Madison Ballet’s Rachelle Butler Steps Behind the Curtain

By Rachel Werner

A decade-long professional dance career taught former prima ballerina and Madison native Rachelle Butler a vital lesson. “It’s essential children see people of color in all genres so they see a bit of themselves in the arts,” she reveals. “I wish there had been more of that when I began studying ballet intensi¬vely as a teen.”

In her new role as assistant ballet master at Madison Ballet, Butler continues her tutelage under artistic director W. Earle Smith—currently in instruction and choreography—with whom she’s now trained and worked with for over 15 years. Together they are focused on providing this example to a diverse array of youth. “When I was 13, I auditioned for Wisconsin Dance Ensemble [now Madison Ballet) for the second time and got in. That’s where I met Earle and fell even more in love with ballet,” she recalls.

Butler remembers Smith’s candidness regarding the difficult path that lay before her if an “illustrious career” was her goal. “Race is a tender subject for a lot of people,” Smith affirms. “Rachelle was tenacious and refused to be stereotyped. Nor did she ever let the shortsightedness of others get to her. And eventually, she broke through it.”

With Smith’s and her family’s support, Butler went on to study at The Rock School in Pennsylvania on a full merit scholarship, in addition to the Miami City Ballet School and Ballet Chicago. But for Butler all roads would eventually lead back to Madison and the director who had taught her to soar en pointe.

“My fave professional role here was Mina in “Dracula,” but I honestly was clueless how many people enjoyed watching me dance Earle’s movements until after my retirement in 2016. I always hoped I was reaching and impacting people through my art and love of ballet, but you just never know how much,” she says.

So from the wings Butler continues to impart the wisdom she gained from her triumphs and struggles to Madison Ballet School students—and during the community outreach programs the company and staff offer around the city annually via Reach Dane Headstart, senior living facilities and public events.

“As a dancer and teacher of color, the representation and encouragement that comes with it is so important. It’s been invaluable for my daughter Maurissa not just to learn ballet from Rachelle, but also to watch her performance career and retirement up close,” says parent Rebecca Powell.

And Butler never forgets how critical early encouragement can be for a child. “I’ve always been inspired by my father’s work ethic and drive. I think that is where I got my determination from for my training and is why, for me, teaching has been amazing,” she explains. “Having kids give you a huge hug, say thank you and seeing dancers mature and move through the ranks is some of the greatest feedback I will ever get.”

This story is part of our “Inspiration Takes Stage” article. Click to read about the other two featured artists – Erica Berman and Melanie Cain.

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