Jumping, Not Saving: Starting a Nonprofit

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I had a phone interview this morning with a Cleveland journalist, and he asked me how I started my organization, Ballet in Cleveland, a company dedicated to the presentation and promotion of classical ballet in Cleveland, Ohio. I told him I would be concise, but the poor man ended-up listening to me explain my organization for a good twenty minutes. I won’t go into every detail. However, what I will say is that if you ever have an idea, especially an idea based on something about which you feel passionate, that won’t let go… you need to listen to it. And, sometimes, in order to get what we want, we have to take a leap bigger than we ever want to or think we can.

Me with the Cleveland skyline.

There are times in life that require us to take action.

Rewind to December 2011: I was in a job, unaligned with my priorities. At the end of the day, I went home feeling empty and deflated. But, when I taught dance in the evenings, I felt so alive and in-touch with myself and my strengths–the feeling was almost tangible. It was a bit like the Sesame Street song “One of These Things is Not Like the Other,” and my career was what didn’t belong. It was time to make a change.

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, it is actually easier to take action when times are tough. There’s something that drives that force inside, telling you to overcome your circumstances because you know things can be better. Luckily, that voice spoke to me loud and clear least year–they say that necessity is the mother of all invention and typically ideas are sparked by need; our brains have lovely ways of perceiving opportunity and then subtly (or sometimes not so subtly!) letting us know about it.

Cleveland’s Playhouse Square

A critical part of the story here is that the Cleveland Ballet left our city in the year 2000 and went to San Jose. Six years later, the Ohio Ballet, Cleveland’s other resident company, folded as well. In the early 2000s, Playhouse Square presented ballet companies as part of its programming, but didn’t have the necessary resources that it takes to engage a city in the art of ballet. It became my mission, and the mission of Ballet in Cleveland, to share the magic and artistry of classical dance with a city in which ballet is such a part of its history. Ballet in Cleveland creates experiences, like the magical ones I experienced at a young age, for Cleveland area children area children and adults alike.

Last year, the holidays held no magic, and nor did life for quite some time. I was personally and professionally about as low as a grand plié! I sat in a coffee shop and did the only thing I knew how to do. I thought about my ideas and goals for how to bring professional ballet performances and events to the city I loved. Then, I reached out to the few connections I had. Two months later, I stood up in front of a crowd of Clevelanders and pitched my idea, asking for support. I smiled when I didn’t feel like smiling, and acted like I knew exactly what I was doing when the reality was that I was making it up as I went. I thank my good fortune that there were kind-hearted individuals who say my passion for ballet and decided to help. Gradually, things started to fall into place. Instead of attending events, I was planning them. Instead of seeking out supporters and followers, they were finding us. I woke up every morning wanting to dive right into my work. I had begun the transformation from broken and discontented to empowered and confident. I saw a need in my city and I pulled out all of the stops to fill that need.

So, what does “pulling out all of the stops” mean, exactly?

Over and over again, I used to watch a VHS of New York City Ballet’s Balanchine Celebration. In the video, Melinda Roy tells a story about being in class one day with Balanchine. She had gone across the floor and finished with an assemblé she had hoped would impress Balanchine. He said, “Why aren’t you jumping dear, why are you saving?” She politely replied she thought she was, but she would try again. She repeated the combination multiple times with the same result. Understandably, she had become upset with his response. Finally, she came plowing down the floor and when she stepped into her assemblé, she slipped and landed at Balanchine’s feet. He looked at her and exclaimed, “That’s it!”

George Balanchine in rehearsal.

“Why are you stingy with yourselves? Why are you holding back? What are you saving for- for another time? There are no other times. There is only now. Right now.” -George Balanchine


What I am saying is this: no one knows what to do, where to go, or how they’re going to get there when faced with a significant life change. You just in fact “do” whatever it is you can, even if you think it’s inconsequential. Little actions lead to big actions, and big actions lead to big results. Choose what it is you feel passionate about and just start doing something. Read a book, get inspired, send an email… you have to start somewhere. Think outside what you’ve perceived your realm of influence to be. I was a teacher sitting behind a desk eating a sack lunch every day at this time last year, spending my weekends grading mounds of papers. Now, I have an office in that very same performing arts district in which I experienced a life-changing performance, and I drive there every day with a smile on my face and a sense of “I did it!”

Every day brings a new challenge, but I am doing what I love, and walking the trail I have blazed. I am jumping and not saving…

I hope Mr. B would be proud!

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  • Julie

    This is exactly what I needed to read today. Jessica, you are amazing and super inspirational. Thanks for writing this! I may need to pick your brain sometime 🙂

    • jessica

      Thank you so much, Julie. It was definitely the scariest thing I have ever done in my life, but I don’t regret a single second of it. Thanks to the support of people like you, Ballet in Cleveland is a budding success. I am so grateful to have open people in my life who are willing to support and appreciate the art of ballet and who are wonderful, supportive friends. People like you are why I am always “#happyinCLE!”

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