‘I will die with my ballet slippers on,” says Ballet Conservatory Dance Centre founder Pirkko Lawlor, “ballet saved my life”. Pirkko Sirén Lawlor is the artistic director of Winter Haven’s Ballet Conservatory Dance Centre. She was 7 when World War II began and her art- minded city, described as “Finland’s Paris,” was invaded by Russians in 1939. Her family was driven out of their home and on a journey that still keeps her on her toes today.
“I was traumatized by all the bombings and being strafed by airplanes,” says the 84-year-old. “Ballet kept me sane during those seven years of war.”
“My parents insisted we continue our ballet and music lessons, and that’s where they put their money first. My mother always told me: ‘All of the material goods can be taken away from you, but not what you learn.’”
After beginning lessons at age 5, her passion for ballet ignited when she was 8 years old.
“Everything was beautiful when I started to dance. The theater was like a fantasy world that was the best healing I could have.”
She studied the Russian Method of ballet, achieving soloist status, before a visit to her sister in Lake Forest, Ill. changed her destiny.
Her eyes sparkle as she recalls meeting her future husband, Joseph, an American teacher, when she was 20. “I had planned to only spend a year there to improve my English.” Sharing a love of the arts and world travel, the couple raised three children and traveled the world. Pirkko became a certified ballet instructor and her teaching career flourished.
“Ballet teaches you discipline, grace and self confidence, but one of the best things is you find out who you are.”
Reese Lane, 4, follows in her mother’s footsteps taking ballet lessons at the Ballet Conservatory Dance Centre.
For 37 years she taught thousands of students in her studio on the Chicago North Shore and on the faculty for Gus Giordano in Evanston. She also taught ballet to the children and grandchildren of famed modern architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, at Taliesin North in Wisconsin.
She became nationally recognized for teaching the Cecchetti Method, ballet techniques used by Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova.
After Joseph retired from teaching, the couple moved to Winter Haven and founded the school in 1983.
“He kept me like a flower in his hand for 57 years, supporting everything I did,” says Pirkko, grieving his death in 2012, but maintaining a positive attitude.
“I always remind myself: ‘Life is good, live now,’” Pirkko says, as she translates her motto for life from Latin: “Per asperra ardua ad astra,” to English: “Through the struggles to the stars.”
Still teaching after 60 years, Pirkko continues her life- long love affair with dance, offering master classes for seminars and conventions.
Pirkko Sirén Lawlor, her son Kaarlo and granddaughter, Mari Hyun, at Ballet Conservatory Dance Centre in Winter Haven.
“I will die with my ballet slippers on.”
Now a third generation family business, both her sons are by her side in the school that also offers jazz, modern dance, tap lessons and Pilates. Kaarlo is the school’s director and Michael teaches dance and Pilates. Her granddaughter, Mari Hyun, Kaarlo’s daughter, teaches ballet. Before moving to Vermont, her daughter, Erika Lawlor-Schmidt, taught and performed ballet, jazz, tap and modern dance.
“I thought it was a great place to be because I was surrounded by beautiful girls, which is better than a locker room,” says Kaarlo, who danced off and on while growing up. Graduating with a degree in communications from the University of South Florida, he studied ballet in Chicago, Tampa, Orlando and Russia.
Now he proudly watches his daughter carry on the family tradition. “It feels amazing and there’s something really special about being the third generation of teachers here,” says Mari, who teaches ages 4, 6, 8 and
10. “I remember as a kid I enjoyed coming to class and obviously I stuck with it. I joke that I was bred like a race horse. I’m really lucky that I get to teach the young kids because I get to watch them grow as dancers. They keep you on your toes literally and figuratively. You have to keep music playing, talking to them and being engaging all the time.”
Pirkko takes pride in seeing her students dance in regional and national dance companies including one who danced with George Balanchine in the New York City Ballet. She says her most successful student is her granddaughter, Kiira Schmidt Carper, in demand as a dancer and singer on Broadway.
The teaching materials Pirkko created, including “A Child’s World of Dance with Pirkko,” continue to be a mainstay in America. Cofounder of two Cecchetti Council of America teaching chapters in Chicago and Central Florida, she is a CCA National Examiner and teacher training specialist.
With the slogan, “Imagine – Inspire – Create,” the studio, at 505 Ave. I, NW, Winter Haven, features state-of-the-art dance floors, a viewing room for parents and certified instructors who are trained to “nurture creative spirits.”