Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011

Her professional dance career derailed by scoliosis, Gina Hanchey spun her love of ballet into a vibrant new enterprise. by Emily Henagan

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When Gina and Matt Hanchey transplanted their labor of love, The Ballet Académie, to the hub of downtown Lafayette, they orchestrated a simultaneous juxtaposition of classical and contemporary dance and mingled art with business. And Gina, the co-owner and instructor of the 2,400-square-foot revamped building, didn’t make the move by happenstance; she relocated her business with the kind of timed precision found in arabesques and assemblés.

“I want to make this space more open to the artists in the community and more open to the community, as well as promote more dance downtown and more of a performing arts kind of vibe,” says Hanchey. “This is a perfect area because we have all the amenities downtown. They can rehearse; they can stay a block away; they can walk to restaurants.”

Hanchey is already aligning this vibe by collaborating with Paige Krause, Acadiana Center for the Arts’ education coordinator and artist-in-residence, to incorporate modern ballet classes into The Ballet Académie’s curriculum. Hanchey is also coinciding her open house with the Fall Fest Art Walk Saturday, Sept. 10. It will feature work by family friend and local artist Kelly Guidry and will also showcase tattoo artist Jake G’s works and graphic designer Josh Strickland’s digitally created images.

“So, I’m trying to think beyond just the students,” Hanchey continues. “Students are still the primary focus, but I really want to try to get more of a community in here and house touring companies for rehearsals. Also, that is so beneficial for the students to see professionals rehearsing.”

Hanchey instructs her students, who range in age from 5 to mid-40s, on a well-sprung floor that protects the dancers from injury.

“Gina is very professional,” says student Elizabeth Romig, a wife and mother of two boys. “She focuses on each student individually at his/her level. No matter what level you come in, she will push you to the next level. She keeps things moving, and no two classes are the same.”

And though Hanchey is known as an instructor who pushes her pupils, other students are quick to point out that she’s perfected a delicate balance of perseverance and fun.

“It’s not so hard that you get frustrated, but it’s not so easy that you get bored,” adds student Amber Wright, a Mobile, Ala., native. “It’s such a positive environment.”

This environment consists of a sprawling 1,000-square-foot dance floor that faces mirrorless walls, an aesthetic conceived by Hanchey.

“We will have a mirror on the side wall because there are times when it’s beneficial for the dancer to see her moves on the mirror,” she explains. “But when they’re dancing in the center or across the floor, it’s as if they’re on the stage; there are no mirrors on the stage. It really allows the girls to focus on their lines and not try to see what they look like in the mirrors. In ballet everything has to be exact and the minute you just shift your eyes a little, you’ve lost your balance or you’ve lost your line. Not having a mirror in the middle of the dance floor has been amazing.”

Hold a mirror up to the slender, striking Hanchey and you will never realize that she suffers from a crippling form of scoliosis that decimated her professional dancing career aspirations and almost annihilated her mobility. Hanchey’s childhood physician advised her to begin ballet lessons to help combat her scoliosis, but it was this scoliosis that also cut her dancing career short.

Doctors told her without surgery she would not be able to walk by age 35, and her health insurance would not cover the then-$600,000 surgery because it was a pre-existing condition. Cedars-Sinai surgeons performed the surgery pro bono on Hanchey, then 28 and living Los Angeles. Since fully recovering, she has become the principal dancer in her own life, juggling choreography, marriage, motherhood and screenplay writing.

“After a year of bed rest after the surgery, I was so thankful to get up and be active,” says Hanchey, now 37. “I felt so lucky. I said, ‘Let’s party; let’s do something.’ I did do something.”

Whether coordinating and choreographing her students for the school’s annual spring performance at the AcA’s Moncus Theater or feeding a city that hungers for dance doubling as art, Hanchey is doing much more than something.

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