Cutting in on Richmond’s Truest Romance
By Joan Tupponce
Last year, more than seven million people got swept up in the YouTube video of a wedding dance, capping a love story that almost didn’t happen.
The romantic gesture showcased Kirk Henning and his groomsmen dancing for his new wife, Valerie Tellmann, during the couple’s wedding reception in July. But it wasn’t just the dancing that resonated with folks. It was what the moment represented.
Kirk and Valerie’s story begins years before they met. The two members of Richmond Ballet grew up in different parts of the country – Kirk outside of Chicago, and Valerie in Oklahoma, and later Richmond. Both started dancing at an early age.
“My sister took ballet and I thought she was the coolest thing,” says Valerie, who began her classes in Oklahoma at the age of four. “I wanted to give it a try.” But by the time she was in second grade, the allure was wearing off. “My tights were too itchy and I didn’t like to be quiet in ballet class,” says the lively ballerina. “I began to think maybe this wasn’t for me.”
While a student of The School of Richmond Ballet, she had the opportunity to audition for The Nutcracker and played a mouse. “That’s when I fell in love with ballet and I never looked back,” she says.
Kirk’s mother put him in dance class when he was nine. “She had to force me to go to dance lessons,” he says. “I didn’t like it.”
Around the age of sixteen, a friend started attending a ballet studio in Chicago. “That’s when I fell in love with ballet,” says Kirk, whose classmates were 12-year-old girls. “They were doing things I couldn’t do. It was very challenging. Dance is very hard, but you have to make it look easy. That is what I really enjoyed.”
Valerie was “hooked on the performance,” she says. “I love delving into the character.”
She would dream, like young girls often do, of being married in her early twenties, having a family, and living in a cozy home with a white picket fence. “I was a Disney generation child,” she says. “In Disney movies like Cinderella, you see these perfect relationships. They get married and live happily ever after.”
Her Catholic upbringing and her parents’ bond also influenced her vision of marriage. “They were a beautiful example of a committed relationship,” she says of her parents, who celebrated forty-one years of marriage. “I was taught marriage is more than your husband and you. It involves a spiritual component.”
Kirk, who landed his first professional job with a dance company at nineteen, didn’t “dwell on the future and what life would look like,” he says. “I do remember thinking one day I would love to own a home, but I just let things play out.”
By the time she turned twenty, Valerie found herself immersed in a career. “It was an interesting wake-up call,” she says of not being married in relatively young adulthood. “But I was living pretty happily ever after. I loved what I did. I was giving 100 percent to my art form. I didn’t think twice about marriage.”
Then she met Kirk.
Kirk came to the city to audition for Richmond Ballet. Valerie, then twenty-two, was already in the company. She was drawn to his “beautiful blue eyes,” she says. “He seemed like a gentle, kind person. He had a fun, carefree quality about his dancing.”
Kirk enjoyed Valerie’s bubbly, magnetic personality. “It was one of the first things I remember about her and that I still love about her today,” he says.
Six months later, Kirk joined the company and the two struck up a friendship that lasted about a year. “I was just going with the flow of things,” he says. “I liked Valerie a lot, but I wasn’t into having a relationship – that is, until we went to a Halloween party. That was the first time we saw each other in a more romantic light and I thought, ‘Oh I really like Valerie in a different way.’”
The couple dated for about two years. Valerie wanted the relationship to move forward. Kirk wanted to focus on his career. “I wasn’t ready for that type of commitment with anybody,” he says. “I was doing other things – looking at the world, traveling, working on my career. Marriage wasn’t on my mind.”
They were at two very different points in their lives, so they decided to take a break from each other.
Colette Tellmann, Valerie’s mom, had an inkling from the beginning of her daughter’s relationship with Kirk that there was “something there,” she says. “But I think neither was ready.”
During the four years the couple was apart, Valerie “still pined for him,” her mom says. “She didn’t talk about it, but I knew it from having another daughter.”
Valerie dated other men but “Kirk was definitely the one she was comparing anyone to,” her mom says.
