Read an Excerpt
Meet the Dancers
From Ballet, Broadway, and Beyond
By Amy Nathan
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2008 Amy Nathan
All rights reserved.
BALLET DANCER AMERICAN BALLET THEATRE
Grew up in: Florence, South Carolina (born in Britain)
Age she started dance class: 3 Dance schools: Local studios around Florence; Columbia (South Carolina) Conservatory of Ballet; North Carolina School of the Arts
Studied: Ballet, modern, creative movement
Pets she had as a kid: Dogs named Pepper and Patch; cats named Orange, Calico, and Black
Favorite books as a kid: Books by E. B. White and Roald Dahl; Lord of the Rings series
Other activities as a kid: Soccer, swimming, fishing, running, cello lessons (briefly)
Class she takes now: Ballet
Other activities now: College courses, reading, teaching dance, Gyrotonics exercises, going to concerts and operas
Pet she has now: Cat named Selah
Music she listens to now to relax: Reggae, country, classical, opera
Professional career: American Ballet Theatre
"When I was in kindergarten, I'd wear out my sneakers walking on my toes, pretending they were pointe shoes," remembers Gillian Murphy. She was too young for real pointe shoes, the hard-toed slippers ballerinas wear, but she liked dancing around the house as if she were a ballerina. She had started taking dance at age three with creative movement classes in Belgium, where her family lived for a while. "My mother put me in those classes as a fun activity. We learned basic ballet positions and did things like run around like butterflies. I enjoyed it." So when her family moved back to the U.S. in time for kindergarten, Gillian began taking real ballet classes at a studio in her South Carolina hometown.
"I enjoyed the challenge of ballet, learning something new in every class," she says. But she liked other things, too. She lived near a lake and went fishing a lot. She also loved to swim, especially doing belly flops (ouch!) from the diving board. When she was seven, she started soccer. "At first, I was the only girl on the team. I wasn't that good at it, but I really loved it. I enjoyed all the running around. I also liked playing with my older brothers and their Star Wars figures. I was a big bookworm, too. When I get into a book, it's like I'm lost in a different world."
When people asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, she'd say, "Doctor, marathon runner, and ballerina." But right before her tenth birthday, her plans changed. That's when she tied on pink satin pointe shoes for the first time in ballet class and began dancing on her toes for real. "I was a little young to start pointe, but almost instantly I felt comfortable in them. There is an initiation process with pointe shoes, of getting blisters when you first use them. It's painful. But you get used to it. I loved the floating, ethereal feeling of dancing on pointe. That's when I totally fell in love with dance. My dreams of being a doctor or runner died as my dream of being a ballet dancer took over."
By the time she started on pointe, she had switched to a different studio in her hometown and was taking class about four days a week. Her favorite part of class was doing big jumps and turns, not surprising for a kid who enjoyed belly flops. "I was sort of shy, but when I danced I felt completely free," she says.
As she became more involved in ballet, her soccer career ground to a halt. "My parents were worried that I'd get clobbered because I was small for my age and boys on my team were getting big. I was sad to give it up. I think soccer developed a fearlessness in me." She would need that sense of daring for the challenges of ballet, especially the whopper of a challenge she set for herself when she was eleven. That year, she had to select a dance to do at an arts festival. She picked something nobody expected an eleven-year-old to try: the dance of the black swan Odile from the classical ballet Swan Lake.
"I was aware that it was not totally appropriate for me to do that at such a young age, but I took it very seriously," says Gillian. She had videos of Swan Lake and loved watching famous ballerinas do amazing jumps and turns in this ballet. Gillian was determined to master the black swan's tricky moves, including the role's thirty-two rapid-fire, nonstop fouettés (a difficult kind of turn). "My teacher gave me the key to the studio, and I'd go in with my mom or dad and make myself do an extra fouetté each day. My dad suggested that if I pulled my arms in a little, I'd speed up and make it easier to keep going. That helped. I also thought of it as doing four sets of eight, telling myself: 'If you can do eight, you can do eight more.'" At the performance, she nailed all thirty-two fouettés, a big achievement for a youngster from a small-town studio. "This was something I wanted to keep doing."
"THE RIGHT PLACE"
To keep soaring in dance, Gillian needed more demanding training than was available in her town. So she hit the road, as did many dancers you'll meet in this book. They started at small studios near home, but when it was clear how talented they were, their families searched for more advanced training. Switching studios often meant big sacrifices. For Gillian, age twelve, it meant driving with her mom more than an hour a day after school to take class at the studio of the Columbia City Ballet in Columbia, South Carolina. The next year, she actually moved to Columbia with her mom and little sister. Her brothers were away at college or boarding school. Her dad stayed home with the family's dogs and cats. This arrangement was tough on everyone, but they were willing to pitch in because of Gillian's love of dance.
