November 2017

Born to Dance

Author: Linda S. Hopkins | Photographer: Kenn Duncan

Karena Brock-Carlyle doesn’t like to talk about herself. Unless specifically asked, she will not tell you that she shared the stage at Lincoln Center with such notable dancers as Mikhail Baryshnikov, Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova, Cynthia Gregory and Carla Fracci. She may “forget” to mention the 15 years she danced with American Ballet Theatre (ABT), that she performed twice at the White House, danced with Ballet Celeste in San Francisco and Dutch National Ballet in the Netherlands, or that she studied with world-renowned choreographer David Lichine and danced her way through Europe, Asia, Latin America, Canada and the United States.

With an illustrious dance career in her rearview mirror, Brock-Carlyle prefers to dwell in the now, where she is passing along her knowledge and passion to the next generation. Retirement? Not even on her radar screen.

If you want to see her eyes dance, ask about Brock-Carlyle’s 30-year-old son Timothy or her students at Hilton Head Dance School; mention her mom; engage her in a conversation about the preparations for this year’s production of The Nutcracker; or pick her brain to find out where her dream began.

The path
Brock-Carlyle credits her mother, Sallie Brock, for opening the window to a world that would lead to her lifelong passion. A lover of the arts, Brock was determined to expose her daughter to music and dance, but she never pushed. She didn’t have to.

“We were living in Fort Worth when the Royal Ballet from England came to perform in Dallas—about 45 minutes away,” Brock-Carlyle said. “I think she got the last ticket—it was the last seat in the last row up in the balcony. I was into music anyway. When Margo Fonteyn came out and danced to the music I love, I was sitting on the stair of the aisle so I could see better. I said, ‘She is dancing to me, and I want to be just like her.’ She was the one who inspired me to dance.”

While the short summary of Brock-Carlyle’s experiences may read like a fairytale, the world of dance is not all toe shoes and tutus. Raw talent certainly played into her climb to the top, but it was hard work, determination, and sacrifice that ultimately lifted her to the pinnacle of success.

Brock-Carlyle got a later start than most children, but she advanced quickly, thanks again to her mother’s persistence in seeking out the best training. “She wasn’t going to go just anyplace,” Brock-Carlyle said. “She found the teachers she liked at a preparatory school affiliated with TCU [Texas Christian University]. In the summer, I would go up and study with a different teacher in Chicago (my aunt lived there). Mom just made everything possible. She took me all the way to San Francisco to see the Bolshoi. She sacrificed so much so that I would be able to have that exposure.”
It has been said that luck happens when opportunity and preparedness meet. Studying in LA for about a year, Brock-Carlyle heard that the ABT was going to be in San Francisco. “We got on a train to go, and who was on the train but the ABT [the company which she ultimately joined]. I saw them working on their point shoes,” she said.

Serendipity? Perhaps. God and the Universe were certainly conspiring, but Brock-Carlyle was listening to the opportunity and doing her part to prepare.

After spending a year in Europe, she and her mom took a flight to Dallas to be with her dad, who was still working there. She was invited to audition for ABT, but the company couldn’t take her in at that time. She was encouraged to audition again in New York that summer, and she did.

“When you do auditions, you have one if you are a union member and another for non-union. Because I had been in Europe, I was non-union, and that’s a cattle call,” she explained. “They rarely take anybody from those cattle calls. I walked out rejected.”

Headed to the door, someone called out to her. It was choreographer Joe Carow. “He went in to see Lucia [Lucia Chase, the co-founder of ABT] and came back out and invited me back to audition the next day,” Brock-Carlyle said. “If he had not seen me…his being there…he opened the door for me to do the private audition, and I got in.” At age 15, she joined the company, and the rest is history, mixed with an incredible amount of hard work and dedication.

“I had certain strong points. I was a good turner and a good jumper. And I could do hard technical things, like fouettés. Mom swears I could do that coming out of the womb,” Brock-Carlyle said, with twisted arm. She sees her greatest accomplishment not in a specific skill, performance, role, or accolade, but in reaching the goal. “Just as a kid, remembering myself sitting on that stair—to realize I accomplished everything of my dreams. The path has always been there, and when I look back on it, I got to do it all.”

Hilton Head Dance School
Founding members of the Hilton Head Dance Theatre did a good day’s work when they recruited Brock-Carlyle, then principal dancer and director of the Savannah Ballet Company, and her husband John Carlyle, also a noted dancer, to develop a school of ballet on Hilton Head Island. The Hilton Head Dance School opened in May of 1985 with 17 students. Today, there are nearly 300 students. And it is here where Brock-Carlyle continues to find both challenge and fulfillment. You see, for her, dance is not about being in the spotlight or receiving applause. It’s always been about giving.

“Dance is an international language—uplifting and inspiring. It’s like a picture coming to life. You get to express what you feel the composer felt when he was composing the music. Hopefully, you give something to your audience. You take your audience out of their problems and give them a little joy,” she said.

What makes Brock-Carlyle such an outstanding teacher is her openness to new ideas along with her willingness to embrace change and stay relevant. “Every day I feel that I learn something new. I’m always reading more about what I think I already know. The thing about the dance world is it’s always evolving. We are reaching out and finding ways to be better. The dancers now are so incredible because of all that,” she said.

Having a child of her own has also helped make her a better teacher. “I’ve learned how to deal with different personalities, and I have a better understanding of what parents go through with their children,” she said. But she is also a strict disciplinarian. “What’s so great about dance is the discipline. You learn how to manage your time. You’re able to get to your classes, and do your homework, and have a social life. You learn how to strengthen yourself.”

Hilton Head Dance School is currently gearing up for the annual performance of The Nutcracker. “We start working on it in May, and that’s pushing it. It takes a lot to put together. Every year, we try to improve the costuming—and the technique of our dancers is getting stronger and stronger. We try to think of another way of presenting to keep it fresh, which keeps it interesting for me, too,” Brock-Carlyle said.

At the end of the day, her biggest thrill is in passing on the dream. “I just want others to have this experience,” she said. “I hope that I have given this art to someone and that they love it and will keep it alive, because it’s meant so much to me and to the world.”

Learn more about Hilton Head Dance School at, or call (843) 785-5477.

Hilton Head Dance Theatre Kicks Off the Holiday Season with The Nutcracker

The Hilton Head Dance Theatre will present the holiday favorite, The Nutcracker, at the Seahawk Cultural Center on the campus of Hilton Head Island High School for six shows only, opening Friday, November 10 and running through Sunday, November 19. With instantly recognizable music by Tchaikovsky, and the charming story by E.T.A. Hoffman, The Nutcracker has become synonymous with the holiday season.

In the Land of Sweets, the Sugar Plum will be danced by Victoria Hamlin, Cassie Maurer and Madison Etchells. Lilly Zmarzly and Olivia Gary will share the role of the Dewdrop Fairy.
An idealized version of the young Marie and her Nutcracker Prince dance the Grande Pas de Deux portrayed by Hayden Garniewicz and Sam Chester, as well as Martha Preston Collins and Jamal Edwards.

Show times are 7:30 p.m. on November 10, 11, 17 and 18 and 2:30 p.m. on November 12 and 19. Tickets are $30 for adults, $20 for seniors (60 and over) and $15 for children 18 and under.

For more information and to purchase tickets, visit or call (843) 842-3262.

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