On a recent winter morning at the Oak Park Elementary School in Bay Shore, Sondra Forsyth is moving amid a group of kinetic second-graders on the stage of the auditorium. She calls for their attention: "Big smile, ladies," she says to the assemblage of diminutive dancers. "Elbows up. Chin up. Arms up. Now turn around. Turn around. Turn around. And . . . kneel."
Forsyth is putting the finishing touches on a morning of instruction for several of the roughly 200 Oak Park students participating in her energetic and enlightening program, "Ballet-in-a-Day." In about an hour these 7- and 8-year-olds will be performing portions of the renowned Tchaikovsky ballet, "The Nutcracker," before their beaming, camera-clicking parents.
Today's performance is one of dozens of programs Forsyth has created for more than 20,000 children in the metropolitan area as artistic director of Ballet Ambassadors, a Manhattan-based nonprofit arts education company. Forsyth, who started her own ballet career at age 3 ½, founded Ballet Ambassadors in 2001 with the mission of giving young people -- especially those in underserved communities -- a chance to gain exposure to ballet and share the stage with professional dancers. Participants have included kids in wheelchairs, those with developmental disabilities and students in ESL (English as a second language) classes.
"Dance is universal nonverbal communication," Forsyth says. "Kids get it. You can see what it does for them -- look at their faces."
Purpose Prize Fellow
For her work at Ballet Ambassadors, Forsyth, 70, was recently named a Purpose Prize Fellow by Encore.org, a San Francisco-based organization founded by social entrepreneur Marc Freedman. Encore is dedicated to promoting work transitions to careers in nonprofits, teaching and areas of public service in the second half of life.
Last year, there were 850 nominees for the Purpose Prize. Encore.org awarded $100,000 Purpose Prizes to each of five finalists, ages 60 and older, whose second careers have had a major impact on tough social problems; Forsyth was among 35 Fellows recognized for "encore careers" that use their passion and work experience for social good.
Like Forsyth, an estimated 9 million people nationwide, ages 44 to 70, are currently involved in such encore careers -- almost 10 percent of this segment of the workforce -- according to a 2011 study conducted by Encore.org and the MetLife Foundation. Another 31 million people in this age group say they're interested in finding encore careers, the survey found.
This interest is part of a larger social entrepreneurship movement, increasingly popular among younger generations as well. Groups such as the Minnesota-based Social Enterprise Alliance, for example, provide resources to local networks, including one on Long Island, to spur social or environmental missions. "Our purpose is to blur the lines between the profit and nonprofit sectors," says Ken Cerini, president of the Social Enterprise Alliance-LI. "We want to teach the nonprofit sector to be more business-oriented, and try to get the business community to focus on the triple bottom line -- profitability, environmental impact and social good."
Do something that matters
Social entrepreneurs arrive at their "encore epiphany" in myriad ways, says Marci Alboher, vice president of Encore .org and author of "The Encore Career Handbook."
Some people burn out at their current job ("I just can't do this anymore"), Alboher says. For others, the decision is about fulfilling a dream deferred ("It's about time I got to this"). Still others may make a change as the result of a personal crisis or a "crisis of conscience," she says. "They emerge from the crisis intact but they experience the fragility of life and want to make sure that whatever they do next really matters."
For Forsyth, the encore decision was rooted in her early years growing up in Detroit. As a young ballet student she was given an opportunity to share the stage with famed ballet partners Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev during the Royal Ballet of England's tour of "The Sleeping Beauty." It left an indelible memory: "That was the seed that changed my life. Today, I'm giving back what I got then."
Forsyth came to New York in her 20s to take classes and perform. Over the years, her wide-ranging career included principal roles with several companies, such as the Thalia Mara's Ballet Repertory in Manhattan and the Huntington Ballet Theatre. From 1988 to 1992, she served as co-director of the Huntington Ballet Theatre before returning to Manhattan to join the faculty of Steps on Broadway and the Harkness Dance Center of the 92nd Street Y.
It was during her tenure at the Y that Forsyth had her "encore moment." Although she loved her students from well-to-do neighborhoods, she realized, "This is what I should be doing, teaching children who would never have this opportunity." So in 2001, Forsyth founded Ballet Ambassadors (balletambassadors.org) with the mission of offering programs for kids and teens in economically disadvantaged and culturally underserved communities.
Long Island program
The first Long Island program was in 2001 at Quogue Elementary School shortly after 9/11, and since then, Ballet Ambassadors has produced numerous programs at schools in New York City, Westchester County and Suffolk County, including those in South Huntington, Hampton Bays, East Moriches, Brentwood, Amagansett and Remsenberg. (The Ballet-in-a-Day program is supported through funds from Eastern Suffolk BOCES, which pays about $1,250 per performance to cover expenses.)
Besides "The Nutcracker," the company has about 10 other ballets in its repertoire for students, grades K through 12, including "Swan Lake" and "The Unicorn's Secret," a "fantasy quest" written by Forsyth. Some, like "Romeo & Juliet," may be tailored for longer runs of one to three weeks for high school students.
"We make it work for each school," Forsyth says. "We don't make kids do ballet they couldn't do." Ballet Ambassadors brings all the costumes, arranges the schedule for the day and makes sure there are boys in every class. "The idea is to provide some arts exposure in a condensed format," she says.
At the Oak Park Elementary School program, Forsythe was accompanied by two of Ballet Ambassadors' teaching artists, Cierra Cotton, 27, and Andrei Kisselev, 40, who gave six student workshops during the morning, each focusing on a different scene from the ballet. The workshops were followed by a performance on stage with the youngsters.
"We don't do dress rehearsals. That makes the performance much more spontaneous," Forsyth says. After the students get their costumes, they have lunch, then do the performance, along with the teaching artists who guide them through what they learned that morning. "It all works like clockwork," says Forsyth, "to make sure they get to the buses [taking them home] on time."
Forsyth's career path, on the other hand, has not been so tightly orchestrated. Like many people who have transitioned to encore careers, Forsyth is what Encore.org's Alboher calls a "slash careerist" -- someone who describes their work with slashes, as in: arts educator/ freelance writer/ author/ blogger. Besides running Ballet Ambassadors, she writes freelance articles on a broad range of topics; blogs for AARP and DanceArt.com; and has authored or co-authored 11 books. She's also co-editor-in-chief of Thirdage.com, a health and wellness website for "boomer and beyond women."
And while she is mostly retired from the stage, she still takes dance classes every day. "That's the fun," she says, "still doing it."
APPLAUDING AN ENCORE
If you have your eyes on the Purpose Prize, learn more about previous winners and how to apply at encore.org/ prize
Nominees must be at least 60 years old; have started the work for which they’re being nominated at age 50 or later; and provide a “compelling encore story” that combines an interesting personal career shift with demonstrated impact in a chosen field or on a particular issue — and promise for the future. (The site provides a comprehensive list of instructions and eligibility requirements.) In the past, monetary awards have ranged from $10,000 to $100,000. Purpose Prize Fellows do not receive cash prizes, but are recognized for their contributions and may participate in activities with other fellows to exchange ideas, resources and support.
Nominees must submit their application for the 2013 prize by April 4. Cash prize winners, along with a group of Purpose Prize Fellows, are announced in the fall. — RONALD E. ROEL