Soon she was dancing in Columbia City Ballet productions, sometimes performing on weekdays during school. That didn't please teachers at her middle school. "They didn't understand why I'd skip school to perform," Gillian says. "It made sense to find a school where academics and dancing were part of the same schedule." She found it, thanks to her dad, who had just started a new job in North Carolina, which has an excellent arts high school, the North Carolina School of the Arts (NCSA). It's a public boarding school that offers regular academic courses, such as math and science, along with outstanding dance training. She auditioned, was accepted, and planned to start ninth grade there in the fall.
However, she almost changed her mind. That summer, she took ballet classes in New York City at the School of American Ballet (SAB), the dance school of New York City Ballet. She had found out about SAB's summer program from a notice in Dance magazine. SAB officials were so impressed with her dancing that they invited her to stay on after the summer and spend her high school years there. "It was tempting to stay in New York, but my parents felt that going to school in North Carolina would not only be more practical but also a more nurturing environment. After starting at NCSA, I realized I was in the right place."
Her main ballet teacher at NCSA, Melissa Hayden, had been a star dancer with New York City Ballet. "She was incredible, a challenging teacher who stressed having a solid core of pure technique, not too stylized," recalls Gillian. Most days Gillian would take ballet early in the morning, followed by two regular academic courses (such as history or English) before lunch; in the afternoon there would be another ballet class, a few more hours of academics, and then rehearsals. Once a week Gillian took a modern dance class, during which she set aside the straight-back stance she used in ballet in order to master the more flexible movements of the upper body that are called for in modern dancing. She enjoyed the dance classes and regular academic classes, too. "Classes were small. That helped me come out of my shell and talk more."
Gillian performed a lot at NCSA, often doing pieces that had been choreographed for New York City Ballet by one of that company's founders, George Balanchine. She was also the Sugar Plum Fairy in the school's Nutcracker each year. In addition, she entered competitions; she was a finalist in the Jackson International Competition in Mississippi and a winner at the Prix de Lausanne in Switzerland. "I realized ballet is an art and not a sport to be judged. But performing in a pressure situation at a young age in competitions is a good experience. It definitely helped me. It's also inspiring to see so many talented kids."
As wonderful as NCSA was, "after three years it was time to move on. I took extra courses to graduate a year early and thought I'd go somewhere like the San Francisco Ballet School for more training." Then someone from American Ballet Theatre (ABT) came to her school and saw Gillian in class. "he pulled me out of class and said I should go to New York and have ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie see me. I was thrilled!" ABT, based in New York, is one of the world's best ballet companies.
Gillian went to New York City a few weeks later, in early spring, to audition. Her audition consisted of taking a class at ABT while Kevin McKenzie watched. Then he offered her a job in ABT's corps de ballet, the large troupe of dancers who usually perform in a group, as a background for a ballet's soloists.
However, he wanted her to start right away. "I can't join now," Gillian told him. She was really eager to finish her courses and graduate from high school. She asked if she could join a few months later, after graduating, a gutsy request for a seventeen-year-old to make. Luckily, he agreed. She joined ABT that summer.
"I had never danced in a corps de ballet before ABT," says Gillian. She had always been a soloist or a principal, dancing alone or with a partner. "As a soloist, you can play with your timing a little. But if you're dancing with twenty-three other people in the corps, you have to be exact.
It's not easy. It took a few months before I felt comfortable with this. "While in the corps, she was chosen to do some soloist roles. Before long, she was promoted to full-time soloist. Then, at age twenty-three, she was promoted once again and became one of ABT's principal dancers, the highest level of dancer in many ballet companies. "As a principal, you can really dig into the characters."
One ballet she has dug into with gusto is the one she started learning as a kid, Swan Lake. Now she performs both Odette, the good swan, and Odile, the cunning trickster. "They gave me several months to work on Swan Lake before performing it. You need to make it look effortless, graceful, and magical." She has done modern dance roles too, both at ABT and as a guest with other groups. "It's so important to be a versatile dancer. It's great to branch out and do modern works."
