Mary Alpha Johnson Donnelly was endowed with both elegance and charm.
A petite woman, with bright expressive eyes and an ever pleasant smile, Donnelly epitomized poise and grace, while exuding confidence. And she did it effortlessly.
"She was a true Southern lady," said Casey Sides, who studied under Donnelly as did her daughter, Madalyn Rose Sanders.
Donnelly, former director and owner of Alpha School of Dance, died Monday. Services will be held Saturday at 11 a.m. at First Christian Church.
A native of Meridian, Donnelly was a trailblazer, opening her dance school in the early 1940s when she was 19 years old. There she taught, choreographed routines, designed costumes and sets – all while mentoring young lives and fostering a love of fine arts though dance.
"Every person who has taken dance in Meridian or is taking dance in Meridian, regardless from whom they take, owes a debt of gratitude to Mary Alpha Donnelly," said former Meridian Mayor John Robert Smith, whose daughter was among Donnelly's many students.
"Mary Alpha created the dance environment for Meridian many years ago, and has shaped many of the other dance instructors in Meridian," Smith said.
Donnelly's dance expertise is not limited to Meridian, but expands throughout the United States and abroad, particularly Europe.
During summers, she instructed dance students and teachers at conventions. For three consecutive summers, Donnelly served as director of dance at the Holland Institute of European Culture, teaching ballet, jazz and tap in clinics held in major cities. Prior to teaching in Holland, she was director of dance for the International Dance Seminar held at the University of Exeter, England. While there, the company toured through England, France, Germany and Holland for a performing tour in many cities. In addition to seminars and concerts, Donnelly choreographed "Hello Dolly," which was held at the Northcutt Theatre in Exeter.
Closer to home, Donnelly choreographed productions for the Meridian Little Theatre.
"I started the theater in 1965 and she was my first choreographer for my first play, which was 'Bye, Bye, Birdie,'" said MLT Director Jimmy Pigford. "She was wonderful; she helped build that Meridian Little Theatre. Mary Alpha not only did extraordinary work, she also was an outstanding dancer. I finally talked her into being in a play, it was 'No, No, Nannette' and she tap danced on 'Tea for Two," which was wonderful. It takes a lot of breath to do a tap dance routine and when she finished it, she didn't stop to go back stage and catch her breath, she continued right on with the performance."
Donnelly also served as choreographer of the then Mississippi Junior Miss Pageant, which she did for 25 years. For several years, her choreography placed first in the national program's award for "Best State Production."
"Mary Alpha was there from the beginning, in 1963" said Tony Sansone, who served as the program's first state director. "She was creative, not only with the choreography, but also the sets and costumes. She was tireless and knew how to get the most of those young ladies. Unlike today – whereas the Junior Misses arrive on Sunday and have several days to learn the dance routines – the young ladies arrived the evening before the night of competition and learned two routines the morning of the night of competition. She did it; she knew how to teach them the routines and they got it."
Donnelly was instrumental in creating the first dance costume catalogue, Art Stone. She also created and illustrated the "Alpha Mat" as well as a dance encyclopedia for children, "The Magical Kingdom of Dance," which are still used by dancers and studios across the country.
And while dance was her passion, it was not her only quality she passed on to her students.
"She also taught them grace and poise, and how to be confident with their skill, how to polish that skill and how to share that skill," Smith said. "I think it's her mark on their lives on how to treat people and to conduct themselves in public that is as important as the dance skills. Most of them don't make a career of dance, but they do have a lifetime of being able to use what Mary Alpha taught them about being comfortable in front of people, of grace, poise and dignity as you carry yourself."
Heather LaCoste, who worked with Donnelly the final three years her studio was open, describes the dance instructor as "one of a kind."
"She was so genuine ... She was inventive and a smart, courageous woman," LaCoste said. "I learned so much from her, but what I learned most was to not let anything stop you; whatever your goals are, go for them."
Donnelly was often called "The Madame of Ballet" and would end her classes by saying "Merci beaucoup." (French for 'Thank you very much') to her students.
"She will be greatly missed," a very moved Sides said. "Merci beaucoup."