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People in Your Neighborhood: Bishop’s School sisters use dance to help Ukrainian gymnasts

Emma and Audrey Donnelly participated in a recent fundraising performance for Ukrainian gymnasts.
Emma and Audrey Donnelly, both students at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla, participated in a recent fundraising performance for Ukrainian gymnasts.
(Janie Donnelly)

For sisters Audrey and Emma Donnelly, dance is not only a passion but a way of giving back.

The two students at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla recently participated in a gala at Torrey Pines High School to raise money for nine gymnasts from Ukraine who moved to the United States in light of the ongoing war in their home country. The money is meant to enable them to buy everyday supplies and pay the entrance fees for regional and national competitions. During the gala, Audrey and Emma performed individual dance pieces for the audience of 250 people.

“These gymnasts came to America with just a backpack, which was hard for them,” Audrey said.

Elena Baltovick, the Donnelly sisters’ dance teacher for many years, organized the event, so when she asked them to participate, “we could not say no,” Emma said.

Baltovick is from Ukraine and still has family there.

“Elena … [is] our counselor, teacher and mentor,” Emma said. “We saw how challenging the war in Ukraine was for her. We would be in class and our teacher would be sobbing. We didn’t know what to do, but when she asked us to participate in the gala, we were more than happy to be a part of it.”

The Donnelly sisters join the other performers on stage at a fundraising gala that was held at Torrey Pines High School.
Audrey and Emma Donnelly join other performers and gymnasts onstage at a fundraising gala at Torrey Pines High School.
(Janie Donnelly)

At the fundraiser, Audrey performed a ballet piece and Emma performed something contemporary.

“I think contemporary dance is the most emotional and expressive type of dance,” Emma said. “I got to open the show with my piece, which allowed people to feel that raw emotion and sense of strength.”

She called participating in the fundraiser “a surreal experience” in that people were crying after her performance.

While this was the Donnelly sisters’ first fundraising performance, Audrey said dance provides other philanthropic opportunities, such as the chance to perform at hospitals for patients. Both said they want to continue to participate in charity events where they can perform.

“Dance is our passion, so we use it to compete, but … we also like opportunities to go out there and just dance,” Emma said. “It’s very expressive and can impact people, so to create that feeling and help organizations raise money is a great way to give back.”

Audrey said her favorite part of the fundraising gala was the lack of competition. “There was no stress; we got to go out there and just do it for others. We weren’t thinking about anything else but performing.”

The sisters have been dancing since childhood in a variety of styles — from ballet to tap to ballroom to hip-hop.

“I tried many other sports like gymnastics and soccer, but I quit them all. I chose dance over everything else,” Audrey said. “Dance is a safe space I have always had. Whatever emotion I am feeling I can portray it in my dance and work my way through those feelings.”

“Dance is … very expressive and can impact people, so to create that feeling and help organizations raise money is a great way to give back.”

— Emma Donnelly

Audrey is a freshman at The Bishop’s School and Emma is a sophomore. Both said the school encourages community service.

“We are surrounded by service every day of our lives,” Emma said. “The Bishop’s School promotes student-created clubs and service opportunities, so I’m involved in clubs there. We’re also in the National Charity League [a mother-daughter philanthropic organization focused on community service] and I see giving back as a way to take myself out of a situation and help others. I learned that giving back to the community has a direct impact on how I feel.”

Audrey added that “giving back shows selflessness, and you never know what people are going through, so even just a small gesture might have an impact on someone’s day. We also live a very good life and we want to help how we can.”

People in Your Neighborhood shines a spotlight on notable locals we all wish we knew more about. If you know someone you’d like us to profile, send an email to robert.vardon@lajollalight.com. ◆