She is branching out in other ways as well. She teaches in a summer dance program, Stiefel and Stars, organized by her boyfriend, ABT dancer Ethan Stiefel. She also takes college courses in her spare time in such subjects as art history and physics through a special ABT program. Professors from Long Island University come to ABT's studio to teach the dancers after rehearsals are over for the day. Other dance companies also have programs that encourage their performers to take college classes. "I want to earn a college degree," Gillian explains. "I enjoy the courses. It helps my dancing. The more you grow as a person, the better you are as an artist."CHAPTER 2
MODERN DANCER ALVIN AILEY AMERICAN DANCE THEATER
Grew up in: Goodyear, Arizona
Age he started dance class: 5
Dance schools: Local studios around Goodyear and Phoenix; School of Ballet Arizona; New School for the Arts; The Ailey School/Fordham University Bachelor of Fine Arts program
Studied: Acrobatics, tap, jazz, ballet, modern
Pets he had as a kid: Dogs named Pepper and Fifi
Favorite book as a kid: Where the Red Fern Grows
Other activities as a kid: Guitar and organ lessons (briefly)
Classes he takes now: Ballet, modern
Other activities now: Sudoku puzzles, working out at a gym, teaching master classes
Music he listens to now to relax: Jazz singers
Professional career: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
"I was clumsy as a child," says Clifton Brown, who would sometimes trip or bump into things when he was little. "My grandmother wanted me to do some sort of after-school physical activity to help with coordination." There were two places in their Arizona hometown where he could do this: a karate academy and a dance studio. His grandmother let five-year-old Clifton watch a class at each and decide which he liked best. "I wasn't so interested in fighting," he says. But he loved the tumbling and flips he saw kids do in an acrobatics class at the dance studio. And so a new dancer was born.
"I took acrobatics at that studio for a few months, and then I got into a combo class of tap and ballet. After a year, I was taking jazz dance, too," he says. "I liked tap best for a while. Then I started liking ballet more." He always loved jazz dancing, with its flashy moves and snappy, strutting steps done to cool pop tunes. He also loved performing in recitals and in dance competitions. He was only six years old when he won a prize at a national competition in Las Vegas. "I did an acrobatic routine to the theme from the movie Rocky. My mom made my costume: a flesh-toned leotard and boxing trunks with stars and stripes on the side. It was fun." Clearly he wasn't clumsy on the dance floor!
Besides improving his coordination, dance helped in another way. "I was very shy as a kid. I still am. Dancing was an outlet for self-expression, a way to get your feelings out through dance."
"FLIPS ON THE PLAYGROUND"
Clifton stayed at that local studio a few years, taking class two or three afternoons a week. Then he switched to other studios his grandmother found. She hadn't known much about dance before Clifton started taking class, but she began checking around to find out which were the better local studios. Gradually she came to realize that good ballet training was important for any dancer. The best ballet instruction in their area was at the School of Ballet Arizona in Phoenix, a half-hour drive away. When Clifton was ten, she started driving him there every afternoon. He took ballet class there five days a week through the end of middle school. But he missed the sassy fun of jazz dancing. So while he was in Phoenix, he would also take jazz dance at other studios in the city.
"I did homework in the car on the way to and from Phoenix," he says. "I did pretty well in school, but if my grades dropped, I couldn't go to dance until I brought up my grades. In dance, you're constantly learning choreography and so you figure out how to learn things quickly. That helped with schoolwork." Something else from dance helped in school: "I'd do flips on the playground, and guys were kind of impressed." That might explain why Clifton didn't get teased much for being a dancer.
All those dance classes meant there was no time for sports or other activities. He didn't mind. He was having fun dancing and winning prizes at competitions. "I did competitions all through high school. They were good experiences. You win some — you lose some. I saw them as performance opportunities and chances to see other dancers."
"ARMS LIKE MINE"
However, one part of dance class was tough for Clifton: the corrections that teachers gave him about his arms. "When I was twelve, my arms were much too long for my body," he explains. "My arms are still long, but at that age my arms were awkwardly long. I was having a hard time controlling them. I was always getting notes from teachers that my arms were sloppy. I didn't feel there were many dancers with arms like mine."
Then he checked out a video from the library that showed performances by The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, one of the top modern dance companies. A dancer in the video — Donna Wood — had very long arms. Clifton was astonished at how she moved them, especially in a piece called Cry, in which she danced alone on stage. Her arm movements were graceful and flowing at times, but at other moments they were angular and powerful. With her arms, she expressed a whole range of feelings: anger, pain, heartache, love, pride, dignity, and hope. "Her arms were so extremely long, but it was amazing the way they moved," remembers Clifton. "Her port de bras [arm movement] was so beautiful and so expressive. I thought, 'Oh, so that's how you use your port de bras, how you support it.' That inspired me." From then on, he understood better what to do when teachers said, "Fix your arms."
Excerpted from Meet the Dancers by Amy Nathan. Copyright © 2008 Amy Nathan. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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