Although she no longer dances professionally, LilaAnn Coates White still retains the carriage of a dancer. Her movements are graceful and her posture is long and straight. After decades of training, repetition and learned muscle memory, this elegant way of being has stayed with her for life.
While she danced professionally for 10 years, today she is a dance instructor, artistic associate and choreographer. She has been an adjunct assistant professor of dance for the department of theater at the University of Minnesota Duluth since 1999. She also works at the Minnesota Ballet, where she is both principal teacher for the school and artistic associate for the company. She began with the Minnesota Ballet in 1986.
This talented woman once considered herself a “starving artist” who had to work extra jobs waiting tables just to survive. But today, this well-known teacher and dancer has built a solid professional reputation in the world of ballet — in Duluth and beyond.
Coates White was born in Kansas City, Missouri, where she was one of four children. Her father was an orthopedic surgeon who also served in the U.S. Navy, and her mom alternated between working as a teacher and staying home with the kids. The family moved around a bit, ultimately ending up in Illinois.
When she was in the eighth grade, a new girl enrolled in her school. This newcomer just happened to be a serious ballet dancer. Coates White was inspired by her new friend, and began taking ballet classes herself at age 13.
Ballet quickly became a passion, so much so that Coates White persuaded her parents to allow her to attend National Academy of Arts, a performing arts and boarding high school in Champaign, Illinois. “It took me a year to convince them,” she said.
Ultimately her parents were extremely supportive of her love for dance, and even hosted a ballet gala, the Midwest Regional Festival, at their home. “David Howard, a ballet teacher from New York City, was actually in my house,” she said. “He was a living legend at that time.”
Following a dream
After high school graduation, Coates White followed several ballet-related opportunities, taking apprenticeships in Chicago and Des Moines. She lived on a shoestring budget, but she was happy. “As an apprentice, you earn a stipend, but it’s not a living wage,” she said. “So, between ‘guesting,’ teaching and waitressing, I did it all to pay the bills.”
A chance meeting with Marjorie Mussman, a well-known ballet teacher from New York City, resulted in a move to the Big Apple. Coates White moved into Katharine House, a women’s dorm in the West Village filled with young women who dreamed of making it big.
“Everyone at Katharine House was either in fashion or a dancer,” she said. “We were right in the hub of things.” In addition to taking classes and auditioning, Coates White worked full-time at a New York City convenience store, called Store 24, to pay the bills.
Around this time, Coates White’s roommate from Des Moines, Beth Magner, recommended she consider working for the Minnesota Ballet, then known as the Duluth Ballet. Arrangements were made for Gernot Petzold, the ballet’s director, to travel to New York City so Coates White could have a private audition. He offered her a company position, and she moved to Duluth right before her 21st birthday.
Since Coates White didn’t know anyone in Duluth, a Minnesota Ballet board member invited her in and gave her a place to stay. This was only temporary, however, until she located an apartment of her own.
Her first Duluth apartment was downtown between Lake Avenue and First Street. Like many young, newly independent people, that apartment was a mixture of freedom and exhilaration, combined with some of the common pitfalls that often accompany cheap rent.
“I had the best apartment,” she said. “You could see the lake, and I didn’t need a car; I walked everywhere. But the apartment was infested with mice, and I had a questionable tenant living below me.”
Coates White met her husband, Todd White, at a bus stop downtown. “He was with all the other company people,” she said. “We all started talking, and I found out he was renting a house to a few other dancers.”
In short order, the pair became inseparable. While today, White has a solid career as a reference librarian at the College of St. Scholastica, in those days, he worked as a stained-glass artist and a server. Along with Coates White’s meager earnings in the dance world, money was tight.
“At the time, we were starving artists,” Coates White said. “My parents were unsure about the union. My dad even said, “Well, they can just get married and starve to death.” The couple married in 1990, and have managed to keep food on the table ever since.
Over the years, Coates White moved on from her company position at the Minnesota Ballet to her current role as principal teacher for the school, and artistic associate for the company. She has been involved in many productions over the years, including “Cinderella,” “The Nutcracker,” “Swan Lake,” “Summertime,” “Coppelia” and many mixed repertoire performances.
Her career took a detour when she decided to pursue a degree in physical therapy. “I had been taking classes off and on at UMD, and I had been working with kids through the ballet who had physical challenges,” she said. “The kids were always joined by a physical therapist, who was amazing. I loved working with kids, and thought I could do it, too.”
Eventually, Coates White earned an undergraduate degree in exercise science and a master’s degree in physical therapy, both from the College of St. Scholastica. She worked for a time as a physical therapist at St. Luke’s, but found it difficult to maintain a full-time career once the couple’s children were born.
While still working for the Minnesota Ballet, in 1999, she was hired as an adjunct assistant professor of dance at UMD, a role she still holds today. Today, Coates White spends about 75% of her time teaching at UMD and 25% at the Minnesota Ballet. But this schedule can ebb and flow, depending on where she is most needed at any given time.
Coates White also works as a choreographer. In addition to her choreography work at the Minnesota Ballet and UMD, she has done freelance work for Lyric Opera of the North, Arrowhead Chorale, Sieur du Luth Summer Arts Festival and other productions.
In 2015, Coates White was granted a fellowship from the New York Choreographic Institute — a prestigious recognition. And recently, Coates White was recognized with a nod to her 25th anniversary as principal teacher with the Minnesota Ballet. The ballet’s year-end student performance was dedicated to her, and many former students traveled to town for the occasion.
Coates White also belongs to the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science.
The couple have three children: Cullen (21), Flannery (20), and Finnegan (18). They also have an Australian Shepherd puppy named Monty.
The family lives between Two Harbors and Duluth, in a home they built, with the intent of looking old. “We call it the Icelandic Neogothic Farmhouse,” Coates White said. “We bought the plot of land and hired an architect, but did a lot of the interior work ourselves. Todd and I share a passion for homes and home renovations.” Coates White is also an avid reader and gardener.
While she never intended to end up in Duluth, Coates White has fallen in love with the city. “I love Duluth. I love the lake, and the thriving arts scene was so surprising to me,” she said. And, although she has a successful background as a ballet dancer, Coates White wants her legacy to be that of a teacher.
“A lot of my former students are now teaching elsewhere in the community,” she said. “And now I’ve been here long enough that I’m teaching the children of my former students.”