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Linda Villella: From skating to ballet

Former Canadian champion runs a world renowned ballet school

Linda Villella is now the director of the Miami City Ballet School.
Linda Villella is now the director of the Miami City Ballet School. (Courtesy of Miami City Ballet)

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By Lois Elfman, special to icenetwork.com
(06/18/2009) - "Who would have thought an ice skater would be running one of the best ballet schools in the country," jokes Linda Villella, founding director of the Miami City Ballet School.

An interviewer tells Villella she grew up watching Villella's husband, legendary American ballet dancer Edward Villella, dance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Villella admits she knew little of her husband until 1977 when she met him in connection with a Dorothy Hamill TV special.

"As an ice skater, you trained before school and after school. Your training was very intense. There was very little time for me to watch any TV at all. I kind of grew up in a vacuum or a void," says Villella, who is best known to longtime skating fans by her maiden name, Linda Carbonetto.

She says she didn't even do much ballet training -- some work on her upper body but not much else.

"Ballet is good for everything you do, but the actual muscles you develop in skating from the waist down are very different from the muscles you develop as a ballet dancer," she says. "The ballet does nothing but enhance the ice skating, but you are using totally different muscles."

Born in the U.S., Carbonetto represented Canada in competition because her father worked for the Canadian government. She competed at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, finishing 13th. After winning the Canadian title in 1969 and finishing sixth at the world championships, she turned pro and joined Ice Capades as well as appearing on the short-lived TV show Ice Palace.

"I put my brother through college and bought my parents a house, because we didn't have money," she recalls. "I went right from training into doing shows every night."

After several years on the road, Carbonetto moved to Los Angeles. In 1977, separated from her first husband, she found work in television assisting on Hamill's TV specials. The producers would bring in people from the dance world to choreograph for Hamill and it was Carbonetto's job to adapt that choreography for the ice.

"They told me they were going to get this wonderful dancer, Edward Villella, to come in and help choreograph the show and he was going to perform in it," she says. Knowing little about him, she asked a friend to fill her in. "We didn't have Google in those days," she says.

Beyond the mutual attraction, they shared the common bond of starting their lives over. After an illustrious career, Edward Villella found himself in need of a hip replacement and unable to continue dancing.

"We met when we were two has-beens that were dead broke. We built our careers from scratch all the way up again," Linda Villella says.

They married in 1980.

Early in their relationship, Edward Villella began to take her to the New York City Ballet, where he had danced for years. The unique choreography of George Balanchine opened her eyes to ballet and suddenly Villella found herself totally enthralled. A performance of "Concerto Barocco" brought her to tears and showed her the incredible musicality in Balanchine's work.

"We started going and once you go you develop a taste for it. I fell in love with it," she says.

In 1986, Edward Villella accepted the job of founding artistic director of the Miami City Ballet, and over time built the company into one of the premier dance companies in the U.S. In 1997, he received the National Medal of Arts, was inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame and was named a Kennedy Center honoree.

A few years before that Linda Villella began the Miami City Ballet School in a most inauspicious way. The couple's younger daughter, Crista, wanted to study ballet and the company needed kids to appear in the Nutcracker.

"I said, 'Let me just take a space in the studio and Crista and her friends can do some ballet,'" Villella says. The company did not put any muscle or marketing behind it. "We got a very good teacher. We started with Crista and some friends in January 1993. We ended up with 75 kids at the end of the year. We opened with 150 in the fall. Then we just grew from there."

Today there are 400 kids in the Miami City Ballet School, of which Villella is the director, overseeing year-round programs. Students come from all over the world to attend, including scholarship students who show talent but don't have the means to pay.

"This is my job," Villella says. "I love to go to work."

Although Villella says she has little connection to skating today, it will always have a place in her heart. Her husband accompanied her to an anniversary gala at the Toronto Cricket Skating & Curling Club a few years ago. That's where she trained her final days as an amateur skater. She watches skating on TV occasionally and she thinks fondly of the people she skated alongside.

"The sport certainly gave me a sense of discipline," she says. "I never ever thought to miss a training session because I was not feeling well. You never did it. It gave me a complete work ethic.... Skating is always going to be close to my heart."