Everyone is happier when they’re dancing.” — Cheryl Pompeo
Not all teachers go by the book. In fact, I know one who teaches with her heart. Cheryl Pompeo has been a second mother to me for years, and I am not the only one who sees her in this light. With a generous heart, she has worked with many children and adults to inspire the art that kindles happiness.
I danced with Oglebay Institute for nine years and immediately made an inseparable connection with Pompeo and the other instructors. As I spent hours at the studio each day, it became home. When you walk into that building, you’re enveloped by love, passion and an openness that is remarkably rare. This is a place where you meet lifelong companions and develop a deep connection with the art form and those with whom you share it. Because of the environment that Pompeo has created, students always find comfort inside those walls. Whether it’s “Nutcracker” season, and the building is overflowing with tiny ballerinas, or it’s empty enough to have a room all to yourself, you always feel happy and safe.
This year is Pompeo’s 55th year of dancing and almost 15 years as director of Oglebay Institute School of Dance. Born and raised in Wheeling, she attended Cathedral Grade School and Central Catholic High School. Over the years, Pompeo has had a strong presence in the community and has shared her love of dance with the people of Wheeling.
Falling in Love
Pompeo’s mother realized early on that her daughter had a bit of a wild side, so she thought it would be beneficial to enroll her in dance classes with Toni Zeakes when she was only 3 years old. From the very first class, Pompeo was hooked. As she got older, she never doubted that this was her true passion. Soon, her dance studies became serious.
“When I was little, I would watch the Lawrence Welk Show, and I wanted to be Arthur Duncan,” Pompeo said. “I would also watch movies with my mom starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, or I would watch some of the ballets.” When Pompeo saw these stars on the silver screen, “I knew we weren’t getting that at the studio,” she said. By age 11, Pompeo was a teaching assistant for some classes. “I really liked the little kids. It was fun to watch them grow up to be the big kids.” It’s evident that her heart still belongs to the little ones.
Growing up in Wheeling with dreams of becoming a professional dancer was not always the easiest, so she would attend dance caravans in larger cities such as Pittsburgh, New York City and Las Vegas to acquire more dance knowledge. Unlike the competitions that are popular today, these caravans were places dancers could take classes and workshops to master the different genres of dance while exploring instructors other than the ones they see daily. Pompeo has always been eager to gain as much experience as she can.
“I would save my money to try and get private lessons before the workshops would start,” she said. This is why she now starts her day of teaching so early. “I’ve always been dancing at 5:30 in the morning,” she said. Despite her experience with the caravans and given the fact that her family was not affluent, she knew that dancing professionally was not achievable in West Virginia. Pompeo then looked toward teaching.
Journey as an Instructor
After taking a break from classes and working as a babysitter to make money, Pompeo took dance classes with Sherry Burkhart, who owned a studio in Bellaire. “It took me like three tries to go in the door because it was scary,” said Pompeo. Attending classes in a new environment takes a lot of courage, and it paid off for Pompeo. “Then I danced there for a while, and she asked me to teach.” She had previously assisted classes at Toni Zeakes’ studio, but this was the official start of her teaching career. Pompeo feels that she has been remarkably blessed with a path full of opportunity.
Oglebay Institute School of Dance
After seeing Cheryl perform in Li’l Abner in 1986, the previous director of Oglebay Institute’s Performing Arts, Kate Crosby, asked her to instruct a dance class.
When Pompeo began teaching her first class for OI, it was in the lobby of Towngate Theatre with very little room. “We started out with like 25 kids at the Towngate. It was ballet. Then I had a couple of kids that wanted to tumble … then there were kids who wanted jazz … and then it just grew.” As classes expanded, so did the structure. “We outgrew the Towngate, so they let me dance in the living room of the Stifel mansion, and I ruined the floor,” said Pompeo. Dancers have strong feet, so the floor was bound to take a beating. As the School of Dance continued to grow, the need for the studio, that sits behind the Stifel mansion today, became evident. “There was no dance department; it was all a part of performing arts under Kate Crosby, and Dr. Fred Lambert was the president here at the time. He and Kate turned this into a department of its own. It was scary, but here it is.”