Kirk left Richmond Ballet for a few years and moved to New York City. He danced and toured, traveling around the world. “I continued to dance here,” Valerie says. “When we ended our relationship in 2007, I felt I needed to move on, so I jumped back into my career.”
The breakup lasted until 2011, when Kirk’s perspective about marriage reversed. He was thirty at the time and the passing of his grandfather made him realize the importance of family. “Something in me changed,” he says. “I knew I wanted that in my life. Valerie was the most awesome person I have been with. I knew if I got married, there was only one person I wanted to be with.”
Kirk began writing Valerie letters and coming back to town to visit old friends. “I was still freelancing, but I knew if I wanted to make it serious, I would have to move back to Richmond,” he says.
Valerie’s parents were cautious at first, but saw that this time the couple’s relationship was very solid. “It was more like a committed relationship,” her mom says. “When he came back and they started, there wasn’t a question in my mind.”
Valerie admits she was timid as well. “I felt like we had gotten to such a great level before, but there was a block in the road,” she says. “I voiced my concerns again on the front side. I said I was interested in moving to the next level.”
She looked for red flags, clues that he was still a free soul, but they never came. “He was making an attempt to be part of my daily life,” she says.
Even though there was no engagement ring on Valerie’s finger, marriage was a given. They both regard the day in June 2014 when they locked in a wedding date at Cathedral of the Sacred Heart as the beginning of their engagement. But Valerie still wondered when Kirk might officially pop the question.
For that, she would have to wait until September.
Planning the perfect moment was challenging for Kirk. “Valerie has an outgoing personality and I wanted something fun. I couldn’t do it over a salad or a dinner,” he says.
He knew he had to make the gesture on Labor Day before he left town for work. He planned to ask her in front of the graffiti wall along the Canal Walk, one of their favorite haunts, while Valerie’s friend was taking engagement photos of the couple.
The rose gold ring he designed had arrived and everything was going smoothly. He had invited Valerie’s girlfriends and friends from the ballet. Everyone was supposed to arrive at a specific time. There was only one problem: “We were blowing through the photos a lot faster than I thought,” Kirk says. “The logistics were a little crazy, but it ended up working out.”
Valerie knew something was up when she saw her friends slip around the corner with bottles of champagne.
Suddenly, Kirk dropped to one knee.
“I got really emotional,” he says. “You don’t think you will, but when the time came, my knees were weak feeling, a little rubbery. It was hard for me to get my words out. It’s emotional for guys for sure.”
Fireworks followed. “I was through the moon,” Valerie says.
That November, Kirk came back to Richmond for The Nutcracker. The couple danced as the Snow Queen and King. For the next several months, Kirk, who was traveling, dancing and taking classes, helped with the wedding plans, working on everything from the website and contracts to the guest list and financials. “He was proactive,” Valerie says.
As the planning progressed, Valerie showed Kirk some groomsmen dances on YouTube. “I was not about it,” Kirk says. “I told her I had no intentions of doing it.”
He slowly began to realize how hard Valerie was working on the wedding and he appreciated the little surprises she had planned for him along the way. “She was amazing at planning it,” he says.
He decided to reconsider a groomsmen dance. “I thought I needed to do something for Valerie as well,” he says. “I wanted to do a surprise for her.”
In April he emailed his groomsmen to ask if they would be willing to participate. They all said yes, including the four non-dancers in the group – Kirk’s two brothers and brother-in-law and Valerie’s brother. The other four groomsmen were members of the ballet company.
Picking the dances was difficult. “There were so many songs we really enjoyed,” Kirk says. “It was hard to whittle it down to six but I started editing.”
Once that was done, he made instructional videos and sent them to his eight groomsmen. Valerie’s brother, John Scott Tellmann, who lives in Dallas, stresses he did not know dancing would be involved when he was asked to be a groomsman. “I had zero dance experience. I was pretty shocked,” he says, adding that he told Kirk he would do it, as long as “you understand what you are getting into. I have two left feet.”
