Photography by Paul Bostrom
For the past 25 years, Polk County’s premier professional dance company, the Florida Dance Theatre, has continued to inspire audiences and invest in the next generation. As the company looks ahead to celebrating its 25 years in the county, Carol Krajacic-Erkes, the founding director, reflects on key moments that shaped the company.
As Carol Krajacic-Erkes, the founding director of Florida Dance Theatre, reflects on the past 25 years and anticipates the future of the company, she can’t help but share how the community rallied behind her since the beginning. “I can’t believe how wonderful all the people are who have helped make the organization what it is. It’s amazing how so many people have helped because they saw my vision. We still have so many people who are pushing for us,” says Erkes.
In April of 2019, the theatre will host its 25th Gala Celebration at the Polk Theatre in honor of Erkes. The beginning of next season, 2019-20, will also mark Erkes passing the directorship over to Stefan Dolbashian and Jermaine Thornton as she sets to retire. Dolbashian, has been with Erkes for more than 10 years and Thornton for the past 8 years. “They know my vision and they know where I want this company to go. I want to see it perform more around Polk County and increase performances and residencies around the country,” says Erkes.
“I have such an emotional bond with so many people over the past 25 years. It’s amazing. And now, so many of the students I raised are bringing their kids to me.”
In celebration of a quarter of a century, the 2018-19 year will be filled with professional performances in the Branscomb Auditorium, from The Nutcracker to the Fit n’ Fierce Festival. The company commenced the anniversary season in September, with retelling the beloved childhood story of Peter Pan, which Erkes characterizes as a historic event for the company.
“It was a brand-new ballet. It was the first time that we have been accompanied by the Imperial Symphony for a full-length program. That was really cool. I didn’t have anything to do with the production. Stefan created all of the choreography, and Jermaine was in charge behind the scenes. Along with all of that, they still performed in the production. I think the Peter Pan performance really opened people’s eyes to what we really do as professionals.”
As the only professional dance company in Polk County, the company boasts 11 professional dancers from around the country who are all salaried, in addition to offering opportunities for trainees and apprentices. The training academy provides classes from the beginner to the professional level in ballet, modern, jazz, tap and hip-hop. Students from the academy have successfully gone on to receive scholarships to college dance programs, including Florida State, as well as followed professional careers with companies such as the Joffrey Ballet, Ballet Met, and Memphis Ballet. Florida Dance Theatre is also the professional dance company in residence at Florida Southern College.
A full-fledge dance company wasn’t always in the cards for Erkes. She originally opened a ballet studio but soon noticed the talent available in Polk County. When she opened her doors for the first season, she had over 60 students. From there it has continued to grow.
“I didn’t plan to have a professional dance company. It was never in my mind. It just kind of happened. I realized there was no outlet for them to perform. And some of them were just too good to let go,” says Erkes. “After a year, I realized that the students I had were in need of some kind of performance outlet, so I started Lakeland Ballet. I changed it to Florida Dance Theatre and changed it to a 501(C3) nonprofit organization. I wanted to provide scholarship for kids. I went from a company of just teenagers to a full-fledged professional company with salaried dancers from all over the country.”
The essential ingredient for Erkes at the organization is creating an atmosphere where everyone feels included. “It’s all about attitude. People walk in and they feel welcome. It’s got to be a place, whether you want to be a dancer or not, you are relaxed. You’re having fun and you’re learning all at the same time.”
“Being an artist is very personal, but you have to learn to make sacrifices and work when you are exhausted. It’s life training. We have had some of those kids who were in the free program come back and volunteer with us for some of our summer camps over the years because they came to the camp and it changed their life.”
Erkes says one of the company’s proudest moments is its involvement in the community through its summer programs and providing scholarships for students to attend the academy. The local summer camp outreach is a five-days-a-week program held for two weeks for children who might not usually be able to afford the opportunity of dance training. “For 17 years, we have done a free summer camp for the economically disadvantaged. The program is not only the camp. We choose kids to receive a scholarship to attend the school for a whole season,” says Erkes.
The future of the company promises more involvement within the community. This year, the organization was able to partner with Lake Parker Ministries to hold an after-school program with hopes of expanding that program to area schools. Erkes adds that the most rewarding part of the outreach programs has been the kids who came to them through their free summer programs and Publix scholarship program.
Students from the academy have successfully gone on to receive scholarships to college dance programs.
“It wasn’t so much about the dancing, although some of them really excelled and really loved it. It was about how it changed their lives. It gave them an opportunity to explore themselves artistically and see that dance is very personal. That training was not only about dance, it was about life, and how to get along with people and work with a team. That’s why the arts are so special,” she says.
Erkes also notes how rigorous dancing can be and how it has taught individuals, who might not even continue in the field, how to be disciplined and work hard. “Being an artist is very personal, but you have to learn to make sacrifices and work when you are exhausted. It’s life training. We have had some of those kids who were in the free program come back and volunteer with us for some of our summer camps over the years because they came to the camp and it changed their life.”
Investing in others is something Erkes takes from one of her former dance teachers she had in her home state of Ohio. “She focused more on the emotional part of dancing and all of the work involved because she cared about us whether we continued to dance or just did it for pleasure. She really cared about us as people. Dance was almost secondary.”
“I didn’t plan to have a professional dance company. It was never in my mind. It just kind of happened. I realized there was no outlet for them to perform. And some of them were just too good to let go.”
Erkes became a professional ballet dancer at the age of 17. She began her career dancing at a school in Cleveland at the age of 10, and from there pursued a professional career after graduating from high school. It was while she was dancing for the Cincinnati Ballet that she met her husband. She danced for the company for five years, before they moved to Houston, where she continued to dance. When her husband decided to pursue a path in medicine, they moved to Galveston, Texas, where she started a local ballet school.
After her husband’s residency, the couple looked for a warmer climate to live in and settled on Florida. They moved to Winter Haven, where Erkes continued to dance for two different companies in Orlando. The commute wore on her, and that’s when she decided to start the Florida Dance Theatre. She recalls the countless people who supported her along the way and the generations of families that have been a part of the organization since its inception. “I have such an emotional bond with so many people over the past 25 years. It’s amazing. And now, so many of the students I raised are bringing their kids to me,” says Erkes.
While she looks to her future in retirement, Erkes plans to continue to guest teach and choreograph. “Everybody has done so much. It’s a love. It’s not work. It’s going to be difficult to be away. My hope is that they continue to reach more kids and a bigger audience that really appreciates what they do and how hard they work.”
Florida Dance Theatre
305 W. Main Sreet
Lakeland, FL 33815