s classes.”

‘I’m done dancing there’: Exodus of dancers leave students without direction

In addition to dancing in performances, dancers with the organization spent hours every day teaching classes to children and adults. When McAlister was fired, that left several of her advanced classes without an instructor.

“I felt very confused and also very anxious,” said Jenny Smith, an adult student who has taken classes at Greensboro Ballet since 2017. “I actually wasn’t able to eat for many days because I was so sick to my stomach thinking about what happened. What’s going to happen to my teachers? Where am I going to dance? It was all out of nowhere.”

Jenny Smith has taken lessons at Greensboro Ballet for the last five years. (courtesy photo)

Smith started at Greensboro Ballet when she was 18 years old. She had just left her childhood dance studio and was looking for a place to continue her passion. In the beginning, everything seemed smooth at the studio.

“Everything was followed to a T,” Smith said. “It was almost intimidating.”

Throughout the years, Smith took several classes through Greensboro Ballet, including ones taught by the Arauz sisters. She worked her way up to the advanced classes and even mustered up the courage to audition for some of the productions.

In November of last year, Smith was cast as part of the corps in The Nutcracker.

“It was just the most exciting thing of my entire life,” Smith said. “That was the way I introduced myself to people. I would say, ‘I’m in the corps with the Greensboro Ballet.’ It was just so exciting for me.”

After reading the email on April 6 from the board regarding McAlister’s termination, Smith’s feelings about the organization began to change.

“At that point in the year, the only reason they should have fired an instructor or artistic director was if she posed a threat to our wellbeing,” Smith said. “And that was not Jessica; that’s one thing I really cannot get past. The way that they’ve handled it, they’re basically lying by omission t. No one outright told us she was fired.”

After McAlister left, the dancers began talking about what that meant for their future at Greensboro Ballet.

“We hadn’t made a decision yet,” Semenza said. “We needed to give ourselves time to let everything set in.”

One of the things that made the Arauz sisters finally decide to leave Greensboro Ballet took place in the days after the last Cinderella show.

“We had to take care of some costume stuff for Cinderella but we had to be escorted to the storage unit,” Elisa said. “We had been there multiple times before by ourselves but we talked to Nina, the school director, and she told us, ‘I think it’s because of your connection with Jessica.’

“I felt like I was being watched,” she continued. “After being with the studio for eight years, I would think they would know that my intentions were good. I felt like I had to look over my shoulder while we were teaching the last few days.”

Semenza’s morale started to drop, too.

“I personally felt like we weren’t wanted anymore,” she said. “I felt like they could have taken time to explain to us what happened. But they had no intention of wanting to pay us, they had no intentions of wanting to build a company, so I thought, Why should I have to do this for eight more weeks when the person who was giving me opportunities is no longer here? The hardest part was leaving the kids, but it came down to us having to make the decision for ourselves.”

On April 9, all of the dancers put in their resignations to the Greensboro Ballet.

“I didn’t see it getting any better,” Elisa said. “The work atmosphere became untenable.”

“It made me question a lot why I was still dancing, and if I should actually keep dancing,” said her sister, Kira, through tears. “Because I felt worthless, and I was not in a good place after we left.”

From left, Michela Semenza, Elisa Arauz, Kira Arauz, and Jessica Fry McAlister in the new Gate City Dance Theatre studio in Greensboro, N.C. (photo by Juliet Coen)

After the teachers left, the school tried to find replacements, but it wasn’t the same, Smith said.

“The school director took over and brought in a few more women for the advanced classes,” Smith said. “Some parents helped out in the kids’ classes, but it was chaos. One of the teachers should never have been hired; she was outright awful. The quality was really bad after they left.”

That’s when Smith decided to leave, too.

“There’s a spot in my heart that loves that place and I think I always will because I have gotten to live out my dream of dancing, but I’m too angry at the selfish decisions that they’ve made because they weren’t in the best interest of the students,” she said. “I’m not done dancing, but I’m done dancing there.”

Looking to the future, Smith said she wants to continue to dance and is waiting for the right opportunity.

“I really want to be in as many shows as I possibly can,” Smith said. “I’m not sure how far I can go, but my goal is to go as far as I can possibly go.”

‘A new place for dancers’: The birth of Gate City Dance Theatre

Soon, there may be a space for Smith to continue to dance.

For the last several months, David McAlister has been coming up with a business plan for what a new ballet company in Greensboro might look like. In the beginning, the plan was to partner with the Greensboro Ballet — he and Jessica would run the ballet company while Greensboro Ballet ran the school.

“It was never being done to come after Greensboro Ballet,” Jessica said. “If anything, it was to work together.”

David said he had planned a meeting with the board on April 15.

“We were like, Awesome, we’re going to hold pattern and let them get through Cinderella, and then we were under the impression of, Okay, let’s talk on April 15,’” David said. “But then Jessica was terminated.”

At that point, they decided to move ahead on their own. Originally, they hadn’t planned on starting a school, just a ballet company where their dancers could be paid a living wage. However, after thinking about the students they left behind and the potential to reach more future ballet dancers, they decided to start a school as well. Their new businesses, Gate City Dance Theatre and Gate City School of Dance are set to begin operation in early September.

From left, Jessica Fry McAlister, Kira Arauz, David McAlister, Elisa Arauz, and Michela Semenza at the new Gate City Dance Theatre studio in Greensboro, N.C. (photo by Juliet Coen)

Jessica said she’s excited that she will finally have a place to teach and mentor dancers who don’t fit the typical ballet dancer mold, like herself.

“I am not a normal dancer, I’m barely 5-3,” McAlister said. “Most dancers are tall and leggy and they have these wispy, skinny bodies, but I’m built like a gymnast. I have a butt. I’m not blonde, but I had people throughout my life who looked past those things and that’s what I want: a group of dancers who don’t fit the mold, and you just see the dancing. The dancers I have are not cookie cutter; it doesn’t matter what shape, size, color you are.”

David said that having their own company will allow them to empower their dancers and create a safe space for them as well.

“I want to create a safe environment for the dancers,” David said. “The industry as a whole, a lot of times, dancers are abused. They are asked to do more than what they are paid but dancers are the backbone of any dance company.”

As finalizations for Gate City Dance Theatre like putting finishing touches on their venue and setting up payment systems for classes take place, the dancers that left Greensboro Ballet say they are looking forward to working with Jessica again.

“I feel very honored to be a part of something that is from the ground up,” Semenza said. “I’m very excited for the future. Everything is really uncertain, but I have to move forward with the confidence that we have the right people behind us.”

The plan is for the company to put on three to four major production per year and also focus on  community performances where attendees can bring canned goods or gently used clothing that would benefit a partner nonprofit as payment in lieu of buying tickets. Not only would it help the partner organization, but it would also lower the cost so more people could become exposed to ballet.

“That’s going to allow people to see ballet maybe for the first time, and to get them thinking, wishing and hoping, Maybe that could be me one day,” David said.

And as a short girl with hips and dark brown hair, this vision of ballet is all Jessica has ever wanted.

“I want the dancers to have gratifying experiences,” she said. “I’m still hurting, but I’m trying to look positively ahead by building a new place for dancers in Greensboro.”

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