How did you start dancing?
I started when I was 3. My mom put me in ballet. She had this poster of ballet slippers that she kept it in her college dorm. She never got the opportunity to dance. Never really thought it was for her. So instead, she decided that if she had a daughter she would put her in ballet class [laughs]. It’s funny because I was always the clumsiest child—even when I started walking. It’s really funny to see how she still encouraged me to become a dancer. Both of my parents have been so supportive of my career.
What happened from there?
Dance wasn’t anything too serious. It was my childhood sport. When I was 7, I ended up breaking both of my ankles, one after the other. I had to take that year off of dance. My mom still signed me up the next year, but it was still an after school hobby. Nevertheless I always was dancing—down supermarket aisles, during recess—I could never stay still. When I was about 11, it started to become much more serious. When I was 14, I started training with a Russian couple, Vera Kurmesheva and Zhanat Balidarian, who had just moved to America and had a very small school called Ballet Prestige. They really pushed me. They’re the ones who had faith in me and said that I should take this further. I went to a private school my whole life, so unlike many dancers, still got a normal education and normal school experience. But it was very hard to juggle both school and dance. I would go straight from school to ballet at 9:30 at night.
When I was considering going to college, my ballet teachers said that they really thought that I could make a career out of it and encouraged me to achieve my dreams. They really pushed me, and I am so grateful to them. I started auditioning for professional training programs. That’s when I moved to New York City. I trained at SLK ballet under the direction of Sara Knight. It’s a very small professional training program. 12 girls from around the world get chosen to train with her. It was amazing. Very personal. We had exams twice a year. Those would determine if you could come back. At the end of last year, I got a contract with Washington Ballet, which was amazing. It’s a dream company.
How long is the program?
A minimum of two years, but you don’t graduate unless you get a contract. I was lucky enough to get a contract and graduate in two years. I loved it. We would dance for about 6-7 hours every day. It would be all focused on technique. As a dancer, I am very emotive. I love to get into the character, so it was really good for me to take time to focus on my technique and make that stronger.
Where are you originally from?
Rhode Island. I have a really big family. My dad is one of 9. My mom is one of 5. Besides one uncle, I am the only one who has moved out of Rhode Island [laughs]. It was a big shift. Rhode Island is very small. You seem to know everyone there. It was definitely a bit of a culture shock when I moved here. When I first moved here, I was 17 turning 18. I was living on my own. First of all, finding an apartment in New York was probably the hardest things I have ever done. That was very challenging. It was definitely something to get used to—moving from a small suburban area to a big city. But I fell in love pretty quickly with the city environment. There’s always something going on, and it’s very exciting. So many opportunities.
Where did you end up living your first year?
I got this one bedroom apartment with this one other dancer on 92nd and Riverside. It was a wonderful area. It was in a nice family building. I got to do a lot of babysitting and housecleaning to make some extra money. We ended up splitting with a third roommate. Three of us in one bedroom, which i found fitting for my New York apartment.
How did that work out?
It was great because we were all good friends. It was one boy who’s a dancer and both of us. I loved it. We had a lot of adventures, and it was a lot of fun. Then I ended up moving to 115th and Frederick Douglass. I loved that area. People there were so kind. We moved to a really big four bedroom apartment. It was beautiful. It just took a while to get downtown, but everything takes a while in New York.
What are you up to now?
I am a trainee with the Washington Ballet. I got a few different contracts last year, and I chose Washington because it’s an incredible company. I love the artistic director, Septime Webre, who’s retiring from the company this summer. He’s been there for 17 years. I am looking forward to having Julie Kent as our Artistic Director next year. She has been a role model for me as a dancer ever since I was little, so it’s almost surreal to have her be my future director. Currently the company has a lot of rep, which I like. It’s very diverse. You get to work with a lot of different choreographers. We do very classical work and also very contemporary and neoclassical. We’ve done Carmen, Fluctuating Hemlines, Serenade—we did 42 shows of the Nutcracker, which was crazy. We did Carmen again with opera singers, which was a great experience. We just finished Diversity Series. We had a person who won the choreographer of the year come and set a piece on us. Then we did a piece by our ballet master Luis Torres. I’ve been first cast for everything this year, which has been such an honor.
It’s been nerve-racking because we found out that our director is stepping down, so a few of us have been a little nervous about job security. We’re auditioning, but I’d like to stay in Washington. I could see myself having a future there. I am still young, so I am trying to see what opportunities are out there.
How long is your season?
It goes from August to the beginning of June. You have a summer layoff. But they are doing the Little Mermaid during the summer, combined with an acting troupe in DC. If you want to get hired for the summer, you can do that.
It’s like school—you get a summer break.
Yeah [laughs]. It’s nice. A lot of times you can chaperone for a summer program or go take a college class.
It’s great that it’s a lengthy season.
Yeah some ballet companies are extremely short or they’ll just have a few 8 week periods. We do a lot of work. Next we’re working on Coppelia. The higher dancers in the company are about to do Hamlet. It looks beautiful.
What are your aspirations?
