#FacesOfBalletPgh: Leslie Anderson-Braswell

Dance faculty member, CAPA; former professional dancer at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and Dance Theatre of Harlem 

Leslie Anderson-Braswell at the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and Dance Theatre of Harlem Premiere PartyLeslie Anderson-Braswell says she got serious about ballet in 1969. Fittingly, it’s the founding year for two companies that played defining roles in her journey as a dancer: Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Her performance career started with a post in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s The Nutcracker, and she never looked back. She went on to become a founding company member of PBT, trained with Dance Theatre of Harlem, and danced overseas with the Stuttgart Ballet school and company. After returning to the states, she also returned to Dance Theatre of Harlem, this time as a company member.

Since retiring from the stage, Anderson-Braswell has shared her love of ballet with a new generation of dancers. She has instructed ballet and pointe at CAPA since 1979, and her teaching credits also include the Pittsburgh CLO Academy, Checcetti Council of Pennsylvania and Dance Masters of America. Each year, in her name, the Pittsburgh dance community honors one exceptional male and female dancer with the “Brazzy Award,” a tribute to her integrity as a teacher and her contributions to her field.

As an African-American artist, ballet has brought Anderson-Braswell both tremendous joy and struggles with acceptance along the way. Now, 38 years after starting in the field, she’s proud to see the art form evolving into a more inclusive medium for artists of all cultures. Here, she shares her experience.

When, where and why did you first get into ballet?

“I started studying ballet seriously, on a daily basis in 1969, when Mr. Petrov, artistic director of the newly forming PBT, put an audition notice in the paper, calling for children to participate in the Nutcracker Ballet, at the Pittsburgh Playhouse.  I was cast, with many other local children, and I was a mouse for that season, which included over 20 matinee and evening performances (!), and I fell in love with the “world” of ballet!”

Leslie Anderson-Braswell dancing in her early teens
Leslie Anderson-Braswell dancing in her early teens

How has it shaped you as a person?

“Ballet quickly became my life….the discipline, the technical challenges, the accomplishments, the dedication, the theater, the choreography, the demands, the sense of self, the history and tradition, the majesty, the royalty, my profound love for the beauty, grace and technical prowess.  I am ballet, and ballet is me!”

How would you describe the feeling dance gives you?

“It is very difficult for me to put into words how I feel when I danced; but, there is nothing quite like it that I have experienced in my life.  The extraordinary sense of satisfaction, accomplishment and overwhelming joy that dance gave me when I was a practicing dancer; and now, teaching young aspiring dancers the fundamentals of the technique, along with the joy of artistic growth, mastery and freedom, through expression in performances.  For me, I was always overwhelmingly happy and elated, every chance I got to be on the stage!”

Leslie Anderson-Braswell around the age of 24
Leslie Anderson-Braswell around the age of 24

What was one challenge you had to overcome to pursue ballet to the professional level?

“The one challenge that I had to overcome in pursuit of development, growth and excellence in ballet, during my training years, was being accepted to pursue the profession because I am African American. {In order to overcome this I had} to believe in my destiny, continue working hard and seek excellence in my training. I was encouraged to go to the Stuttgart Ballet in Germany because, generally speaking, it was explained to me that Europe did not look so much at the color of one’s skin as they looked at one’s ability and talent. During that time period in the early ‘70s, it was definitely true! I was able to excel and grow, although even in Stuttgart there were not many African Americans in the company or school. That is why my ultimate goal remained becoming a member of Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theatre of Harlem.  Now, long after my dancing days, I’m overjoyed with the changing face of ballet in America and in the world! Diversity and inclusion abounds!”

What helped you overcome this challenge, and any others,  in your life?

“Through my mother’s encouragement that I could do and be anything that I wanted to do and be in life, and my father’s insistence that everything is possible with sacrifice, hard work and perseverance. This family support helped to develop an unbreakable bond and love that there were no challenges too great to overcome.”

How has ballet changed since your days as a professional dancer with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and Dance Theatre of Harlem?

“Since my days with PBT (1969-1973), the Stuttgart Ballet School/ Opera Ballet Co. (1973-1975), and DTH (1975-1976),  the world of ballet has become much more diverse, and accepting of talent, regardless of the color of one’s skin, globally!”

What excites you about the future of ballet and its possibilities?

“That it has grown so tremendously, accepting diverse talented people, making it possible for Misty Copeland to be named principal at ABT, was something that I did not think would ever happen in ballet in America!  I so celebrated this accomplishment, though I am aware of the multitude of talented African-American ballerinas that paved the way for the arrival of Misty!  Collectively,  many, including myself, felt represented that magnificent day, and we all celebrate Misty with such pride and happiness!  With new and innovative choreography, and the superior talents of the dancers, the future of ballet seems very exciting and limitless.”

What advice would you give to a young dancer today? To your younger self?

“My strongest advice to ALL young dancers today is to believe in themselves, sacrifice, be dedicated, work hard, and seek excellence! For my younger self I would definitely say to realize that being on stage will not last forever, so relish each and every moment and opportunity that comes my way!”

Why do you believe dance in general, and ballet in particular, is universal?

