Patti Zukaitis often does what is termed plié relevé. The 64-year-old bends her legs down, keeping her knees in alignment over her feet, then she stretches up, up onto her toes as high as she can.
She has reached many heights in her 40-plus years as a dancer, yet she doesn’t see herself a star.
“Patti’s not the type of person who looks to be in the spotlight very much,” says Patrick Roddy, who heads Creighton University’s dance department, where Zukaitis is the other professor.
Zukaitis began classes at age 9, but discovered her true passion for dance as a college student. She studied at Creighton with her longtime teacher Valerie Roche and became one of the first graduates of the dance program.
Roche, a professional ballerina since age 12, drove Omaha dance from the beginnings of Omaha Regional Ballet Academy in spring 1964 into the early years of the now Omaha Academy of Ballet and beyond.
Zukaitis became a teacher at Creighton’s dance program while a student.
“Valerie kind of pushed me in this direction, and I fell into it,” Zukaitis says. “I didn’t have a dream to be a ballerina.”
It was at Creighton that Zukaitis discovered modern dance, a form she has loved and performed since with Creighton and local companies DanceScape and Omaha Modern Dance Collective.
In 1982, Zukaitis’ husband, John, had just finished medical school and obtained a job in New York City, partially because living in New York was a dream of Patti’s. She wanted to attend New York University, and true to form, she entered their prestigious Tisch School of the Arts in a nontraditional way.
“I was so naive,” Zukaitis says. “I called and said, ‘I’d like to enroll.’ I got a secretary who said, ‘Oh. People have been auditioning all spring for this.’”
Heartbroken, her brain pirouetting from the rejection, Zukaitis called her mother, who told her to just march down there and prove to them she was worthy of being in the program.
Zukaitis went to the campus and spoke to the director, who told her to come down for the first day of classes. As it turned out, one student had been accepted, but had not yet committed to the program. “I took a ballet class and I took a modern class,” Zukaitis says. “I was auditioning, but I didn’t realize it.” At the end of that first day, the director offered her the final position in the program.
Their first daughter, Kathryn, now 30, was born while she was in school. Even with a young baby, Zukaitis earned a Master of Fine Arts in dance in 1986.
A second daughter, Lucy, was born in 1988. When their son Jack was due in 1991, the Zukaitis family, cramped into a one-bedroom apartment, moved back to Omaha. Patti returned to Creighton.
“It was almost as though I never left,” she says. “I just contacted Valerie and she said come on over.”
A third daughter, Julie Rose, came along in 1994.
The professor and mom also taught for Omaha Academy of Ballet with Roche until 2002, when Roche retired after 40 years with the school.
“I told Valerie, OK, I’ll do it [be the director], but I want a co-director,” Zukaitis says. She and co-director Sheila Nelson led the school for 14 years. They had big slippers to fill. Roche had taken the OAB from a small ballet company to a well-respected academy with a separate performing company.
Zukaitis stepped into the role gracefully and stretched the organization even further. A big part of the job, one which was important to Zukaitis as well as the school, was examinations.
The OAB is the only school in Omaha which uses the rigorous Imperial Society of Teacher of Dancing qualifications. Zukaitis holds an associate diploma through the ISTD and brought in examiners each year to keep the school ISTD qualified.
Most importantly, the school became an environment where people wanted to bring their children to learn.
Roddy believes Zukaitis herself was one of the big factors in this.
“I think she’s one of the best ballet teachers in town, and she’s one of the nicest people I know. She’s been an incredible friend and colleague.”
He would know. The two met when he was in high school attending advanced ballet classes at Creighton.
“She uses her knowledge and talents in the best way possible to get her technique across to all ages of people from very young to adults,” he says. “Her musicality is excellent, beyond reproach.”
He considers Zukaitis herself one of his very good friends, and that means a lot to her.
“I used to say when I was younger I wanted to grow up and work with my best friends, and that’s really what I’ve done,” Zukaitis says. “I love the people I work with, and I have been very fortunate to have worked with them to build the dance community in Omaha.”
This past year, Zukaitis stepped down as OAB director to be with her family. Her daughters are all pursuing performing arts careers while Jack is training to be a firefighter.
“I hope they can make a living doing what they love,” Zukaitis says.
They should succeed. After all, they have a successful role model.