A blessing in disguise

A dream deferred

Whatever you want to call it, it was one of the hardest moments of my life.

My entire childhood, all I wanted was to be a ballerina. It’s a very common dream for little girls, but I was more serious about it than most. I read Darci Kistler’s biography when I was 6 and it set my dream in motion. Ballet was the only extracurricular I ever did, aside from a couple of years playing clarinet in the school band. I never played any sports, never cheered, never attempted gymnastics or took any art classes. I had a one-track-mind from a very young age.

Throughout my elementary years, I gradually added more dance classes to my schedule, until I was eventually dancing 4 nights a week and every Saturday. In seventh grade, I started taking classes at two different ballet studios so I could take advantage of different teaching perspectives and increase the number of hours I spent dancing.

In summer between seventh and eighth grade, my mom met someone at work whose daughter attended the North Carolina School of the Arts, (NCSA), now known as the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. My mom happened to be wearing ballerina earrings that day and the woman took notice. She and my mom struck up a conversation and discovered they both had ballerina daughters. The woman explained where her daughter went to school and suggested I audition for it as well. I was only 13 years old and, if I was accepted, I would have to move across the state and leave my family behind.

It was not an easy decision. As desperate as I was to become a ballerina, the thought of leaving my family in the eighth grade was pretty scary. After several conversations with my parents, we decided to submit an audition tape and see if I had enough talent to get into the school.

Turns out, I did! I had a lot of work to do in terms of my flexibility and technique, but the directors saw something in me that compelled them to offer me a place at their school.

Despite this turn of events basically being a dream come true, that first year was incredibly hard. I missed my family. I didn’t like living with strangers. And my ballet classes were not exactly what I thought they’d be. I did not expect to have the lowest level of dance experience in the class. I didn’t expect to be the least flexible, with the worst technique. I certainly didn’t expect to have a Russian instructor who had no patience or sympathy for me. This was a brand new world and it felt very out of my league.

At the end of the school year, the ballet faculty at NCSA would evaluate each student and determine whether they should return the next year. If you hadn’t shown enough improvement, or if they simply deemed you didn’t have what it takes, you would not be invited back for the next year. A month before school was out, I got a letter telling me they were on the fence about my invitation to return. I essentially had a month to prove I should get another year at the school. It was unthinkable for me to move back home and return to my old school and ballet studio. How embarrassing! Not to mention it would certainly mean an end to my dream of becoming a professional ballerina. Thankfully, I proved my worth and ended up earning the right to come back for high school.

13 years old as a “toy soldier” in the NCSA Nutcracker

Ninth grade ended the same way. I received the letter warning me about a possible lack of return invitation a month before school ended. But again, I put in the work and earned my spot for tenth grade. Unfortunately, I wasn’t so fortunate at the end of that year.

Just like the previous two years, I got the warning letter a month before the end of school. I worked so hard in that last month because tenth grade was known for being the big “cut” year at NCSA. I started doing Pilates during my lunch break every day to build my strength. I spent evenings practicing in empty ballet studios, trying to improve my technique. But in the end, the faculty decided it didn’t matter how hard I worked, my body just wasn’t meant to be a ballerina. I wasn’t born with the right flexibility and natural talent to make it into a professional ballet company.

I’ll never forget the day I found out I wasn’t asked to return. On the last day of school of tenth grade, after I’d finished my final exam, I walked down to the dance office with all the other students who’d received the warning letter. We each went into the main office and were given another letter telling us our fate. As I walked back down the hall and opened my letter, I glanced up and saw my dad standing at the other end of the hallway. I knew he would only be there if it was bad news. He quickly walked over to me and caught me as my legs gave out from underneath me. It was such a crushing blow to learn that my time at NCSA was over. I had worked so hard to get there and, in my mind, it was the only path to achieve my dream. Not only that, I’d made some wonderful friendships during my three years at the school and was devastated to leave them behind as well.

