Zachary Leighton is ready to be back in Ketchikan, having recently accepted the position of artistic director with Ketchikan Theatre Ballet.
Leighton will replace KTB's Elizabeth Schultz in the role, and it won't be the first time that he has worked with young First City dancers — he's also served as a guest artistic instructor and interim assistant director in years past.
He's set to step back into the KTB studio in the new role in late August.
Prior to working in Ketchikan, Leighton has spent years teaching dance and dancing in professional groups.
According to a recent announcement from KTB, Leighton also has danced professionally with the Houston Ballet Academy, Oklahoma Festival Ballet, Pacific Ballet Dance Theater, City Ballet of Los Angeles and Antelope Valley Ballet. He also has taught at the Dayton Ballet Academy and the Dancin' in Acton studio in California.
Leighton spoke to the Daily News by phone on Wednesday afternoon from Bismarck, North Dakota, where he is continuing in his role as an instructor at Northern Plains Dance School until he relocates to Ketchikan.
Leighton explained that he first came to Ketchikan more than a decade ago, on a cruise ship.
"When we were there, we were walking around downtown and my mom makes some offhand comment like 'Oh look, there's a dance studio maybe they're looking for an instructor, ha ha ha,'" Leighton recalled. "And that was probably 2010."
In December 2016, Leighton found himself back in Ketchikan working as a guest artistic instructor for the annual KTB performance of "The Nutcracker."
"Then that was where I kind of got the connection to the organization, and then from there, they were looking for someone to be like, (an) interim director, after they had hired Elizabeth (Schultz), so they had contacted me to see if I was available, and I was," he said.
Leighton left Ketchikan after a year in the role, working briefly in California before moving to North Dakota.
Leighton once again heard from Schultz earlier this year — this time, with a notice that KTB was looking for a new artistic director as she stepped down from the position.
"And it sounded like a really good opportunity for me and something I definitely was interested in, and something that I wanted to do, because I really did cherish my time with KTB in the past," Leighton said. "And I really like the school and the community and the environment, so I'm really excited to be returning."
As artistic director, Leighton will be responsible for developing KTB's themes, mission statements and helping to instruct many of the classes or create the choreography.
"This is the kind of place that lets me do all that I want to do," he commented. "So even though it's a full plate, it's kind of like when you have a full plate of a meal you look forward to eating."
For Leighton, the new position means balancing the traditional and bringing in the new.
"I definitely am looking to bring my energy and enthusiasm and positivity, everything that comes along with my personality, and really want to keep a lot of the traditions and a lot of the things that have been successful for KTB in the past and in the recent past," said Leighton. "I don't want to shake anything up so much, I really wanted to really just build on all the great things Elizabeth has done in the past few years and keep things moving forward in that direction."
He wants to focus on outreach, specifically to communities that might not already be involved in Ketchikan's dance scene.
"Like, maybe dancers with disabilities or different age groups that we haven't explored yet," Leighton explained. "So that way we can show that dance really is something that is accessible to everyone, and that KTB is really the place to make that happen."
In his new role, Leighton also will be able to teach classes at KTB, a career-long goal.
"I've been a full time instructor for the past five years," he explained. "In some capacity, I've been teaching for the past 12 years. But I also was dancing professionally while I was teaching originally, and then transitioned into teaching full time about five years ago."
His favorite part of teaching dance is connecting with his students.
"Sometimes when you're working with a student, it just clicks right away, and that's its own reward," Leighton said. "But sometimes when a student has really been struggling with something, and then they finally get it, that 'a-ha moment,' it's so rewarding as a teacher. You feel that, empathetically, you feel that connection with them."
Leighton continued, "there's a certain energy that can be created in the classroom between the teachers and the students that's similar to an experience at a concert or at a yoga class, where you just have this feeling of connectivity. And I live for that connection."