Since she was a little girl, Meredith Mast has found bliss in the lore and traditions of ballet.
Like in the pages of a book, Mast, a former professional ballet dancer, has achieved escape and even sometimes transcendence in the arabesques and plies of the ballet. And for more than 20 years, Mast has created a way for youngsters to discover the beauty of classical ballet through the pages of a book at Storybook Ballet, located at the Hilldale Shopping Center.
Mast, 50, of North Freedom, focuses on teaching 3- to 9-year-olds classical ballet fundamentals and technique, with the added bonus of combining new stories, costumes and choreography to add to the experience. Mast and her mother have written a series of original children’s books that are incorporated into the dance curriculum, one of which is published.
Mast grew up in Miami and started dancing when she was about 4 years old. By age 9, she was studying ballet six days a week, and was accepted into the Houston Ballet’s summer program at 14. At 16, she left home to train with the Houston Ballet full time and turned professional at 17. She spent a short time as a professional dancer, but decided to leave the ballet due to frequent issues with injury.
Mast then shifted gears and went to college, obtaining a degree in psychology. Mast and her husband eventually moved to Wisconsin, where she went about launching a ballet studio for young children that incorporated fairy tales, one of Mast’s favorite aspects of being a ballerina.
What’s a powerful memory related to your dancing career?
I remember the first time my family came to watch me perform as Clara in Houston Ballet’s “The Nutcracker,” which was a great accomplishment, and we were performing at the Wortham Theater, and it was this beautiful theater with red velvet carpet, and chandeliers, and for my whole family to be there to watch me portray Clara was very exciting, like your whole life you’ve worked for this kind of thing.
What draws you to ballet?
I always consider ballet a visual form of music, so you’re really making music come to life. And I always felt almost like I was in another world, it was very spiritual for me to dance. I felt like when I was dancing on the stage, I was lost in another world, basically, bringing this music to life and telling these stories. I was just drawn to it very young. It was challenging, but fulfilling, and I just always loved the aesthetic, the lines that you make in ballet, it’s just very beautiful.
I remember as a dancer really feeling almost ethereal when I was dancing. There’s no line between the music and your movement.
What makes your ballet studio unique?
I feel like we’re able to spend more time focusing on the fundamentals of classical ballet and building a strong foundation, whereas you’re not just worried about putting a bunch of dances together and putting them on a stage.
How can ballet, or dancing more generally, help a child’s development?
I think there’s so many benefits of studying ballet for children. The non-physical benefits, I would say, would be focus, listening skills, discipline, etiquette, body awareness, spatial awareness, musicality, and then the physical aspects, of course, learning about our bodies, building strength, building coordination, flexibility, and then with all of that is teaching children about the beauty of ballet, the history of ballet, the traditions of ballet.
What benefit is there to starting ballet so young?
We definitely say that not all 3s are at a place to begin ballet class, but we start working on the fundamentals right away, but in a very creative environment. It’s fostering their love of movement, which is very inherent in children. Children love to move, so we take that and we try to foster that and to teach them about ballet, and to learn how to move their bodies, and we start to build in the classical ballet foundation. As they get a little bit older, we’re working in more of the classical ballet. When they’re 3, you’re also working just a lot on motor skills and listening skills.
What other aspects of your ballet teaching philosophy would you like to describe?
We focus on technique, we focus a lot on etiquette, our manners in ballet class, respect for the teacher, respect for the ballet studio. We finish with what’s called reverence, and it’s when you do curtsies and bows at the end of class, and we clap, and that is a way to basically show respect to your teacher and your classmates at the end of the class. They do things like waiting their turn, learning not to talk when the teacher’s talking, and then we also have the fairy tale component, which is a whole other component, where we’re exposing them to fairy tales, stories that they might not have heard before. We take those stories and we bring them to life with our acting, our dancing and costumes.
Tell me about the stories you incorporate into your classes.
I published one book myself, and we’ve written six that we use here. My mother and I wrote the stories together, and we decided to go ahead and try to publish one of them, which we did, and we dance it here. We dance the other stories as well, and so they were written specifically with our ballet classes in mind, so they’re written to fit into the framework of the class.
Why did you want to focus on teaching young kids?
The original reason we started with the young ones actually had to do with my own family. I live an hour from here, and I have four children, and my husband is a Madison firefighter. When he works, he’s gone overnight, so I couldn’t have classes into the evening hours because I had to get home. When I first started Storybook, the majority of our classes were morning and very early afternoon, and when 4-K started, that very much started our morning enrollment, and so we ended up adding more afternoon classes, and we ended up having so many people on waitlists, that we would add another class after that. The original intent to focus on children was because of my own personal family, but also because we had so many (students), so we really were able to build a school just around these young ones.