I am an optimistic person. As a dancer, you have to be optimistic to make it. It’s a demanding career both mentally and physically. I would like to have a long career. Within that career, I really want to push the boundaries of ballet outside of the studio. I do a lot of dance photography. It’s been inspiring, because through my work, some people have contacted me and said, “My whole life I wanted to dance and your photos have made me go start taking a class.” Seeing that is really touching. It’s amazing to hear that my photos can be inspiring. I would like to pursue that avenue a lot too. Although it’s very popular right now, it’s still extremely untouched in the world of photography and in the world of dance.
In ballet, I would like to eventually become a principal dancer. I also want to not only be a dancer of strength in ballet, but also in contemporary and other genres. I’ve been Russian-trained with ballet focus, and right now in the ballet world, you need to be a diverse dancer. They have pieces that are jazz, tap, modern, and ballet. You really need to move fluidly through all these different genres.
I hope to always continue to improve my work. I hope that I can always be happy in this field. It’s something that I’ve fallen in love with, and I can’t believe that I am still able to do what I love. I see so many of my peers—I was the only one out of my high school to not go to college right away. I see so many of my friends who are in such a pickle right now regretting what they thought they wanted to do. I am just so happy that I pursued what I love. My dream is coming true.
How did you get your instagram account started?
My mom always loved taking pictures of me. One time, it was a really beautiful day out. I had pointe shoes from ballet, and my mom was like, “Hey, let’s go take some ballet pictures in the park.” I thought it was the coolest thing. I was on a bench in a split. Looking back at them now, they’re horrible. I can’t even look at them [laughs]. So we started doing some photoshoots, and one of my first summers in New York, we went out to shoot again, and I started posting them on Instagram. Whenever we went on vacation, I would always get a photo of me in arabesque—I have arabesque photos from all over the world now. Slowly, I started hashtagging my photos, and Luis Pons, a dance photographer, saw one of my photos right when I moved to New York. He wanted to work with me, and I was shocked. On our first shoot together, we got a shot of me doing a saut de chat in front of a taxi in the middle of the road. The photo from our first shoot went pretty viral. I started getting contacted by other photographers from there. It was a very slow build but still very rewarding. I was completely shocked when Capezio, my favorite dance brand, contacted me last year asking to model for them after they saw my dance images. For as long as I can remember, I have worn Capezio dancewear, so it is still crazy to me that I get to represent such a great and respected company.
I started combining fashion into my photos as as well. I did a really cool show for EV Bessar. It was all dance inspired. I got to do this whole piece on the runway in pointe shoes. It was cool to see how my dance has influenced my modeling as well.
Recently last year, I was just playing around on Instagram with names, and I typed in “theballerina” and I got the green check mark. I pressed the save button immediately. It’s been pretty cool to have that instagram name. I hope I’ve lived up to it [laughs]. Modeling is something that I love doing. Sometimes you can feel stuck creatively, but it’s always nice to push boundaries. It expands my mind as a dancer too. When you go on shoots, you have to be creative with your environment to make it something more than what you see normally. You want the audience to be captivated by the image. You want to show emotion, depth, and something special—something more than just a dancer and a lamp post.
Number one advice?
Don’t let little things build up. Don’t always take criticism in a harsh way. Take it positively. If someone is giving you advice, think of it in a way where they want to help you. They want to help you achieve what you want to achieve. And always set goals for yourself and know that you can attain them. They might be far, but a little bit goes a long way. If you do that with optimism, you’ll get there a lot faster than you will when you’re putting yourself down, and you’re being hard on yourself. It’s not an easy career. Always work and be focused, but still enjoy yourself. It can be so rewarding.
What was the number one thing that you struggled with?
Maintaining my physique. I was never the one that had it easy body-wise. I had to fight a lot. I have a very muscular body, but it was also easy for me to gain weight quickly. I love food. I love ice cream [laughs]. Now I’ve gotten into a routine where I do pilates a lot. That has been a blessing for me. It has really shaped my muscles. I also developed healthy eating habits. It’s hard, but that’s been one of my biggest struggles.
Once you get into a company, things are more relaxed compared to being in a school, and you have to be more responsible for yourself. You do have teachers and coaches who are going to push you, but nowhere near how you’re pushed in school. You always need to be on top of your technique. You always need to be wanting to improve yourself more. You can fall behind very quickly. If you’re not on top of your case physically, or if you’re not on top of your technique, it’s so easy to slip. When you slip, it’s hard to pick up that momentum again to get to where you once were and then to get ahead. It’s all about maintaining your balance in every aspect.
Last thing you want to share?
Don’t be afraid to try something new or step out of your box. I know that a lot of times I’ve held myself back in fear of looking silly or making a mistake. When I’ve done that, I know that I’ve restricted myself a dancer. There are always people more advanced than you are, and you want to learn something—a step or a movement. Just go ahead and try it. If you fall or fail, ask for somebody’s advice. You should use advice from older dancers. They have so much knowledge to share. They were at where you were before where you couldn’t do a certain move or a certain step. It’s better to be guided and gain understanding than shy away from it. Be open and be accepting of those moments of mistakes.