The dance building now includes four proper studios for the variety of dance classes that are offered
Not only has Pompeo built the School of Dance, but she is a well-known dance instructor to the entire community. On Saturdays, the studio is full of dancers who usually attend classes from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and she often has to leave directly after the last class to teach somewhere else. Pompeo teaches dance at Bethany College, Wheeling Jesuit and Linsly. During the winter, Pompeo choreographs the waltzes for the Viennese Winter Ball Cotillion, as well as instructs the 20 young men and women who are selected to dance.
How did she become involved with all these schools and programs? “I don’t even know! Sometimes, people will call the institute looking for ballet teachers for after-school programs or workshops,” she said. For programs like Linsly’s, “I think it’s because so many of our kids at the studio [attending Linsly] wanted dance. Now there’s about 15 to 18 kids in that program” she said. Outside of actual studios, Pompeo also coaches the dance line at Buckeye Local High School.
One of the busiest people I know, Pompeo is always willing to share her passion with others. “I really just wandered into this, I had no earthly idea it would ever be this.”
Renowned Guests and Opportunities
Pompeo’s dedication and generosity to her students is the main reason I continue to think of her as a second mother. Understanding that dance in West Virginia is not the most achievable career, she brings guest artists to the studio for workshops and sends her students to dance intensives to gain the experience necessary for a future in this field. Whether you want to dance for the rest of your life or not, Pompeo takes her students’ lives into consideration, doing whatever it takes to assure their happiness.
“We’ve had great success stories with our students,” she said. “We’re lucky that everyone is open to new ideas at OI, so when we put a pre-professional program and brought in Pittsburgh ballet dancers for kids to study locally, everyone said OK. Same thing with our own summer intensive, but we have national and international teachers.”
Throughout my time with Oglebay Institute, I attended workshops with established dancers such as Luigi, Lorraine Graves, Allison DeBona, General McArthur Hambrick, David Howard, Aaron Ingley, Christopher Bandy and many others who have worked in professional companies and Broadway. As Pompeo said, “Who would ever think that we’re just a local dancing school. … We’re so much more,” I felt chills running through me. This place is so much more.
Her encouragement is incredibly valued by the students, giving them hope for a career. Pompeo’s support impacted so many Oglebay Institute students as they graduated and moved on to places such as Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Oklahoma City Ballet Company, Pittsburgh Ballet Company and Carnival Cruise Line. Pompeo takes pride in the direction her students go after they leave Oglebay Institute. “Even the ones that don’t dance are doctors, lawyers and professionals,” she said.
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‘Dance Is for Everybody’
Pompeo’s passion is not only visible through the love between her and her students, but through the types of programs, she encourages as a director. Oglebay Institute has recently become involved with the Dancing Wheels, a group of wheelchair dancers based in Cleveland, Ohio.
“We just got a national endowment for the arts grant, which the institute has never gotten before, so we’re bringing in the Dancing Wheels to do a full-blown production in Marshall County,” says Pompeo. This is a group that Pompeo has been inspired by for years. She often reminds us that “dance is for everybody.”
Another organization that she has been involved with for years is Crittenton Services. She teaches dance there once a week and has always thought, “Those girls are amazing.” When she was asked to teach at Crittenton, “I thought, I’ll just do eight weeks … and I can’t. I love that place. We have three of their students here now.” While explaining her work at Crittenton Services, she says, “There is something therapeutic about it, and it could help some of the trauma that those girls have had. They’re so happy when they’re dancing.”
Oglebay Institute is home, and Cheryl Pompeo is the encouraging mother all young artists need in their lives. Without her love, the studio would be only brick and mortar.
“Not every day is the best day of your life, but by the end of the day, you’re pretty happy. How could you not be happy at a place like this,” she said.
Students, Alumni and Teachers Share Memories
Peter Lim, long-time member of OI:I’ve had the pleasure of knowing, studying under and working with Cheryl Pompeo for more than 20 years. In that time, I’m glad to say that we became good friends. Under Cheryl’s leadership, the dance classes which started in the lobby of Towngate Theater and the living room of the Stifel mansion have grown into the Oglebay Institute School of Dance, with dozens of classes for several hundred students. But even with the growth of OI dance school, Cheryl still treats each student, from young child to adult, with respect, concern and an interest in seeing their dance skill grow. Cheryl regularly arranges for professional guest instructors from Pittsburgh, New York, or other cities to come teach special classes and workshops. One of my favorite memories is a trip to New York City with Cheryl and dancers from OI to see a show and to take dance workshops from stars of “Mamma Mia,” “The Wedding Singer” and a Rockette. Though I wasn’t great at learning the dance steps, just the opportunity to see the choreography so close, to talk with the dancers and to attempt the dances was a lot of fun. Cheryl made a place for me in the Oglebay Institute Youth Ballet Company, recruited me to be in other shows and became an even better friend.
