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VOL. 43 | NO. 45 | Friday, November 8, 2019

Winning’s great; so is building character

From ballet to gymnastics, multitalented Quist has growing list of success stories

By Nancy Henderson

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It’s one thing for a team to win trophies – lots of trophies – for its athletic accomplishments, quite another for showing kindness and respect toward one’s rivals.

In 2018, DC Company, the competitive troupe that represents the Dance Centre of Oak Ridge at regional and national events, took home the Spirit of EPIC Award at the Epic Dance Showcase series held at various sites throughout the Southeast.

“I think it comes from the top, teaching them to be kind and respectful,” says Molly Koon Quist, the studio’s founder and director of the Oak Ridge Civic Ballet Association. “That was exciting to win. It was a big deal. We were proud.

“I think it’s a harder world right now with kids,” she adds. “I don’t want to have drama. I want to have good vibes there.”

A lifelong ballerina, entrepreneur and cancer survivor, Quist, 56, has staged and directed numerous performances for ORCBA and encouraged hundreds of young dancers to pursue their dreams. Some have gone on to perform on Broadway and other professional venues.

Originally from South Carolina, Quist grew up in Oak Ridge and started dance lessons at a neighbor’s suggestion when she was 4.

“Molly loved it from the first moment she stepped into the class,” says her mom, Mary Koon. “Her teacher recognized early on that Molly stood out from the rest with her poise and ability to learn routines easily and quickly. Her teachers encouraged her talent and gave her more and more important roles in productions, until dance became a daily routine.”

A busy, energetic child who was constantly in motion, Quist took everything from tap to gymnastics. But she excelled in ballet. Turning was her forte.

“When I do choreography for my students, they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s a calf burner,’” she says. “I like very technical dancing, partnering, lifts. I think the gymnastics helped me not be scared. It’s like having a spotter. I loved to perform and I loved everything about it.”

Quist became a soloist for ORCBA and toyed with the idea of turning pro. Both the University of Cincinnati and School of Ballet Hartford invited her to enroll. Instead, she accepted a scholarship at the University of South Alabama and earned her degree in communications and marketing with the goal of dancing as a hobby while supporting herself in a more secure career.

In college, she joined the dance team and performed at basketball games. She also taught the school’s gymnasts the rhythmic steps required for their beam routines and floor exercises.

After graduation, when husband Brian began practicing law in Knoxville, Quist taught at Knoxville Gymnastics, as well as the Academy of Dance Arts, while working on her master’s degree in textiles and apparel.

“I thought that I wanted to be a buyer for a department store,” she explains. “I always had other ambitions besides dancing, but I would always go back to the dance thing.”

In 1991, construction began on a new Knoxville Gymnastics building and the owner offered to add a small studio for Quist’s lessons. Despite her lack of entrepreneurial experience, the extroverted, perfectionistic ballerina opened the Dance Centre of Knoxville and, three years later, launched a second studio in Oak Ridge with floating wooden floors, 14-foot ceilings and wall-sized mirrors. She continued to operate the one in Knoxville until 2017, driving back and forth, leading her own classes and relying on skilled teachers to make it all work.

The nonprofit ORCBA, which was founded in 1963 and boasts the longest-running regional ballet charter in Tennessee, moved into the same 4,300-square-foot space.

Quist took over as ORCBA director in 1997, adding more responsibility to her already-full calendar and overseeing ballet camps, public productions and pointe-intensive workshops for dancers from across East Tennessee.

At the Dance Centre, a dozen instructors teach ages three through adult in ballet, tap, pointe, lyrical, jazz, hip-hop, musical theater, tumbling and Nia, which combines martial arts, modern dance and yoga. On weekends, a ballet cast rehearses for shows.

Although her venture has been a success, Quist admits that the business side isn’t her strong suit. Managing classes and children who are eager to learn – that’s another story entirely.

“The fun part is being in there with the kids and teaching them and watching them grow and progress as young ladies or young men, and also as dancers,” she says. “It’s rewarding. That’s kind of where I shed off the rest of the day, in that studio with the kids and not thinking about anything else. I thrive in that.”

