Dance teacher steps in to share passion with kids

Nancy Sample might only have one biological son, but her profession has blessed her with hundreds of surrogate daughters. Ballet instructor and mother are interchangeable terms for the doting dance teacher who has guided multitudes of budding ballerinas, some of whom have gone on to perform with companies like the Inland Pacific Ballet.  

Dance and teaching the art of movement are as natural as breathing for Ms. Sample, who has been instructing young girls to jete and rond de jambe for about 40 years. For the past two decades, the dance mom has dedicated her time to the youth of recreation centers across the region like the one in Claremont, where she has taught ballet since before the Hughes Community Center and its dance room even existed.

Dance is an unquenchable passion for the instructor, who finds herself falling more in love with the art form with every class she teaches.

“Dance is its own language,” she said. “It’s a great way of expressing yourself and brings with it such joy and joie de vivre.”

When Ms. Sample was a little girl, she dreamed of becoming a ballet teacher, quite literally. The vision remains vivid despite the passage of time: Ms. Sample remembers the sensational feeling as her dream-self watched a performance from the audience of a large theater, knowing she was the one who had choreographed the dance. The moment she awoke, the 6-year-old informed her parents she had to take a ballet class. Her life has been pointe shoes and pirouettes ever since.

Her training began through the local recreation program in her hometown of Bainbridge, Ohio, where Ms. Sample would watch the company’s star ballerina, Felicia, in admiration as she swept across the stage in her red tutu. She vowed to have a scarlet getup of her own one day.  

While Ms. Sample would go on to achieve accolades as a prima ballerina, her passion remained behind-the-scenes as a teacher and choreographer.

“I’m really shy in terms of dancing on stage. Some of the girls I teach just live for being on the stage, but I’m like, ‘I’ll teach you and you go,’” she laughed.

By age 13, she had taken to choreography at the local recreation program and soon after began running her own dance studio out of the basement of her home. By the time she was in high school, her basement ballet company had grown to about 30 or 40 students.

Though Ms. Sample relished her time as a creative director, she never let her personal struggles with stage fright get the best of her. While managing her studio, Ms. Sample maintained her own practice, eventually receiving the honor of studying under a professional with the prestigious World Canada Ballet. Though it meant hours of travel time to get to the Cleveland dance studio, usual with four or five modes of transportation from Point A to Point B, the daily excursions afforded Ms. Sample some extra study time. In between her busy ballet schedule, Ms. Sample still managed to graduate high school at the top 10 percent of her class.

She took her dance studies to another level after high school, making it into Butler University’s competitive Jordan College of Music as a dance major despite navigating her turns and jumps with a broken ankle during the audition. She completed her 32 changements without a flinch, until stepping off the dance floor.

“There was so much adrenaline pumping,” she recalled. “I had to travel 500 miles back home on a bus in the snow with that broken ankle, I had to take off my boot my foot was so swollen. But I made it!”

That overwhelming sense of discipline and passion for her craft continued throughout her life. After a couple years at Butler, Ms. Sample decided to increase her dance practice, moving to France to study intensively under an instructor with the Leningrad Kirov Ballet. She eventually returned to the states after contiuing her studies in Europe. Following her graduation from Kent State University in 1971, she became the prima ballerina for the Fairmont Ballet. Ms. Sample was preparing to go on tour with the company when she met Jack Sample, a Vietnam veteran from Glendora. Thoughts turned from touring to matrimony. The touring company took off, but Ms. Sample decided to stay behind.

“The next day they asked me what I was going to do to screw up my life next,” Ms. Sample said.

In fact, it proved the perfect turning point for the ballerina to reinvest in her passion for teaching. She traded stage for staff in 1972 as the director of the dance department at the Cleveland Music School Settlement, now known as just The Music Settlement, one of the largest community music schools in the country. There, she looked after the training of 150 ballerinas on a weekly basis.

“It was intense, but I loved it,” she insisted. “[The Cleveland School] was a wonderful institution to be a part of. They were very respectful of their artists, and that doesn’t always happen. It was a beautiful environment to work in.”

She stayed with the company for five years, welcoming her son, Benjamin, toward the end of her tenure. The years following her time at The Music Settlement were equally rich as Ms. Sample dabbled in different, equally interesting areas of work—as a flight attendant, as an employee with National Geographic, where she put her cultural anthropology degree to work, and as an instructor for the Parkettes gymnasts, helping teach ballet techniques for the balance beam and floor routines to the nation’s number-two team under the direction of Olympic coach Bill Strauss.

Despite her occassional departures from ballet teaching, dance has always remained at the forefront. Since her formative years running classes from the basement of her home, Ms. Sample has owned and operated two ballet studios—The Leesburg Children’s Ballet in Virginia and the San Gabriel Ballet off Arrow Highway in Glendora.

Though she no longer operates a studio of her own, Ms. Sample has enjoyed her residency in recreation centers throughout the region. Her students are equally enamored with their trainer. Best friends Katlin Entrup and Sydney Orrison say they have learned a lot since signing up for Miss Nancy’s class in Claremont two seasons ago.

“Miss Nancy is a great teacher. She is very structured and knows how to get things done,” Katlin said. “That and she is very kind. She knows how to make dance fun.”

Their teacher’s lessons aren’t just about the dance, Sydney added. “Ballet takes a lot of hard work and practice. It also helps you build responsibilities and is a good way of expressing yourself,” the 11-year-old shared.

Both ballerinas are working hard on perfecting their roles as flower princesses in the Waltz of The Flowers, part of their class recital this May. Seeing such passion in her young protégés makes all of Ms. Sample’s practice, travel and years of dedication worth it.

“It feels wonderful to see these children reach their potential,” Ms. Sample said. “It feels like I fulfilled one of my purposes in life.”

Ms. Sample continues to teach her ballet course to those ages 5-12 at the Hughes Centers on Thursday evenings from 4:45 to 5:45 p.m. Online registration is available at For more information, call Claremont Human Services at (909) 399-5490.

—Beth Hartnett


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