Iris Hensley

News Obituary Article

MARIETTA: Iris Hensley, founded Georgia Ballet company


In a grand jete of faith, Iris Hensley founded a ballet company in Marietta 41 years ago and has brought the art to thousands.

She garnered support near and far to keep the Georgia Ballet operating, going after new funding when grants were cut and judiciously spending windfall money.

"She felt ballet was the foundation for all dance," said her husband, Sam Hensley Sr. of Marietta. "She hated the administrative side of it --- don't they all? --- but she did it and they survived."

Mrs. Hensley was introduced to dance at the University of Georgia, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa. She studied in New York, Canada and Europe before returning to Marietta in 1957. She held the first meeting for what was originally called the Marietta School of Ballet in the Christian Science reading room.

Today, the company has 21 professional dancers and 275 students. Mrs. Hensley was a dancer, choreographer and director with the company.

The memorial service for Iris Antley Hensley, 69, who died of cancer at her Marietta residence Saturday, is 11:30 a.m. Wednesday at Marietta First Baptist Church. Mayes Ward-Dobbins is in charge of arrangements.

When Michele Ziemann-Devos moved to Marietta, she found the Georgia Ballet was "a wonderful and glorious institution. It was a very professional organization with a warm family environment. Iris is responsible for making it that way. She always considers the human being behind the dancer, considers the whole person."

She credits the company's success to Mrs. Hensley's insistence on excellence. "I've never known anyone with such drive and commitment to what she does," she said.

Georgia Ballet productions feature performances by renowned ballet dancers. Mrs. Hensley used her extensive contacts to invite ballet masters to train the company, which has toured internationally. She founded a program in Cobb County schools that has exposed thousands of students to ballet. She was a guest instructor for the Governor's Honors Program and was the resident choreographer for the first Georgia Festival of the Arts in Italy, said her daughter, Nevanne Hensley-Thomas of Marietta.

While Gina Hyatt-Mazon was a principal dancer with the Hamburg Ballet, she used her summers to train with the Georgia Ballet. When she moved to Kennesaw, she joined the company. She and Ms. Ziemann-Devos are co-artistic directors.

"Iris just had an incredible passion and strength and belief in the art of ballet," said Mrs. Hyatt-Mazon. "When others didn't think something was possible, Iris knew it could be done. She just had the ability to pull people along with her."

Two benefactors are actress Joanne Woodward, a childhood friend of Mrs. Hensley, and Dr. Sid Williams, who founded Life University. Ms. Woodward and her husband, Paul Newman, award grants to the company from his Newman's Own food company charity. Dr. Williams donated 10,000 square feet of space to the company for 10 years, said Mr. Hensley.

None is a bigger a supporter than her husband, such a constant presence around the studio that students called him "Mr. Iris," he said.

When they were dating, Mr. Hensley played football for Georgia Tech and Mrs. Hensley was a University of Georgia cheerleader. When Tech had an away game, she was teased for cheering at a Georgia game while listening to the Tech game on the radio, he said.

"We were married 46 years, and never in my whole marriage was there a time I didn't want to be with Iris."

Survivors include two sons, Sam P. Hensley Jr. of Marietta and Shuler Hensley of New York; a sister, June A. Vreeland of Marietta; and two grandchildren.

© 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published by Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Sep. 2, 2003.
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