Dancing with ‘Miss Amy’

Appalachian Ballet’s Amy Moore Morton balances life and a business with a dance

Appalachian Ballet Company artistic director Amy Moore Morton gives instruction during a recent rehearsal for the company’s upcoming performance of “The Nutcracker.”

Photo by Amy Smotherman Burgess

Appalachian Ballet Company artistic director Amy Moore Morton gives instruction during a recent rehearsal for the company’s upcoming performance of “The Nutcracker.”

Known for her incredible balance as a ballerina, Amy Moore Morton now steadies half a dozen roles.

The retired dancer is a teacher instructing 17 classes a week at Van Metre School of Dance on Broadway. She’s a businesswoman who owns the school where she learned to dance and the building it occupies. She’s an award-winning choreographer who often creates “off the cuff” and whose ballets include three inspired by books written by her mother, the late Libba Moore Gray.

Artistic director of the Appalachian Ballet Company since 1997, she’s been part of its annual “Nutcracker” holiday ballet since she was 13 and danced a soldier’s supporting role. Later, as its prima ballerina, her roles included 12 years dancing the part of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

But the divorced 48-year-old’s proudest part is likely as mother to two dancers - young women with whom she isn’t afraid to compete in contests of ballerina skill.

Morton decided on her career path when she saw the movie “The Sound of Music.”

She was 6.

“Why ‘The Sound of Music’ made me want to be a ballerina I don’t know. But it did,” she says.

The Rev. Eldon and Libba Moore bought their daughter the movie soundtrack and a record called “Tina the Ballerina.” The albums spun repeatedly on the family stereo as Amy danced in shows she created.

Her dances were part of the house’s rhythm of art, music and children. Methodist minister Moore, now retired, is a painter. Several of his paintings hang in Morton’s home. Wife Libba was an actress, musician, poet and dancer. Three of their four children became performers. “There was always hoopla and creative stuff going on,” Morton says.

But the Moores didn’t live near a dance school. So Libba Moore became her child’s first instructor. “She would sit at the piano and teach me dance. I would hold onto the piano, and she would play classical music.”

When the family moved to Maryville, Morton began lessons at the Van Metre School. Almost 13, she was a late beginner.

But Cheryl Van Metre saw a talent, stage presence and work ethic that made the youngster “wonderful from the beginning.”

Morton performed a piece she’d created to Joni Mitchell’s “Send in the Clowns.” “It was just a dance to a little popular piece of music,” Van Metre said. “But she became such a part of the whole dance … I thought, ‘Wow, this is an actress; this child has it.’ “

Later Van Metre took Morton to summer studies at London’s Royal Academy of Ballet. “She was such a hard worker and really very, very talented.”

Among Morton’s dance talents is great balance. “She would hold a pose on pointe a hair second longer than you really thought possible,” Van Metre says. “The audience loved it.”

Growing up, Morton practiced that balance while watching her mother cook. She’d perch on one foot while the stove preheated or water boiled.

Now Laura Morton, 12, dances over the hardwood floors of Morton’s kitchen. Morton cooks, occasionally correcting Laura’s steps. She cooks like she choreographs, rarely using recipes and making up her own dishes.

Her passion for dance is shared with her children. Laura, a Maryville Middle School seventh-grader, plans a dance career. Kylie Morton, 21, dances with the professional North Carolina Dance Theatre.

“As I develop my own technique, I’m hearing those things my mother has told me all along,” says Kylie.

The Morton women engage in friendly dance contests. Laura and Amy Morton see who can keep a sitting split position the longest. “I beat her like maybe two seconds,” says Laura. And Kylie remembers her mother winning balance matches. “She can balance forever,” says Kylie.

At 18, Amy Morton left East Tennessee for New York. In New York, the Maryville High School graduate took dance lessons and managed a Manhattan health food store.

At 20, “the dancer in me needed to come home,” Morton said.

Returning to Maryville she was Appalachian’s principal dancer for more than 15 years, dancing in classical ballets like “Romeo and Juliet,” “Giselle” and “Swan Lake.” She also taught at Van Metre’s school. The independent, nonprofit regional ballet was established by the school; many Van Metre students earn roles in Appalachian productions.

In 1996 Morton bought the school from her mentor. In 2001, at 40, she danced “Nutcracker’s” Dew Drop Fairy to 13-year-old Kylie’s Clara and then retired her pointe shoes. “I never got tired of it. But 40 is pushing it.”

