In September 2014, the Tom Tom Founders Festival launched the Founding Cville project which highlights local artists, civic leaders and entrepreneurs “whose groundbreaking and original work has impacted Charlottesville and the world.” Charlottesville Tomorrow is republishing the eighteen profiles of each of the inaugural Founders.

Sara Clayborne, Cofounder of the Charlottesville Ballet

The Charlottesville Ballet is an academy, a community resource, and a performance company that attracts international dancers. Sara Clayborne cofounded the Ballet in 2007 with Emily Mott after a career spent teaching, studying, and performing dance professionally. The Ballet is a burgeoning entreprise that speaks to Charlottesville’s love for the arts, and the awareness that cultural enterprises should also foster greater societal good.

What does Charlottesville Ballet do?  

Charlottesville Ballet is a 501(c)3 nonprofit, and we have three entities. There is the performance company that draws professional dancers from all over the world. They relocate to Charlottesville to dance with us. Our current company has dancers from Australia, Egypt, and across the United States. Then we have our academy. We train both children and adults in all genres of dance, with an emphasis on ballet. Finally, we have our outreach program, Chance To Dance, which is an 11 week after-school class serving children who might not otherwise interact with dance education.

How did it start? What was the inspiration?  

My Co-Director at Charlottesville Ballet, Emily Mott, was attending the University of Virginia. She is a dear friend and we had danced together at the Richmond Ballet. Looking at the wealth of cultural activity in Charlottesville, we felt that a ballet company belonged here. Our mission is health and wellness. We wanted to create a model of ballet performance and training that retained its traditions of art and discipline without weigh-ins, performing through injuries, and other unhealthy practices that are sometimes associated with ballet.

What was the biggest setback?

The biggest challenge is being able to secure funding as a nonprofit. Many people in our community are very supportive of nonprofits. But not everyone understands how nonprofits work. To some, “nonprofit” signifies that an organization does not need to generate revenue or pay salaries. So there is a hurdle in educating people about what makes an organization sustainable.

When did you begin to suspect this could be a success?

We started the ballet company first. That was seven years ago. Then we found that we really needed to train dancers from the source, from day one. Three years later, we launched the academy. That was when we realized that we were going to make an impact on our community. We were going to be training the next generation of dancers in Charlottesville, and imparting a culture of health and wellness to children who are the town’s future.

What has been the biggest positive impact you have observed?

There are a few. One would be the work that we have done with Chance to Dance, and getting to know the students on a personal level. We have seen them develop confidence and lifelong skills that go beyond ballet.

How do you define Founding?

I think of it as a couple key words: creative, driven, persistent, and focused. If you do not have creativity, it is hard to be a founder and create something. On the other hand, you can have all these great ideas, but if you do not have drive, persistence, and focus, they will not come to fruition. Someone can be a beautiful dancer, but if he or she does not put the work in, those gifts will never translate to excellence.

What brought you to Charlottesville, and what keeps you here?

I am from New York and I lived in Richmond for a number of years. I knew Charlottesville because my brother went to the University of Virginia, but ultimately Charlottesville Ballet’s cofounder Emily Mott brought me here when we launched the company. Now I cannot imagine living anywhere else. The whole community is wonderful. It is committed to health in so many aspects – the health of our environment, each other. Charlottesville really has the most generous people. And it is full of entrepreneurs!

What’s next?

We would love to one day have our own building. And we would love to expand Chance to Dance, partnering with other nonprofits, providing transportation and equipment, so that if there is a child who has the desire and aptitude to dance in our outreach program, they have every opportunity to do that.

Founding Cville culminated in an award ceremony at Tom Tom’s Fall Block Party
with over 6,000 in attendance | Credit: Tom Daly Photography