How Samantha Dunster Is Changing Ballet on the Main Line
For the Pennsylvania Ballet’s assistant artistic director, dance is a family affair.
Samantha Dunster with daughter Audrey//Photo by Tessa Marie Images
Last month, during the holiday season, countless little girls were introduced to the magic of The Nutcracker for the first time. As they looked up and watched the graceful ballerinas float across the stage, they were awestruck. Samantha Dunster knows just how they felt. She was once one of those little girls.
“I was about 8 when I first saw The Nutcracker, and I fell in love right away,” says Dunster, assistant artistic director of the Pennsylvania Ballet. “I told my mom right after, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”
So she became a ballerina. Her mother enrolled her in ballet school, and Dunster spent the majority of her free time during high school in the studio.
As she was approaching the end of high school, Dunster reached the crossroads that all young dancers come to: discontinue her career as a dancer, or attempt the nearly impossible and try to make it professionally. Bucking the odds, she became a success.
Decades later, Dunster is sipping coffee in the kitchen of her Media home, a world away from her Toronto hometown. “I like that I can work in the city,” says Dunster. “And at the end of the day, I can come home to the suburbs.”
Her job with the Pennsylvania Ballet brought her here two years ago. She shares her home with her husband, Eddy Tovar, and her 8-year-old daughter, Audrey. Ballet is a family affair. Eddy is a professional ballet dancer, and Audrey has been dancing since the age of 2.
At 43, Dunster has been involved in the ballet industry for more than 35 years. Her career has had her doing everything from choreographing to teaching for some of the most reputable dance companies all over the world, including in Cuba, Korea, Japan, Argentina, Brazil and Sweden.
Theses days, Dunster can’t imagine being anywhere but Philadelphia with the Pennsylvania Ballet. “I’m there full time, Monday through Friday,” she says. “And my daughter has classes on Saturday and sometimes Sunday, so I come in with her and do work that I didn’t get done during the week. It’s usually a seven-day-a-week job.”
Dunster’s path wasn’t without obstacles. “I didn’t have the perfect ballet body,” she says.
Media’s Samantha Dunster leads by example//Photo by Tessa Marie Images
What she lacked in perceived perfection she made up for in her overwhelming desire to do whatever it took to become a professional dancer. “I had a ballet teacher who told me early on, ‘If you want to do this, it takes hard work and sacrifice for anyone—but, for you, it’s going to be 10 times that,’” she says.
Dunster took that advice as a challenge and was determined to prove she could do it.
The summer before her senior year of high school, she was invited to train for a month at the prestigious National Ballet of Cuba. She convinced her parents tolet her go. A monthlong visit turned into an eight-year stay, and she finished high school remotely. “The training was something I really connected with,” she says. “I met a retired Olympic gymnastics coach who worked with me and really helped me overcome some of my challenges.”
Moving to Cuba didn’t fit Dunster’s reserved personality. “I was a homebody,” she says. “But I did it for the love of my art.”
The move had a profound influence on Dunster’s career for decades to come. One of her instructors, Laura Alonso, pulled her aside and encouraged her to consider learning the “other side of the business.” At first, the idea didn’t thrill her, but after some thought, she decided to go for it. “Thank God I said OK, because not many people get the chance to be taught how to coach and to do really efficient scheduling and to work with the corps de ballet,” says Dunster.
Everything Dunster learned in Cuba she applies to her daily responsibilities at the Pennsylvania Ballet. “Sam is not only an incredible teacher and coach, but also an incredible leader,” says Angel Corella, the artistic director who recruited Dunster. “It would be really hard to imagine the company without her.”
Dunster’s current position allows her to still work daily in studio with dancers, which is extremely important to her. “Someone once asked me what the difference is when you work with a student, opposed to a professional, and there really is no difference,” she says. “You’re still teaching and inspiring.”
A full-time pro and part of the corps de ballet, Kathryn Manger is one of more than 35 dancers Dunster currently works with. They first met when Manger was a student at the University of Hartford’s Hartt School of Dance.
“She was always so good at nurturing not just my strengths, but giving me roles that she knew weren’t my strong suits,” says Manger. “It’s so crucial to have a person like Samantha when you’re training because, as an artist, you’re always trying to grow. You need your instructors to be honest and tell you your flaws, but you also need them to be encouraging. Samantha has all of those attributes.”