“They talk about ‘fire in the belly’; no one wanted to dance more than Pat Sorrell. She had an unending furnace.” –Roni Mahler, Former Principal Dancer with American Ballet Theatre and the National Ballet of Washington (D.C.)
Renowned performer and teacher Patricia Sorrell died at age 86 on February 3, 2022, in Virginia Beach, Virginia. The cause of death was not specified by the family.
Born July 14, 1935, in Southern California, Patricia Ann White was a quiet, observant child who preferred to read at birthday parties rather than make small talk with other children. Her father, Carol, was a doctor for the military, and her mother, Lynna, was a nurse and, later, a receptionist for a law firm. Pat did not grow up with siblings, although she was preceded by a brother who died before she was born.
On a doctor’s recommendation, her mother enrolled her in dance classes to straighten a club foot. She was also slightly bowlegged. Pat studied with Theodore Kosloff and Alexandra Baldina, former dancers in Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and graduated from Hollywood Professional School. Early in her career, she performed with the Los Angeles Opera Company and the Gollner-Petroff Company, appeared in movies and on television, toured in musical theater productions, and was an aerialist in the Terrell Jacobs Circus. Convinced that she wasn’t going to make it with that name, she later told student Sandy Blocker, the young Pat White adopted the stage name “Sorrell.”
Around the late 1950s or early ’60s, the family moved to the Washington, DC, area, where Sorrell resumed her training, honing her ballet technique after many years of commercial work. She studied with Doris Jones and Claire Haywood, women she deemed outstanding teachers from whom she first learned to break down steps. Founded in northeast DC in 1941, the Jones-Haywood School was founded expressly to offer dance instruction to minority students at a time when opportunities for African American dancers were scarce. Sorrell, a white woman, also danced with their racially integrated professional company, Capitol Ballet Company, founded in 1961.
In 1962 Sorrell was hired into the corps of the National Ballet of Washington, D.C. (more commonly referred to as “the National Ballet” or “the National”) under the direction of Frederic Franklin, and rose to the rank of soloist before the company folded in 1974. The company repertoire included many of the classic story ballets, such as Giselle, Swan Lake and Coppélia, as well as several Balanchine ballets and other contemporary American works. She was valued for her discipline, tenacity and generosity of spirit to help anyone in need. Sorrell was also famous within the company for knowing every step in every part of every ballet. She filled notebooks with scrupulous records, transcribing notes using her own methodology, that she would later refer to when staging ballets at schools and companies. She was devoted to Franklin’s choreographic legacy, then, as a dancer, and later as an unofficial répétiteur. Like that of her director, Sorrell’s character dancing had unique depth and specificity, which she gained by analyzing each folk step and studying the history behind the movements.
During one rehearsal for the “Friends” dance in Giselle, a dancer got injured. Sorrell was down in wardrobe at the time, and when she heard the news, she ran upstairs to the studio. Without hesitation, she jumped into action. She inadvertently switched the leading rounded arm of the port de bras and hand on the hip for the opposite arms, lending the character feel of a folk dance to a series of classical piqué arabesques. Franklin was enthralled by Sorrell’s mistake and changed the choreography on the spot.
Sorrell may have been a shy person, but she was considered an electrifying performer. In addition to her time onstage, Sorrell assisted Martha Vreeland in the wardrobe department with duties such as laundering, sewing and repairing, dyeing fabrics and shoes, and executing millinery work. She was also guest teaching and performing as frequently as possible. Although she seemed older and more mature than the other corps dancers, she kept her actual age a mystery. She did not share her previous work as a circus aerialist with her colleagues, given the prevailing bias that anything other than classical ballet was inferior.
What Sorrell also kept secret then, and from many people for the majority of her life, was that she’d had a child in the mid-1950s. She had gotten pregnant as a young unmarried woman while working in the circus and soon left because the pregnancy had complications. Her son was born with a terminal heart condition and required 24-hour medical attention. According to Kenneth Ludden, student and friend of Sorrell’s, she used the extra money she earned in her side jobs to pay for his care. A devoted mother in the face of sociocultural stigmas of the time and in addition to the attendant financial pressures, Sorrell may have imagined that her secrecy was nonnegotiable in order to maintain the image of her consummate professionalism. She regularly drove long distances to the facility where her son lived to sleep in his room. He died in his late teens. According to Sorrell’s granddaughter, Heaven Benoit, his name was Victor.
