Marrying mind and soul, the visual and the physical was as simple as signing a lease. Then came the elbow grease.
“My husband and I always wanted something downtown, an art gallery, but weren’t quite sure how,” Noel Hanley said.
A principal dancer with Mobile Ballet for six years, Hanley also taught yoga, an avocation with the potential for greater cash flow. She mixed dream with pastime to form the hybrid space Sway Downtown.
Finding the spot was crucial since Hanley knew rents and price tags were rising steadily amidst rejuvenation. They found a Conception Street location last summer, then tackled most of the cosmetic renovation themselves.
“Someone did these floors. They’re called luxury vinyl plank, just on top of existing concrete. It has a cork back which takes a lot of impact,” Hanley explained.
After graduating from The University of Alabama as a dance major, the Mississippi native danced with Southern Danceworks, Sanspointe Dance Company and Birmingham’s Alabama Ballet for two years. She also was on the faculty of Samford University and Birmingham Dance Theater.
Then she came to Mobile via a traditional route: she married a native.
“My husband is from here and I wasn’t ready to quit dancing so I joined Mobile Ballet as one of their paid professionals,” Hanley said.
It prompted her connection with Lauren Woods, a Mobilian whose talent in tights and on canvas is equally lauded. The friendship cultivated what would become Sway.
“Lauren and I are real close. We actually sat down and did the logo for the new studio. She’s the gallery manager so she puts all the shows together. It’s kind of a collaborative-type thing for us,” Hanley said.
Woods’ connections with the area’s visual artists has worked. She lined up April’s appearance by noted local painter Stephanie Morris.
Her singer-songwriter son Eliot shows the arts run deep in Morris’ family. The native Mobilian picked it up as legacy.
“My grandmother and mother were portrait artists, so my mother taught me quite young. She had a little studio in the backyard where she taught the neighborhood children art and so I learned the basics from her,” Morris said.
Morris also has vivid memories of her father’s love for classical music, its strains echoing through the house. She found it natural for the body to move to it and ballet lessons came naturally. A summer in New York as teens meant she and her sister took dance at Carnegie Hall.
“It was such a thrill. Our teacher looked like a ballet teacher in a Degas painting. He had a cane and a jacket even,” Morris said.
Morris stayed with visual arts while enrolled at Spring Hill College. A year in the University of Georgia’s graduate school brought her comfort zone into full view.
“We had this fabulous teacher whose name was Yancey Robinson. He was head of the department. After a month or two of seeing our work, he said to me, ‘Oh gosh, you’re a portrait artist,’” Morris recalled.
Once back in Mobile her penchant for likenesses grew. Morris estimates she’s been best known as a commissioned portrait artist for more than four decades.
When Woods inquired about a Morris show at Sway, the portrait artist wanted to expand her catalog of work featuring dancers. She held Woods at bay while she went to work, visiting Mobile Ballet and capturing bodies in motion with paint and charcoal.
Sway studio has had success reconnecting other adults with dance in a more physical way. Hanley was inspired by adult ballet classes she witnessed while attending a yoga event in Denver.
“A lot of [adult students] danced growing up and they know it, but they’re just nervous to come to a class. I tell them not to be, I don’t have mirrors. It makes us feel good about ourselves,” Hanley said.
She said there’s no requirement on numbers of sessions per week. The curious are welcome to drop in and start class, regardless of previous skill levels.
“I have people who have never taken a ballet class before come. A lot of the ladies that come haven’t danced in 30, 40 years and always talk about how fun it was, that it makes them feel like they’re 12 again,” Hanley said.
No pink tights, no leotards. No ballet shoes even, if students don’t want.
“It’s just doing a ballet class. You’re getting a workout for your body and brain,” Hanley said.
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