Alexis (Vargo) Edmonds, Class of ’04: Cheryl Pompeo is a woman who gave me a chance. At the young but formidable age of 12, my beloved studio of 10 years closed its doors. She welcomed my costume-loving friends and me to her black-leotard-wearing studio. It was a transition for all of us, but looking back, it made us all better. It made us focus on dancing and emotion while we got her to love a good sequin and glitter costume! After a few years, Cheryl gave me the opportunity to teach my own classes at Stifel. What a blessing and important step in my life. I always knew I wanted to be a teacher, and to teach something I love is even better. I still teach dance and love the connection it creates with students and families. I met amazing people through Oglebay Institute as a teacher. I met one of the strongest mothers I know and her daughter who she saved from a life of addiction. I still have a close relationship with these people and to be a part of their lives is a constant reminder of the relationships you build teaching an art that reaches all. Cheryl taught me to always cherish every student, and she did that by accepting and loving me when I was just a kid looking for a place to dance.
Amanda (Wheeler) Seidler, Class of ’04: Hours upon hours of my growing up years were spent at the dance studio with Miss Cheryl. She always believed in me and always encouraged me to step into opportunities outside my comfort zone. As a result of her teaching and influence and belief in me, I found a place to grow into the person I am today. I am forever grateful for her investment into my life.
Molly McKay, Class of ’11: I started dancing with Cheryl when I was 4. There are a lot of dance studios in the area but none that I feel give their dancers the opportunities Cheryl gives to her students. I got to dance with Moscow Ballet, Misty Copeland and so many other renowned dancers. Cheryl has become much more than a dance teacher to me. I think of her as a family member. When I got engaged, I called my family, and then I called Cheryl. That’s how important she is to me, and I am so lucky to have her.
Whitney Thompson, Class of ’11: Miss Cheryl was my Saturday mom. I was often at the studio from 8 in the morning until 6 in the afternoon those days. She does much more than teach dance. She helps young girls become young women. She is nurturing and caring and helps her students get through challenging times. Miss Cheryl is a safe place, and she shepherds many students from their first steps through their high school graduation and beyond. She has influenced the person I have become, and I am so thankful for those long Saturdays spent at the studio.
Kristina Slivchenko, Class of ’13: Oglebay Institute would not be the place it is without Cheryl’s passion and commitment to making it feel like a second home to many. She made dance a part of who I am.
Jordan Crow, Class of ’15:She pushed me to keep dancing when I came back after my surgery. Especially when I got frustrated or felt defeated, she pushed me farther because she knew it’s what I needed.
Anna Turani, Class of ’16: My favorite advice that Cheryl has given me was when she called me and my mother into her office and told me that it was time to “spread my wings.” I always felt like Cheryl took such good care of us and treated us like her own children, so it was special to hear this from her.
Jlyse Kafana, Class of ’17: One of my favorite memories I have with Cheryl would be the one time she drove up to Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre with my mom and me to drop me off to my dance classes freshman year. She talked about how she couldn’t wait to get food, how hungry she was and how happy she was for me.
“The Nutcracker,” featuring a cast of beautifully costumed dancers performing on a lavish set and reveling in Tchaikovsky’s beloved score will be performed by Oglebay Institute’s Youth Ballet Company at Towngate Theatre (3 and 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 22, and Sunday, Dec. 23, with a Sugar Plum Social at 1 p.m.). 304-242-7700; www.oionline.com
• Adelaide Estep is a recent graduate of West Virginia University where she studied English and public relations. While waiting for graduate school next fall, she is residing in her hometown of Wheeling and writing for Weelunk. She is also an instructor at Oglebay Institute School of Dance where she took classes through her childhood. Some of her passions include music, performing and writing.