Core to Corps


Collete Kenville backstage.

From the dance core to the Marine Corps, Collete Kenville hung up her pointe shoes for combat boots all because she was too short. Raised during the golden age of the 1950’s and 60’s in Flint, Michigan, Kenville now owns Kenville Studios, a dance studio that holds dear her childhood ideals of artistic expression and education in dance being fun. However, unlike many ballerinas, Kenville’s journey to reach acceptance that she could never be a performer took her somewhere she never expected: the marines.

As a child, Kenville loved being in charge and putting on a show. She remembers putting on plays, circuses, and carnivals. “I would tell everybody what their parts were, and we would stage it,” Kenville said. “Sometimes we would stage weddings, big events, dance events, sometimes we would put on dancing shows for our mothers; we were only eight and nine. That was play to me. And you know, what I do now, this is play for me.”

This natural love for pageantry was fanned by her classical ballet training. However, Kenville never thought that she would become a teacher or a director. To her, becoming a performer was the only option. “My whole goal was to become a professional ballerina, it’s all I ever wanted. Every year on your birthday when you made a wish on your birthday candle, that was my wish. I wanted it more than life itself, more than breath. That’s all that mattered to me,” recounted Kenville. Evidence of her love for ballet from a young age is found all over her studio: photographs of her time spent in dance cores, piles of old, worn out dance shoes, even a framed photograph of her wearing her first pair of pointe shoes.

Kenville was raised in Flint during the golden age of the auto industry. “General Motors and Buick were both born in Flint. And absolutely almost every person in Flint was employed by General Motors,” she said. She explained how this influx of wealth, plentiful jobs, and consequential housing boom affected her childhood. “There was all kind of funding for the arts and any child could have any kind of an arts education; that included music, dance, visual arts, theater, and that had all kinds of wonderful opportunities,” Kenville said. “We brought in companies from New York who could then give us parts in their show. We brought in famous dance instructors from around the world who trained us.”

Dance saved Kenville. As a child, she was painfully shy, yet oozed creative energy. After her mother enrolled her in dance classes, Kenville became an extroverted party girl who made friends with everyone. She loved people, especially children, and that love followed her throughout her life. “I was an excellent babysitter . . . people would fight over me for their children,” Kenville said. “Because of that I have always taught kids.” Besides her time spent in the military, Kenville has also been a kindergarten teacher, and continued to teach children at her studio.

Kenville pictured with her students after their 2013 winter ballet “The Snow Queen”.

Becoming a teacher was never a part of the plan. Kenville had always told herself she would never become a teacher. To her, becoming a teacher would have been the crown of failure. “It’s funny how children put these notions [of failure] on to themselves,” Kenville explained. “I discovered that it’s not true, that you become a bigger success when you’re a teacher, because you can affect children. You can change their lives.”

Kenville never became a professional ballerina. After high school, she and a group of her friends went off to the Pittsburgh Ballet Company to audition. Some of her peers were accepted into the company and even went on to have professional careers as ballerinas, however Kenville was told she should become a teacher. This was not because her dance talents were subpar, but because she was too short to fit into any professional dance company cores.

“That’s when I realized that… That I discovered that I didn’t have the… the body to be a become a ballerina,” Kenville said, beginning to cry. “It devastated me so severely, depressed me. I have spent my lifetime coming to grips with that.” However, in the moment, Kenville felt like her life was over.

Kenville returned home to Flint in a destructive state of depression. For six months, she didn’t see anyone, didn’t talk to anyone. All she did was go to work at her old job, as a gift wrapper, and thought about what to do next. Over and over, the same idea continued coming to her; to join the army. Kenville always loved order, she was in great shape, and she had built up a stamina and dedication from dance. “I [joined the marines] because of my depression. I did that to find myself. And it was the best thing I’ve ever done. So I did follow my heart . . . It took me six months,” Kenville said. “And my dad said, ‘I went from the ballet corps to the marine corps.’ That was his quote.”

Kenville Studios is the product of a complex journey that took Kenville more places and into more careers than most. “After living so many years, I realized that everything you do prepares you for the next step in your life and you figure out a way to use these skills as you’re growing up,” Kenville said. Her studio is her way of sharing her journey with the youth of today.  Kenville wants to be an inspiration to just believe in yourself, a message that we should all have courage and believe that we are worthy of whatever we want. Her only regret in life is that she didn’t believe in herself. She hopes that she can show children how to believe in themselves and have the kind of confidence that she was given from dance as a child.