by Jessie Ammons
photographs by Missy McLamb
At Tutu School Raleigh, enchantment is par for the course. “I believe in that experience that I have when I’m dancing, in sharing something – movement, music, storytelling – with an audience that’s magical,” says Lara O’Brien Muñoz, principal dancer with the Carolina Ballet. It’s why she chose ballet years ago, and it’s why she opened Tutu School Raleigh. “Being able to give the young members of our community that sense of magic is an extension of what I’ve been doing professionally for the past 15 years. I get to share it in a unique way.”
O’Brien Muñoz first became enthralled with dance as a girl growing up in Chicago, where she took lessons with her best friend, Genevieve. “The experience we had of moving to music was so joyful and freeing and gave us so much,” she recalls. “We both went on to dance professionally.”
Genevieve Custer Weeks settled in Northern California, where she eventually opened Tutu School, a boutique dance studio designed to nurture the carefree atmosphere she and O’Brien Muñoz had loved as children. Meanwhile, O’Brien Muñoz landed a position at the Carolina Ballet and moved to Raleigh. Despite a schedule brimming with rehearsals, she had “seen Tutu School in action for years,” and couldn’t shake the urge to open a Raleigh version. “It didn’t seem worth waiting,” she says. “We just worked it out.”
In June, the studio opened its doors in Glenwood South. Parents of aspiring ballerinas and ballerinos (from 18 months to 8 years old) pay a monthly membership rate that covers weekly dance lessons – O’Brien Muñoz often teaches, alongside a staff of other trained dancers – plus regular special events. Last month, the young dancers helped paint nearby crosswalks as part of the Cool Walkings public art project, and they’re getting excited for a Nutcracker tea party, open to the public, on December 19.
The school’s approach in all things is whimsical rather than militant. “I don’t believe that you should be training prima ballerinas when they’re 6,” O’Brien Muñoz says simply. “It is something to dedicate your life to, should you choose to take it on. It takes a lot of discipline and structure and self-motivation. But when you’re young, it can be a much more joyful, warm, encouraging environment.”
For more information on Tutu School Raleigh, including monthly membership rates, visit tutuschoolraleigh.com. On December 19 from 3 – 5 p.m., O’Brien Muñoz will don her Carolina Ballet Sugar Plum Fairy costume for a Land of the Sweets tea; the public is welcome, RSVP at firstname.lastname@example.org or 919.792.8032.