The trailblazing began with Ellen O’Quinn, who formed Ellen O’Quinn School of Dance in 1963 and could be credited with contributing to the professional success of many over the years, including her daughter Patricia O’Quinn Warren and granddaughter Tara Warren.
O’Quinn came to America in 1950 with her own impressive background. She had been a principal dancer and soloist with the Metropolitan Opera House in West Germany in World War II. She passed away in December of 2017, at age 89, her daughter said, recalling how it all began for the mother of six.
“She was sitting at home one day, in the early ‘60s,” Patricia said. “She said it was like God whispered and told her, ‘teach dance.’ She missed dance.”
The dream led to a school in Kinston and then Goldsboro. Her youngest daughter was mesmerized early on, recalling the roots of her own interest. “She started teaching five students in the hallway at 205 S. Virginia St.,” she said. “I would love to buy that house because it’s for sale.” Patricia was told she couldn’t take lessons until she turned 5. But at age 4, she grew impatient having to sit and watch others do what she wanted to do. “I would put on a record and I would just dance all through that hallway and kept begging her,” she said. “She told me, When you can put your foot on the bar, you can take ballet.’”
One day that happened — she managed to hoist one leg high enough for her big toe to wrap around that bar. From that moment on, she never stopped dancing. “It was in my blood,” Patricia said. “I don’t think she realized that when God put that in her — ‘teach dance’ — how years later that would be a ministry for His kingdom.”
Patricia auditioned for Joffrey Ballet in high school and headed to New York City after graduation. She spent five years with the company, coming home in 1983 to nurse an injury. She filled her time on the pageant circuit, becoming Miss Goldsboro and third-runner-up for Miss North Carolina; then Miss Spivey’s Corner and second-runner for the state crown, and Miss Topsail Island and first runner-up for Miss N.C. She also worked with her mother, teaching dance and contemplating returning to New York. “But then I met my husband and that was the end of that,” she said with a laugh.
She and John Warren have two children, John Thomas and Tara.
When Ellen retired in 1986, Patricia took over the studio, renaming it Artistic Dance Academy, a homage to her mom.
“It would burn her to no end to see something on the stage that was not artistic,” Patricia said, smiling. “She would always use that word.” The mother/daughter similarities continued, from their “practically growing up in the studio” to being groomed in dance by their respective mothers. While Patricia’s forte was ballet, Tara, now 25, took a different route.
After high school, she auditioned for Ingredients Dance Company, a Christian-based group in Dallas, training and touring for two years. She decided to return home to teach, bringing with her a passion for hip- hop and contemporary styles. “I didn’t try to clone her to be me,” Patricia says. “She didn’t want to be a ballerina, but she loved dance and ministry, and it just kind of made her grow.” Their combined talents are reflected in one of the community’s prominent events each spring — Dance for Christ, recently completing its 17th year — partially in response to Patricia’s breast cancer diagnosis.
“I had always wanted to do a ministry in dance. I just had a calling to do something in ministry. I didn’t know what it was, but dance tells a story, ballet tells a story.”
It is also about a deal she made with God. In gratitude for surviving, she promised to spend the rest of her life telling people about Him. “This is our church here,” she said of her studio. “Some of the kids that we teach, this is the only church that they get.” “They look at it as, this is the place I go where I’m loved, and I’m accepted,” Tara said. Patricia likened it to a sanctuary of sorts, or a safety net. “We try to equip them before they leave so they’re armed with the armor of God,” she said. “We encourage them to take those tools wherever they go.” Ellen was apprehensive, though, fearing such a stand would result in lost students. “And I did lose students,” Patricia said. “But I told her, God should be in every aspect of our life. God is why we have this business.”
Some left, but God brought her a “whole new fl ock,” she says now. “If you’re working just for money then it’s just work. But if you’re working because you love what you do, and you do it for the glory of God because He’s the creator of all things, it just comes.”
Ellen was one of their biggest supporters, Patricia said, never missing a show, until her health began to fail. There have been other challenges in the past year. Two weeks after expanding the business and celebrating its grand opening, Hurricane Matthew immersed it under four feet of water. They lost everything. As devastating as that was, though, it led to a larger space at the end of Center Street, which is being renovated and nearing completion. The three-generation legacy — which also included Ellen bringing “The Nutcracker” to Wayne County along with a community theater — is a reflection of her character.