From a large Chicago Catholic family of modest means, she did not have the resources to take ballet lessons as a child. But thanks to a strong arts program in her high school, a passion was ignited.
Ziemann-DeVos embarked on a professional-level training schedule, dancing six days a week, several hours a day and earned a scholarship to the University of Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and Dance.
“I was lucky to find outstanding teachers,” she said. “When you start dancing in adolescence, it is hard on the body. … It is better to condition from a young age.”
In the years that ensued, while training and dancing professionally with the Pennsylvania Ballet, Des Moines Ballet and the New Haven Ballet, Ziemann-DeVos also earned money and business experience by working at her father’s company, and later at an insurance corporation.
A chance meeting with her husband-to-be at a conference moved her to Woodbury, Conn., where she founded a dance program at an arts school. “That is where I found my calling to enable others to pursue this joyful pursuit,” she said.
A job brought the couple to Cobb County, where Ziemann-DeVos began dancing and teaching for Iris Hensley, who founded Georgia Ballet in 1960.
“I experienced the integrity of how she ran the business, the vision of the mission and the respect she had for the art,” she recalls.
In 1996, Hensley hired her as school director. The school originated in a small studio on Cherokee Street, later moved Whitlock Avenue, then to 31 Atlanta Street, where it remained until Hensley died suddenly of cancer in 2003.
With the organization in turmoil, the 17-member board of directors swiftly named Ziemann-DeVos executive director.
In 2004, the school purchased a two-story, 13,500-square-foot building on Field Parkway, near Cobb Parkway and Bells Ferry Road. In the nine years since, it has grown 50 percent and now has 300 students dancing in five studios.
Marietta resident Dot Dunaway, who taught ballet at the school for many years and has served on the board of trustees, said, “Through grit and determination, Michele has adjusted for the ballet company’s financial operations to fit funding available during economic downturn, sought new opportunities and still provided top quality performances.”
“We are always fundraising,” Ziemann-DeVos said. “Expenses are much greater than the ticket price we can charge so it has to be subsidized. To really train children properly in the art of classical dance is not a profit-making pursuit.”
Under her leadership, fundraising levels have increased by 75 percent and individual giving by 350 percent. The school has 17 employees, plus 15 paid professionals who dance in 25 performances a year. The annual budget of $820,000 includes costumes, stage sets and rent to the Cobb Civic Center for productions.
In addition, the school’s community outreach includes “arts in education” field trips; a 10-week, free training class in Title 1 schools; and “Dance-Ability,” a free class for children with special needs.
Dunaway added, “Michele’s engaging personality and love of ballet have heightened the success of the Arts in Education school outreach program. She has certainly been a tribute to Iris Hensley’s founding success of The Georgia Ballet.”
Ziemann-DeVos’ works long hours, frequently seven days a week, but does not complain. “I wouldn’t give away a minute of it. It’s a gift to me. … The GAB changes lives every day, thousands every year — what more enjoyable endeavor can one pursue?”