Polish family turns Master Ballet Academy into international success

Slawomir Wozniak Jr. dances with a young ballerina while his mother Irena Wozniak watches and critiques. (Photo Courtesy of Margaret Naczek)

On a Tuesday afternoon at the Master Ballet Academy, 7625 E. Redfield Road in Scottsdale, artistic director, Slawomir Wozniak, teaches a ballet technique class in one of the studios.

Down the hall, his wife, Irena, and son, Slawomir Jr., are working on private instruction with a young ballerina. Mr. Wozniak’s other son, Michal, will join him to assist in the partnering class at 6:30 p.m.

For the Wozniaks, ballet has always been a family affair. Since 2007, they have taken their passion for ballet and channeled it into an internationally recognized ballet academy.

“Dancers are very young when they are ending their career, and you feel like you can give more than just dancing, so we are prolonging our love to our students,” Mrs. Wozniak, the academy’s ballet mistress, said in an April 3 interview.

Slawomir and Irena Wozniak first met in Wroclaw, a city in western Poland, where they were both soloists at the Wroclaw Opera House. They danced in many principal roles together — their most notable being Swan Lake.

As Mrs. Wozniak said, they loved dancing together and soon loved being together.

In 1988, the couple joined the Teatr Wielki in Lodz, Poland. It was there that the Wozniak’s two sons, Slawomir Jr. and Michal were born.

The family moved to Warsaw in 1991 and joined the National Opera House while the two sons joined the State School of Ballet. Mr. Wazniak saw international success, winning bronze in the First International Ballet Competition and performing in many national ballets as a guest artist.

Because ballet dancers retire between the ages of 40 and 45, the Wozniaks say they knew they had to decide their next professional step, and when a friend from Arizona offered them the opportunity to take over her ballet school, they said their decision was easy.

Despite retiring from professional ballet, the couple works more than they ever had — usually 12 hours a day.

“Since we love what we do, since we are committed to our students, we can’t really deny anyone,” Mr. Wozniak said. “So, we start at 10 o’clock in the morning, and we end at 9 or 10 o’clock at night.”

The Master Ballet Academy offers six levels of ballet classes plus a pre-professional program by audition only. Classes include traditional ballet instruction, including pointe work and partnering, as well as contemporary jazz, ballroom and musical theater.

Because the faculty is just 14 people — with only five being core ballet teachers — the Wozniak family’s constant involvement in the school is a big part of its day-to-day success.

Mr. Wozniak said his wife can easily connect with the young girls because of her own success as a professional ballerina.

“She knows exactly what it feels like to be on pointe. She knows exactly how demanding it is to be a ballerina and what it takes to be special and be successful in what the young girls are trying to be in the future,” Mr. Wozniak said.

Michal and Slawomir Jr. have the athletic capability and the gentlemen-like approach, which allows them to dance with the young women of the school and work with them on partnering and performance technique.

“I think it’s very helpful that my parents can count on Michal and myself whenever they need something,” Slawomir Jr. said. “We are always there and available to help.”

Avery Gay (Submitted photo)

Mrs. Wozniak said her husband adds the free approach to instruction and what she describes as a little bit of craziness.

“Slawomir, my husband, he brings a lot of passion and something unique for kids,” she said.

While having the whole family work together offers both convenience and reliability, it comes with its own set of difficulties.

“To be honest, sometimes it’s tired because you are 24/7 with the same people, so we are arguing sometimes. We are laughing just like regular families but all the time together,” Mrs. Wozniak said.

It is the family’s passion for ballet that brought them over 5,000 miles from Poland to Arizona to teach young men and women to become professional dancers.

The Master Ballet Academy has produced internationally recognized ballet dancers from 13-year-old Avery Gay, who won the 2015 Hope Award at the Youth American Grand Prix to 19-year-old Gisele Bethea, who is now a member of the American Ballet Theatre.

“It’s actually not even our success. It’s the success of our students,” Mr. Wozniak said.

“They go around the world. They represent the United States. They represent Arizona, but they also represent us. I feel like we have already achieved more than a lot of schools in the world, working for much longer than we are.”

Editor’s Note: Margaret Naczek is a student-journalist at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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