After the National folded in 1974, and with a firm grasp of wardrobe skills under her belt, Sorrell worked as a touring stage manager and a union stagehand. She wanted to learn, in her words, “how things actually work backstage.” For a career in ballet, the dancing years are but a short part, she believed, and in order to sustain oneself in the field, it was crucial to have experience working in all aspects of performance.
In fact, Dame Margot Fonteyn, of The Royal Ballet, who performed regularly as a guest artist with the National, was so impressed by Sorrell’s initiative to amass such wide-ranging knowledge of all things performance-related that it later inspired the curriculum for the school that bears Fonteyn’s name. From 1979 until her death in 1991, Dame Margot worked with Kenneth Ludden, who met Sorrell and Fonteyn through Edward Myers, Sorrell’s dance partner from the company, to create the Margot Fonteyn Academy of Ballet in Prescott, Arizona, where students receive a comprehensive education that integrates all components of theatrical concert performance, including music, visual art, dance, drama, scholarly arts and technical arts.
In 1974, Sorrell moved to the Norfolk–Virginia Beach area to join the faculty of the Norfolk Civic Ballet and its subsequent incarnations, Tidewater Ballet, Virginia Ballet Theatre and, currently, Ballet Virginia. She taught technique, men’s class, partnering and character.
On July 29, 1978, she married John Pepper, a gregarious and deeply loving truck driver based in Virginia Beach who occasionally drove sets for the National. He had first asked her out on a date after a performance. Pepper had a young son, Scott, from a previous marriage, whom Sorrell helped to raise as if he were her own.
In the worlds of “dog people” and “cat people,” Sorrell was most assuredly the latter. During her tenure with the National and in the early years in Norfolk, she had a regal, longhaired gray cat named Mary, who would ride around on Sorrell’s shoulder like a parrot. The cat was named after Bloody Mary; when Sorrell found her as a kitten, she was bloodied. The cat had such a personality that she shared a dressing room with Fonteyn when she would guest with the company. The sign on the door read “Dame Margot and Mary.”
“Miss Sorrell” was not known for being an easy teacher, but she was an effective one. She gravitated towards students who struggled and would take a hands-on approach to helping dancers find the proper muscle groups to transmit sophisticated information, like how to use one’s back or hold the leg up from underneath. She led extremely challenging, focused classes with the philosophy that individual corrections were for all. Former student Sandra Flader Carlino recalled, “She’d say ‘good.’ Sometimes. She got her point across.”
For private coaching, her methods could be unconventional, though anything but arbitrary. Former student Sandy Blocker remembered that in the first two months that he worked with Sorrell, he did nothing but demi-plié in first position. Later, in advance of dancing the “Black Swan” pas de deux, they focused for three months on entrechat huits, a vertical jump from fifth position in which the crossing of the legs changes four times before landing again in fifth position. Just before Blocker went on, Sorrell directed him to do only entrechat sixes, with three changes instead of four. He asked why they worked so hard to perfect the huits. She responded, “So you can do the sixes.”
Kenneth Ludden, who met Sorrell when she was in the National and he was a teenaged student, wrote of a four-day coaching session with Sorrell in 1975 for the “Bluebird” variation in riveting detail in his book, My Margot. After morning class on the first day, Sorrell drove him to a basketball arena and asked him to stand in the center of the floor. Her sole instruction was to “stand in fifth position and fill the room.” After a few minutes, he started to mark the choreography in silence. She forcefully repeated her command.
“So I stood and waited. She repeated the command, and I stood and waited. I was getting angry and started to think evil thoughts about her. But she made me wait. My fury surged in me and I took a deep breath, preparing to unleash a rant on her, and just as I took in the breath, fire in my eyes, she yelled, ‘Yes! Like that, just much more!’