After getting the video, he had to carve out time to rehearse. Having children at home made it difficult to rehearse there, so he went over the routine in hotel rooms while he was on the road for his job. “I travel a lot with my job,” he says. “I worked on it for two or three hours a day for a couple of weeks.”
Even though he was uncomfortable about dancing, he wanted to do it as a tribute to his sister and to his future brother-in-law. “I was thankful for the opportunity, as nerve-racking as it was,” he says.
Back in the bride’s camp, Valerie was searching for her dress. She appeared on a segment of Say Yes to the Dress in New York and finally ended up with a structured white silk dress embellished with a large back bow. “When I was a little girl, I thought my dress would be bigger and sparklier, but because I am a ballerina I didn’t want something like a costume,” she says. “I wanted to feel like a beautiful woman on my wedding day.”
The wedding was traditional, but there were nods to the dancers’ time together on stage. “We incorporated a lot of the music he and I had danced to,” Valerie says, noting they walked down the aisle to the wedding march from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “We tried to incorporate part of who we were into the mass.”
The reception was held on the stage of Carpenter Theatre where the two have danced. Valerie had no idea that Kirk had planned the groomsmen dance, but she did think something was up when people started clearing the floor of the stage. “The guys were pretty nervous. I was nervous too,” says Kirk, adding that the entire group had only practiced together for less than two hours. “We were deciding stuff on the fly. That is a little nerve-racking, but once we started, we were fine.”
Valerie squealed and bounced up and down in her chair as they danced their way through everything from “Uptown Funk” to “Top Gun.” “I was giddy like a school girl,” she says. “I was floored.”
She first saw the four Richmond Ballet dancers who were in the front with Kirk. Then she spotted her brother and Kirk’s brothers and brother-in-law. “It was a complex dance. The moves must have taken months and months for my brother to learn,” she says. “That is what I was getting emotional about, seeing the effort those boys went through to learn so much material, and then to pull it off so wonderfully. What a beautiful gesture to take all that time and energy. I knew my brother was out of his comfort zone. What a great sacrifice.”
Once the video hit YouTube, it blew up. It was featured on a variety of websites including CNN.com and The Huffington Post. “Good Morning America wanted to fly us to New York City but we couldn’t do it,” Valerie says. The couple did do an interview with Inside Edition and Sunrise Australia. “It was crazy. People in Australia cared about it enough that they got us to do an interview,” she says.
Kirk believes the video’s popularity is directly related to the fact that “people enjoy seeing the visualization of what love is for some people and I think that is what resonates the most,” he says.
It definitely had an effect on his new wife. “I thought I couldn’t love Kirk any more, but with all the effort and then after hearing about everything he put into it, it made me think I am the luckiest girl in the world,” she says.
Their life now is a continuation of that expression of love. “If this is any indication of what marriage is like, we are set for life,” Valerie says. “I finally feel settled in our relationship, and that is very calming to know. I have someone to share my every day with. It’s been bliss. I don’t know how else to describe it.”
Valerie and Kirk in Richmond Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet
The two newlyweds will dance together with Richmond Ballet in one of the greatest love stories ever told, Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare’s tragic tale is known for the emotions that rule the human soul: love and hatred. Valerie will play Juliet opposite Kirk’s Romeo.
Both Valerie and Kirk have performed the roles before, but this time it will be very different. “Romeo and Juliet asks a lot of you emotionally,” says Valerie. “When you perform it with someone you love so deeply, it brings up a lot of emotions.”
Working on this project with the one you love can be difficult, especially when both dancers are so passionate about their work. “I don’t care about what way the toilet paper is facing in the house, but I do care about what we do on the job,” Kirk says. “It strengthens the relationship more and helps it grow. This is our career. It’s what we do.”
The tragic ending of the play will be difficult, especially for Valerie. “Before I did it with a friend and it was emotional then,” she says. “I am now looking at my love and thinking what would I do if I saw Kirk like this?”
Richmond Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet will be performed February 12 through 14 at Carpenter Theatre at Dominion Arts Center.
Photos: Mike Topham and Sarah Ferguson