Florida dance theatre’s dancers step out of the studio and into their element

Photography by Tina Sargeant • Hair by Josh Vasquez, Evolve Hair Studio

Low, pulsating music permeates the air like a heartbeat, giving tense rhythm to an otherwise quiet moment. Short, quick lines occasionally alter with delicate arcs as they move through space. Legs slowly extend upward into impossible positions, the ostensible effortlessness of the movement betrayed only by taut muscles and sinew. Mesmerized by the powerful energy and beauty on display, or thoroughly engrossed in an emotional narrative, an audience abandons itself to the dancers’ spell, bewitched by this culmination of auditory experience, visual artistry, theatricality, and athleticism.
Whether flexing and sliding in an original contemporary piece, twirling and leaping in The Nutcracker Suite, or shadowing the movements in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the dancers of Florida Dance Theatre have been presenting this art form to the Lakeland community in their unique manner for twenty seasons.
When Founding Director Carol Krajacic Erkes relocated to Lakeland in the early 1990s, she discovered a greater pool of talent for her new ballet school than she had originally anticipated. Having danced many years as a professional ballerina, Erkes is particularly qualified to recognize exceptional ability. She trained with the Ballet Russe in her hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, before commencing her professional career at the age of 15 with the Ohio Ballet in Akron. She spent six years with the Cincinnati Ballet, including several as a soloist, and also served as a soloist with the Augusta Ballet. She has taught and danced with Orlando Ballet and Texas Ballet and performed as a guest artist with companies throughout the country, including the San Diego Metropolitan Ballet and Houston Civic Ballet.

Eventually, seeing that some of the area’s students needed a more advanced performance outlet than the typical yearend recital, Erkes collaborated with Lloyd Whitmore to establish a dance company, Lakeland Ballet. The company evolved into the current Florida Dance Theatre, with a greater emphasis on contemporary dance than traditional ballet. As artistic director, Erkes fulfills the role of executive for the non-profit organization, handling most of the group’s daily, administrative, and marketing needs, and beyond. Assistant Director and Resident Choreographer Ferdinand (Freddie) De Jesus now exercises most of the artistic duties for the company. De Jesus also possesses impressive dance credentials, having studied
at Alvin Ailey and the Dance Theatre of Harlem in New York City. His professional experience includes time with Philadanco in Philadelphia; Dayton Contemporary Dance Company in Dayton, Ohio; and the Bruce Wood Dance Project in Dallas.
Erkes’ initial intention to expand opportunities for young dancers in Polk County has metamorphosed into a mission to present high-caliber dance to the greater community and create a love for the art form. Florida Dance Theatre employs professional dancers from around the country and abroad who dance in the company’s performances and teach classes at the Academy. In addition to its regular season, the company stages several free or reduced-price productions for various groups and organizations throughout the area to better serve its mission.
Moving forward, FDT is embarking on new partnerships with Florida Southern College; the school debuted its musical theatre program this fall and plans to commence one in dance in 2014. De Jesus began teaching dance classes in the theatre department this fall, and Erkes will begin instructing ballet at the college in January. In the future, FDT hopes to become a touring company with regularly scheduled performances throughout Florida and out of state.

Because dance, particularly contemporary dance, is surrounded by an undeniable mystique of complexity, the art form is often perceived as intimidatingly highbrow. Like many other genres of the arts, dance can be appreciated at a variety of levels, from the dancers’ storytelling capabilities to their athletic prowess. Erkes is quick to point out that dancers aim to entertain. “Just enjoy it for what it is — just the beauty of dance,” she says. Indeed, the company’s frequent incorporation of a variety of dance types, music genres, moods, and narratives in its performances, mixed with the directors’ eyes for theatricality, cast a captivating enchantment. The dancers’ incredible talent — that enviable ability to bend the body and move in such graceful, extraordinary ways while simultaneously expressing emotion — makes Florida Dance Theatre’s magic truly inescapable. It’s that talent that’s highlighted within these pages. Despite being stripped of stage, lights, and sound, these dancers remain absolutely stunning. Enjoy the show.

The Academy of Florida Dance Theatre

The Academy of Florida Dance Theatre offers classes to students of all ages, from age 3 to adulthood, and regardless of aspirations. Students are placed in classes according to a combination of ability, experience, and age. After mastering the techniques and theories of that level, they move on to the next. The Academy provides courses in ballet, jazz (theatrical and street), tap, modern, and hip-hop dance, as well as musical theatre. For more information about the company and the Academy, including a listing of the Academy’s current offerings, please see www.floridadancetheatre.org or call (863) 682-7553. FDT’s studios are located at 305 West Main Street in downtown Lakeland.