“So I stood, in fifth position, angry as hell, holding in my rage and lifting my chest, turning my head defiantly in what I thought was her direction. But each time her voice came it came from another place in the stadium. I stood there until we finally quit at five—four and half hours of standing in fifth.”
The second day was six hours of the same. On the third day, she played the music over and over again while he stood in fifth before eventually directing him to perform the dance from the waist up. Only on the final day did he execute the dance with his entire body: “In my variation and the coda, I had double the jump, triple the energy. I found that combining the imagination of the full movements I had when I was just using my upper body with my actual body, the result felt just like what I imagined, not less.”
Sorrell’s year-round pupils had the opportunity to dance in Ballet Tidewater, a performing company for Young Audiences of Virginia, which offered workshops, lecture-demonstrations and educational performances for students of elementary age through high school. Sorrell directed and designed themed performances that incorporated sections of classical and originally choreographed works. One theme was “Dance Stew,” which looked at the ingredients needed to create a dance. “Dances From Different Countries” asked the question of why people dance. The “Dance in America” program traced how ballet came to America and also included Native American ceremonial dances. It was not uncommon for this group to give more than a hundred performances per year.
In 1980, Sorrell created and directed the junior training company, First Pointe Players, which afforded young dancers opportunities to engage with the community through performances for elderly audiences. The students also learned performance production and dancer etiquette over the course of a five-month period, and experienced the commitment required to be a performer.
Starting in the mid-1980s, Sorrell was also a longtime faculty member for the Dance Department of the Governor’s School for the Arts in Norfolk, an arts high school magnet program that drew students from diverse populations from eight school districts across the Hampton Roads area.
Although Virginia was her primary home, Sorrell and her notebooks also regularly traveled to other parts of the country where her presence was just as significant.
While he was still dancing in the National Ballet of Washington in 1970, Edward Myers was invited to dance the role of Franz, the male lead in Coppélia, as staged by Larry Long (who was also a ballet master at the National) at the Marcia Dale School of Dance in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. In 1971, Myers was invited to return, and he brought Sorrell, his dance partner from the company, with him. Together, they staged Giselle for the students. The pair then returned regularly to teach, stage ballets and choreograph. After Myers joined Pennsylvania Ballet in 1974, Sorrell would go alone. That same year, the Marcia Dale School of Dance was incorporated as Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet.
Sorrell was the backbone of the CPYB summer program from its inception in 1975. In the early years, when the program was attended by a handful of children, the teaching was largely shared by just Sorrell and Weary, who got along famously. From the get-go, Marcia Dale Weary and her sister Sandra referred to Sorrell as their “summer sister,” for she stayed at the family house every year with them. The family included her in everything, as though she were another daughter.
CPYB alumna and longtime faculty member Melinda Howe recalled staying up until midnight with Sorrell on the first night of the workshop every year to place the students in the appropriate levels. She said Weary and Sorrell had “the same compass” for how to work with their students. They both believed that “it was all about the kids, the focus of it all.”
Sorrell taught implicitly, devising classes based on the needs of the students at hand. “For rebellious teenagers, she might assign an endless, thankless combination,” said Howe. “Because she knew how to work with different body types and how to say things, by the next time they were working their tails off.”
Sorrell also taught and staged ballets for other companies in Pennsylvania, including Parou Ballet and Allegheny Ballet. In addition to her extensive work with the Allegheny Ballet at times during the year, she also assisted founder Deborah Anthony with a summer course called the Altoona Workshop in the 1980s and ’90s. Anthony said, “Pat helped me help my students to achieve. I just don’t know what I would have done without her.”
Throughout her career, Sorrell always seemed to be preparing for a performance or wrapping up afterwards. The passenger seat and backseat of her little burgundy Toyota were perpetually scattered with props, costumes and, of course, the notebooks. She died the day before she was to return to teaching at Ballet Virginia, where more recently she was known as “Ms. Pat.” She had also been scheduled to teach at CPYB this summer.
