Joanna Paraschos has fond memories of her Uncle George. The youngest of nine children raised in an impoverished neighborhood in Flint, Mich., Paraschos fell in love with dance when her uncle took her to a ballet.
She just couldn't stop talking about what she saw. Since money was a real issue for her family, her uncle paid for her dance lessons, which launched her career not only as a professional dancer, but as an "Uncle George" to hundreds of others like herself.
In 1993, with the late Anthony B. White, Paraschos founded The Company to provide affordable training for students of all races and economic backgrounds. Unlike most dance studios, The Company, now located at the Red Clay Theater in Duluth, accepts students of any age or body type.
"We like variety and will take students with dedication, desire, and determination over talent any day," Paraschos said.
Paraschos's unorthodox philosophy apparently pays off since 100 percent of her graduates have gone on to college with full dance scholarships. Sixty percent have become professional dancers or athletes, including Chris Wilson of the Washington Redskins.
"A little known fact is that many professional teams require dance training," Paraschos said.
The Company students arrive by various routes, including whims and dares.
"I like athletics and I'm a challenge junkie. I thought ballet would kick my butt, which it did. I would also like to overlap it with acting," said Michael Stamm, a Duluth High School graduate.
Now a theater major at Georgia Perimeter College, Stamm performs with New Dawn and Lionheart Theatres.
Kyle Segar, who's trained in New York City and now commutes from Woodstock, said, "Before I move back to New York, I want to become the best dancer I can be. That's why I'm here."
David Morton, age 17, started training with Paraschos when she was working at a studio in Cumming which was within walking distance of his house.
"She moved here so I followed her," Morton said. This 13-month student, who started ballet when a female friend jokingly invited him to join her, is now auditioning for the American Ballet Theatre. "The director of auditions thought I'd been studying ballet for eight or nine years," he said.
Part of the Paraschos's secret is that she teaches not only dance, but also life. She has choreographed ballets about historical events like the Holocaust and the Underground Railroad, for which her students must understand what makes up their movements.
"We're not just doing steps on stage."
Paraschos feels blessed to have found such an ideal location to carry on the work of her Uncle George.
"Very few cities have a building like this on their main street," she said.
The building keeps her close to the heartbeat of Duluth allowing her students opportunities to grow both as dancers and donors through community service projects.
If you feel like you just have to dance or would like to play a backstage role with Uncle George, visit www.thecompanydancers.com. Either way, you'll be performing with a team that for 17 years has been batting a thousand.
Susan Larson is a Lilburn resident. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.