Morton does occasionally dance. In baggy pants and mustache, she plays Charlie Chaplin in her award-winning “With Chaplin” ballet. “I still enjoy character parts so long as I don’t have to get up on my toes.”

“She is a fantastic actress,” says Beth Everitt, a Morton student and retired ballerina who teaches at the Houston Ballet Academy. “I learned a lot from watching her about being charming on stage and having a good stage presence.”

Just 5-foot-2 1/2-inches, Morton “made herself look 10 feet tall on stage,” says daughter Kylie. “People would come back stage after ‘Nutcracker’ and say to her, ‘You look so much taller.’ That’s a big compliment for a dancer.”

It’s 8 p.m. on a Monday in October; Morton is choreographing a new dance for the Appalachian Ballet Company’s Dec. 5 and 6 “Nutcracker” performances at the Knoxville Civic Auditorium. Sometimes she asks dancers Anne Souder and Chandler Blum to repeat a move; sometimes she pauses to change a step or a turn. It’s the second dance she’s created without notes that night.

Morton changes parts of “Nutcracker” more than other choreographers. She like giving annual patrons something different. She often creates to dancers’ talents. “I always want to show them off to their very best. It keeps it fresh for me and for the dancers.”

She’s the company’s primary choreographer, an exercise of talent and a matter of finances. “I would not consider myself a great choreographer. But I have a good sense of entertainment value.”

Three of her ballets were memorial gifts to her mother.

Libba Moore Gray lost her fight against cancer in 1995. She and Eldon Moore had been divorced; Libba was married to local journalist Bob Gray.

Gray died with an advance copy of her book “Mama Had a Dancing Heart” wrapped in her arms. The book had arrived only the day before. The children’s story of a young ballerina’s memories of her life-embracing mother is very much the story of Gray and Morton. “We did the things in the book. When she was writing it she would call me and we would talk through the phrasing.”

Morton pledged to her dying mother she’d one day set a ballet around the book. “She had her eyes closed. She just smiled and nodded her head.”

Ten years later the Appalachian Ballet performed not only Morton’s “Mama Had a Dancing Heart” ballet to original music but two more she created around Gray’s books “Little Lil and the Swing-Singing Sax” and “When Uncle Took the Fiddle.”

Sometimes Morton the choreographer argues with Morton the artistic director. The director - with a vision for the overall company and an eye to finances - “almost always has to win.”

“As a choreographer I might see or wish for something. Maybe I would love for a dance to have two girls, not eight. But as a director I have to think about what the other six girls will do in the show.”

Frugal, she’s kept the ballet company financially sound. “We may only have 14 cents in the bank at the end of the year, but we have never been in the red.” She worries over the need for corporate sponsors and ticket sales in today’s economy. Dance “is an art form we can’t lose. We fill a niche. I think people don’t realize how much they need this to make them feel good.”

She applies the same practical approach to her business. “I’m a good common sense girl. I’ve made a lot of mistakes but I learn as I go.” She added creative movement classes for 3-year-olds. Van Metre would not have taught children that young. But Morton sees the class as “a way to get them in the door and let their parents see the positive energy and way I run the school.”

Morton has filled the part of teacher for nearly 30 years, instilling in students “there’s no whining in ballet.” While a few have gone on to dance professionally, others are lawyers, doctors and pilots.

“She’s very kind to her dancers; she gets to know them. I was the opposite,” Van Metre says. “I tried to stay away so I didn’t know them emotionally. But she’s in it heart and soul. ... I think sometimes that can be exhausting. But it works for her.”

Morton’s teaching style altered with her life. “As a young teacher if a dancer didn’t have her pink tights and her hair in a bun I just couldn’t have that. After I became a mother, I discovered how easy it is to leave those tights in the dryer or forget the bobby pins.

“As I get older I expect more personal responsibility from my dancers. I tell them ‘That is your dance bag, not your parents.’ I ask them about things other than dance. I ask ‘What have you done for your mother today?’ At ‘Nutcracker’ rehearsal, I start by asking if their homework is done.”

Houston’s Everitt was a teenager having trouble mastering ballet’s pirouette turn when Morton gave her imagery Everitt now passes to her students. “She told me instead of just turning, to imagine I was lifting higher and higher with each turn. I would always think about that - to go up, up, up.”

Morton also encouraged Everitt “to stand up for myself, to believe in myself. I guess that was in the context of dancing and the dance world, but I think it serves its purpose in the real world, too.”

Art and life so often partner. “I tell my dancers we all have to create our own happiness,” Morton says. “I tell them if you don’t enjoy this, find something that you do. It’s too much work not to enjoy it.”

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