Donna Gross, ’92, is proof that dreams really do come true.
Ever since she was a little girl, she’s loved classical ballet. She remembers watching older sister Natalie’s ballet lessons from a doorway and yearning to be spinning and twirling herself.
When the instructor invited 4-year-old Donna into the studio for an impromptu lesson one day, it was clear her passion was about to soar.
Gross pursued ballet through high school. When she landed at Heidelberg, there was no dance major. There was, however, a dance class within the Communication/Theatre Arts Department. She signed up right away. Fate must have placed her in Dr. Bob Murray’s zoology class as a freshman as well. Bob connected Gross with his wife, Mary Jo, who, in addition to teaching history at Heidelberg, also operated Dance Unlimited in Tiffin.
“Mary Jo offered me a job teaching for her,” Gross says. “She gave me the freedom to teach as many classes as I wanted. She really gave me my wings and let me fly.”
Gross taught at Dance Unlimited through her undergrad years. That experience, coupled with her dual majors in business administration and public relations, set her up to one day start a business of her own.
“That’s really when the seed was planted to someday have my own studio and dance school,” Gross says. “I didn’t know when or how, but I knew it was going to happen.”
After spending a year as an admission counselor, Gross moved to Minneapolis to pursue her public relations career.
She continued to take ballet with the semi-professional Continental Ballet. A move led her to Birmingham, Michigan, four years later, where she worked as a personal trainer and fitness instructor at the local YMCA. The Y lacked a ballet program for young girls, so Gross started one, along with an adult ballet class. She also taught ballet at a private art school in Troy, Michigan.
Through all of her moves and teaching gigs, Gross’s dream stuck with her. In 2002, she took time off to raise her two toddler sons. Years later, when she became a single mom, reality set in.
“I knew I had to go back to work,” Gross says. “I thought, ‘Well, I have my degree. I could go get a job at an agency or I could really try for my dream.’ Something inside told me to go for it. If I didn’t try, I’d always wonder. If I fail, I fail, but I might just soar.”
So in 2012, Gross leased a small space, installed mirrors and barres and opened the appropriately named Relevé, where she offered group fitness with ballet. People started flocking in. Today, Relevé has blossomed. Gross has added two part-time instructors and teaches about 100 students a week, ranging in age from teens to 70.
One big dream down, one to go.
Relevé is a French ballet term that, loosely translated, means “to lift up” – as in on your toes. Gross also wanted her students to get an emotional lift when taking her classes.
She was about to be personally uplifted.
Last fall, when Gross learned that the American Ballet Theatre was coming to Detroit to audition extras for a spring performance of Sleeping Beauty, she again took a leap of faith. At 46, she’d be competing with mostly 20-something dance majors for one of nine roles as female courtiers in the production. To her surprise, she was cast, and a flood of memories washed over her.
Thirty years earlier, at age 16, Gross was cast in the lead role of Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty near her hometown of Chagrin Falls, Ohio. Her reaction to returning to the stage? “It was just unbelievable. I couldn’t wait to call my parents and let them know,” she says.
Rehearsals were long and tiring at times. “But it was emotionally invigorating to be around that level of talent.” That “talent” included American Ballet Theatre principal dancers Misty Copeland and Isabella Boylston. “To share a stage with them was really a dream come true,” Gross says.
During the performance, her parents were again in the audience, but this time they were joined by their grandsons – Gross’s sons. “It was such a proud ‘mom moment’,” she says.
With Sleeping Beauty now a memory, Gross stays very active, taking an occasional salsa lesson, biking, hiking, visiting family and staying connected with her Heidelberg girlfriends, who get together twice a year. “We’ve been through everything together … the challenges and the celebrations. The friends you make at Heidelberg are for life,” she says. “And they are all so proud of me!”
To share a stage with them (Misty Copeland and Isabella Boylston) was really a dream come true. It was emotionally invigorating to be around that level of talent.