When asked to describe Pat Sorrell, numerous sources offered the recurring words “technician,” “scientist,” “physicist,” “the Einstein of ballet.” “Most people taught the art of ballet. She did that, but mostly Miss Sorrell taught the science of ballet,” said former student and teaching colleague Elbert Watson. Ever the intellectual sponge, her kinesthetic approach was fueled by her obsession with anatomy, kinesiology and physics of dance. Sorrell’s aerial work would have required her to embody an understanding of forces, like lift, thrust and torque. During breaks from the National, she and Edward Myers traveled to New York City to study with Joseph Pilates. They practiced the mat work religiously. Also in her orbit was Kenneth Laws, professor of physics at Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Laws, an amateur dancer as an adult and a board member at CPYB in the 1970s, authored the book The Physics of Dance. Sorrell drew great inspiration from the teachings of first-generation Cecchetti pupil Margaret Craske, who taught technique as “different recipes of force.”
Former student Darrin Giesy pointed out, “the best teachers are not always the ones with the easiest bodies, because they’re the ones who have to figure it out.” Sandy Blocker summarized Sorrell’s teaching philosophy as: “Whatever ‘it’ was, she broke it down to the essence and then layered it back up.”
Even for students who chose careers outside of dance, Sorrell was enthusiastic and encouraging. Bryanna Vesely, a former student from Ballet Virginia who is now a podiatric surgery resident at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, remembered how Sorrell would send her grisly photos of students’ injured feet for an unofficial second opinion. She was keenly interested in the outcomes. At one point as a child, Sorrell had been interested in becoming a doctor like her father. When she began to follow a more artistic path, her parents, rather than being disappointed that she was no longer as interested in pursuing medicine, encouraged her to follow her passion. She gave them a lot of credit for that. Similarly, Vesely noted, “Her advice didn’t just apply to ballet. It applied to life. I carry the work ethic she instilled in me everywhere.”
For those of us who knew Miss Sorrell later, as I did when I was her student in the mid-1990s (and her Princess, from the “Princess and the Pea” section in her original ballet, Fractured Fairy Tales), it could be difficult to imagine that she’d had the career she did. She wore her accomplishments lightly. She lived in the moment. She spoke rarely of her past, but when she did, it was without pretense. She was a casual, no-nonsense person with a dry, wicked sense of humor, who taught in pedal-pusher pants and oversized T-shirts in a litany of bright colors and slogans, including “Black Sheep of the Family” and “Do Be Do Be Do.” Her short hairstyle remained the same through the years, although the color would change. In her later years a pronounced limp snuck in, from uncooperative joints. However, she conveyed her prodigious knowledge clearly and succinctly through hand gestures and vocabulary. Instead of ballet slippers or teaching sandals, she preferred to wear jelly shoes, and when those fell out of fashion, she wore slip-on Keds without laces, or espadrilles. Occasionally she would remove her shoes to demonstrate, revealing jaw-droppingly strong, arched feet that she simply said were the product of years of hard work, not natural facility.
Pragmatic, perceptive and nurturing, Miss Sorrell understood how to develop a young dancer. She did things because she cared, not for a following, even though she taught thousands of students over the course of her career. She wanted what was best for the dancer.
Patricia Sorrell was predeceased by her husband, John E. Pepper, and stepson, John Scott Pepper. She is survived by granddaughter Heaven Benoit and her husband, Joshua Benoit, and great-grandson Brycen; and grandson Ryan Binkley.
In the early 1960s, while studying at the Washington School of Ballet and performing with what was then its pre-professional arm, The Washington Ballet, Sorrell was told by school director Mary Day that she would never dance professionally because of her body type. Like all scrappy underdogs everywhere, Sorrell was deeply motivated to prove her wrong.
Around the same time, she auditioned for the inaugural season of the National Ballet of Washington. Frederic Franklin stood in the front of the room while the group of dancers milled about. He indicated the steps with his hands and feet one time, and then stopped. Instead of demonstrating again or more fully, he turned to the group and said, “Okay, let me see it.” No one but Pat could produce what he wanted to see. We know what happened.
She got the job.
Author’s note: Ballet Virginia has established a dance scholarship fund in honor of Sorrell’s memory and her contribution to the arts. Donations can be made here.