I’d already been accepted into the Houston Ballet’s prestigious summer dance program and I’d been over the moon when I got in. I knew I’d never get in to a summer program at any of the New York companies, but Houston was still pretty difficult to lock down, and I’d done it. That’s why I was so shocked to receive the rejection letter from my school. I really thought I was improving enough to stay.

Before I left for Houston, my parents helped me figure out if there was a way to return to NCSA with a different major. At that point, the option of moving back home and returning to the local high school and dance studio was unacceptable. I wanted to stay at NCSA and be immersed in the art world, alongside all of my friends, even if it meant I wasn’t doing what I loved to do. We discovered I could audition for the modern dance program, so at least I’d still be dancing, it just wouldn’t be ballet. I sent off the tape and flew to Houston for six weeks. While I was there, my parents got the news that I’d been accepted as a modern dance major. I was ecstatic that I’d still be able to attend NCSA in the fall, but my heart was sad that my time as a ballerina was over.

16 years old at Houston Ballet Summer Program

I spent all of eleventh grade working hard to ensure I’d be accepted back for my senior year. Then I spent most of twelfth grade goofing off, to be honest. I was accepted into Florida State University’s dance program and didn’t have to worry about trying to return to NCSA, so I started focusing on having fun during my last year of high school. In hindsight, I wish I’d taken that last year a little more seriously, but I think, at that point, I knew my dream of becoming a professional ballerina was dead. My heart just wasn’t in it anymore. Ballet was the only form of dance that brought me true joy. Half way through my first year in the FSU dance program, I quit and changed my major to mass media with minor in English. I wasn’t spending all my free time in a dance studio, so I was able to get a job. I started working at a restaurant, where I met my husband, and the rest is history.  

It has been 14 years since I quit dancing and moved on to other dreams, and I’ll be honest with you, it still stings sometimes. My husband has taken me to the ballet a few times over the last decade and I sob at every performance. It’s still hard for me to watch those graceful dancers move across the stage without feeling such a deep longing to be up there with them. The roles I coveted the most and never performed are the hardest to watch.

While that was the biggest and most painful “no” I’ve ever experienced, I firmly believe it was also my biggest “yes”. Somewhere along the lines of “everything happens for a reason” and “God has a plan for all of us”, I’ve learned how monumental that entire experience was in shaping the course of the rest of my life.

I left home and started living on my own at 13 years old! That matured me quickly and prepared me to fly solo at an early age, making the transition to college much easier than it was for many teenagers. It made me fiercely independent, which prepared me for the life of a military spouse with a husband who’s away from home a lot of the time.

I experienced a lot of rejection at a young age. Five years’ worth of serious ballet instructors telling you that you’ll never be good enough, no matter how hard you try, does something to a person. It could have completely crushed my spirit, but it just inspired me to work even harder at everything else. If I couldn’t succeed as a ballerina, then I’d succeed at everything else I set out to do. That culminated in graduating from college with “Magna Cum Laude” on my diploma and job in my career field before I even finished my senior year.

The end of dance also meant the beginning of my relationship with my husband. If I had continued on as a dance major in college, I would not have had time to get a job, so the odds of me meeting my husband would have been very slim. Meeting Michael and starting a relationship with him changed the course of my life completely and it brought me our three beautiful children.

My life so far has been exciting and full of so many different challenges. I’ve been a television news producer, an optician, a stay-at-home mom, and now a writer. I’ve lived in New Mexico, Guam, Virginia and Florida. I wouldn’t trade any of these experiences for the world – not even the dance world.

So, while I still shed a tear or two over what might have been, I can rest easy in the confidence that God’s plan for me is exactly what I’m living out each day. My time in the ballet studio was not wasted. It shaped me into the driven, creative person I am today. It prepared me for my own daughter falling in love with tights and leotards and tutus and Misty Copeland. It broke my teenage heart to lose that dream, but my healed adult heart couldn’t be more grateful for my time as a dancer.