Not everyone is cut out to be a lifelong dancer, but even most of the rough-around-the-edges tots improve over time. “A lightbulb goes off and it’s like, ‘Wow, they’re catching on,’” Quist adds. “One of the fun parts is to watch them progress and actually ‘get’ it.”

But dance class is actually about much more than dance, Quist points out. “You learn some life skills. You’re making friends and working as a group, as a team.”

Sometimes she enjoys following along and stretching with the students in another teacher’s class. “It’s hard to be the leader all the time,” she says. “It’s kind of tiring.”

Quist stopped performing onstage about five years ago. Soon after, she found a small lump in her sternum, close to the bone and chest wall. In January 2015, doctors diagnosed her with Stage 2 breast cancer and were concerned that it might spread.

Over the course of nearly a year, she endured eight rounds of chemotherapy that made her hair fall out, a bilateral lumpectomy and 35 proton therapy (high-powered radiation) treatments.

Determined to be “normal” during her ordeal, she kept pushing through at the studio. “I was very concerned about my dance business and my obligations to my students and teachers and my financial obligations [and worried] that I could keep everything going,” she says.

“Everyone rallied and stepped up to help.”

In 2015, Team Celine Strong – friends named it after Celine Dion, one of Quist’s favorite singers – raised more than $1,400 at the local Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. Her daughter Katrina Quist Rouse, a nurse practitioner, sat with her at every chemo treatment.

In June 2016, the physicians told Quist her cancer was in remission.

“I am a cancer survivor,” she says. “It taught me and my family to … spend time with the people you love and do not take life for granted. Cancer took a toll on my body but in the end made me a better person.”

Even before the cancer scare, the family was close-knit, and Quist wasn’t the only one with dance talent. Her younger sister Ellen also took lessons at an early age, performed solos and competed across the region. Rouse, who grew up in her mom’s studio, became a ballet dancer, giving lessons in high school and now volunteering with ORCBA, choreographing routines and assisting with rehearsals, and working part-time at the Dance Centre.

“I don’t ever really see her taking over the studio because she has a big job herself, but she’s in there helping and enjoys it,” Quist says. “She’s pretty natural at it, and a good role model for the girls.”

Quist exudes pride as she talks about the students who went on to join ballet companies or pursue other physically active work, like yoga instruction. Marissa Magnuson Hilder performed in magician Mat Franco’s Las Vegas act. NBC “Fame’’ contestant, actor and dancer Brandon O’Neal has appeared on “Ellen,’’ “The Late Show with James Corden’’ and “Grey’s Anatomy.’’ Among Karl Warden’s Broadway tours: “Cats,’’ “Fosse’’ and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.’’ And there are others.

“We really have had some good, good kids that have gone on to professional careers. I think if you had one that does that, you’ve done something right. We’ve had several.”

In 2018, DC Company danced at the Harlem Globetrotters basketball game in Knoxville. Quist hopes they’ll do it again soon.

Wearing her ORCBA director hat, she is perpetually preparing for one of the organization’s two annual shows, which over the years have ranged from “Swan Lake’’ and “Peter and the Wolf’’ to “Cinderella’’ and “Sleeping Beauty.’’

She is preparing for the upcoming three-day ORCBA holiday favorite, “The Nutcracker,’’ featuring 120 dancers age six and older in 400 different parts Nov. 22-24. Members of the University of Tennessee Chamber Orchestra, Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, and, quite possibly, professional dancers from The Georgia Ballet, also will perform. As usual, she and her team are changing up the costumes, props and choreography in an effort to offer audiences something new every year.

On opening night, when it all comes together, Quist will reap her “reward” (her word): the opportunity to see her talented students in the spotlight.

“That’s the best part, because it’s kind of out of my hands and we’re just watching,” she says. “There are a lot of technical things going on backstage, like the lighting and the sound, changing of the scenery and the costumes, but the dancing is pretty much about watching and hoping for the best. That’s the fun part, when you get to the auditorium and it’s time to enjoy it and have a good time.”

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