As downtown Riverhead undergoes a block-by-block renaissance, one of its newest members, the Peconic Ballet Theatre, has proved they have the moves to please the court. The dance studio celebrates its first year this month and owner Christiana Bitonti said she is already feeling at home on Main Street.
“I love the community in Riverhead and the whole vibe of Main Street,” Bitonti, an East End native, said. “Everybody has been really welcoming and they’re willing to really help you out and partner up, so that has helped the business grow pretty quickly in just a year.”
Bitonti, 27, says her mission as head mistress of the Peconic Ballet Theatre is to provide a local venue for professional dance education, adding that as a child, she often needed to travel up island or to the city for suitable instruction.
“We bring New York City choreographers and teachers out here to teach our students, so they don’t have to go there,” she said. “We have programs for kids that just want to take a ballet class, but for those who really want more serious dance training we have an apprentice class that’s by invitation or audition only, where dancers take classes five days a week in ballet and other styles. We also have master classes on the weekends.”
All classes at the Peconic Ballet Theatre will be performing in their “Blank Canvas” exhibition on January 12, the Theatre’s one-year anniversary. Leading up to it, Bitonti began instruction for that show by focusing entirely on technique.
“It’s so important for us to build a really strong foundation and give our dancers the tools they need to perform and create,” she said. “Those tools are specific to the genre and what the dancer wants to pursue, but if I were going to focus in on ballet, it would be all about posture and technique—their turnout, their feet, their alignment, using and strengthening their muscles, as well as teaching them the vocabulary and vernacular. There’s so much involved in making a beautiful ballet dancer. It’s not just about learning the steps.”
Nine-year-old Selena Pereyra of Westhampton Beach said Bitonti’s instruction in the past year has exponentially informed her abilities as a ballerina.
“When I first started dancing, I could barely do a jump,” said Selena. “Now I can do a penche.” Penche is a classic ballet pose where one leg is extended behind the body with toes pointed toward the ceiling while the ballerina leans forward with the other leg on the floor in front of them.
Bitonti said she encourages all her dancers to give themselves time in the morning and at night to work on increasing flexibility or strengthening muscles and students also do crunches and other exercises in class to get their bodies in top dancing shape, but Bitonti added exercise regimens depend entirely on the student.
“Dancing has such a creative element and each dancer is an individual artist, so it’s hard to say which exercises are the most beneficial to a dancer,” she said. “When working with students I have to see who needs this exercise or that one. It’s like training a painter or a sculptor or any other artist.”
Bitonti only allows 12 students admittance to any given class, allowing her and other instructors to closely observe each dancer and get to know them on an intimate level.
This relates to one of the most important aspects of the job for Bitonti—who received her master’s degree in counseling from NYU—the social aspect of dance classes and their effects on the developing psyche.
“I did my whole thesis on after-school activities and it definitely showed from my research that creating something with other people—and having something to be connected to—builds self-esteem and self worth,” she said. “At the end of the day, the most important thing is for all of my students to feel good about themselves—no matter how strong they love dance or ballet—no matter what they choose to pursue or do in their lives.”
Ten-year-old Chloe Vargas of East Quogue spoke to this when she said she not only loves Peconic Ballet Theatre because it offers instruction in multiple dance styles, but because she’s able to spend more time with school friends and others.
“I like it here because there’s a lot of good friends from school that dance here,” she said with a smile. “But I’ve also made a lot of new friends.”
Peconic Ballet Theatre is located at 71 East Main Street in Riverhead. Call 631-591-1539 or visit peconicballettheatre.org.