“Though most people are unaware of it, dance is universal because, in my opinion, we are ALL born dancers!  From the time in our mother’s womb, and we hear music…we dance.  When we are born, and very early in life, as we are held, as babies, we respond to the sound of music, beats, rhythms.  As soon as we are crawling, we respond to music, in many different ways.  When we are learning to walk, we respond to music.  At all times in life, music is universal, and so is dance!  Ballet has come, through every period of history for the past 500 years, of royal lineage.  It is my belief that regardless of your ancestry, we relate to royalty, and everyone can relate to being a king or a queen, a prince or a princess!  Now, ballet represents such unbelievable athleticism, physical skill and superior mastery of those skills!  For me, ballet has always been universal; as universal as all sports!”
What does it mean for you to be able to pass on your love for ballet to other dancers? Over the course of your teaching career, what stands out in your mind?

“Greer Reed was my first student to follow in my footsteps, and I mentored her through her illustrious career at Alvin Ailey II and later, rising to principal roles as she danced in works by prominent African-American choreographers at Dayton Contemporary Dance Company. Now, she is a leader in every sense of the word, in our dance community and as she continues to honor dance in the African-American tradition. The award that she gives in my name every year to an outstanding, passionate artist, is such a great honor!

Secondly, Ayisha Morgan-Lee, who also sits on the PBT+DTH steering committee, was my student at CLO from the age of 10! Again, she told me that I was an inspiration to her, the first African woman she ever met that taught ballet, which she loved deeply! You know that she majored in dance at Howard University, interned at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, received her Masters in Arts Management from CMU, opened her own school over ten years ago and now she, like Greer, employs me! I can’t explain how overjoyed and proud they, along with so, so many others make me feel every day of my life!”

Why is the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and Dance Theatre of Harlem collaboration important to you personally, and why do you think it’s important for our community?

“It is a fulfillment of my dreams come true….truly bringing my life full-circle!  Back in 1975, arriving at DTH, I remember going to our tour manager to ask if we would be touring to Pittsburgh. I remember my sadness when he told me the closest we’d be in Pennsylvania would be Philadelphia. I was sad because my family had not seen me dance since I left PBT in 1973! So, this collaboration is so full-circle for me and although my mom has passed on and my dad is in failing health, I’m so thankful and grateful to them for giving me the opportunity to follow and live my dreams! For our community, this collaboration represents the beginning of acknowledging the greatness and excellence of ballet in Pittsburgh coming together with that from Harlem and New York City. And it means acknowledging that ballet is colorless, without boundaries and that the future is limitless for where it can go! For me,  that’s so very promising and exciting!”

#FacesOfBalletPgh: Zion Jackson & Bria Goldsmith

Students at Hill Dance Academy Theatre; aspiring professional dancers

Zion & Bria of Hill Dance Academy Theatre
Bria (left) and Zion (right) in the studio at Hill Dance Academy Theatre

It’s a Tuesday night in March, and Zion Jackson, 13, and Bria Goldsmith, 17, have just finished master classes with Dance Theatre of Harlem dancers Lindsey Croop and Chyrstyn Fentroy. They’ll admit to a few pre-class jitters, but these two are no strangers to dance. Both are long-time students at Hill Dance Academy Theatre (HDAT), where they dance ballet, jazz, Horton, tap, African, modern and Afro-Caribbean and took tonight’s master classes. Their academy was founded by Ayisha Morgan-Lee, a professional dancer with a Bachelor’s in Fine Arts from Howard University and a Master’s in Arts Management from Carnegie Mellon University Heinz College’s School of Public Policy & Management. The organization’s teaching artists include professional dancers, scholars and alumni, and its philosophy focuses on the dancer’s mind, body and spirit in a well-rounded program that prepares students for careers and life. For Zion and Bria, this philosophy rings true. Dance is central to their lives now, and both intend to build their futures around it. But regardless of what their future careers hold, they know it’s already changed them for life. Here are their stories:

How and when did you get your start in dance? What drew you to it?

Zion: “My first time coming to HDAT, I was 8 and my cousin did it. We used to always put on performances in my living room and show my parents, and they signed me up for dance. I also tried karate, but I was too graceful for it. So I did dance…When I first saw Misty Copeland’s performance on TV, I thought, ‘Hey that looks cool, I want to try that.’ It was very graceful. Of course it looked easy at it first, but it’s not easy (laughs).”

Bria: “I actually started because I came to one of HDAT’s summer intensive performances…my cousin (was performing). I was nine at the time and I didn’t do any outside activities, so my mom was like, ‘Do you want to try it?’ So that’s how I started dancing. I was never really a performer, I was more on the shy side. So I was thinking, maybe it would allow me to open up more and not be so timid and to myself and conservative…Something about dance just kept bringing me back in. I just enjoy it.”

How do you feel when you’re dancing?

Zion: “When I first started dancing I liked to stay to myself, and if I did do stuff, I liked to be in the back. But then as I started dancing I wanted to go to the front. When I dance I feel like I can touch someone in the audience. I feel loved by everybody around me. I feel like you develop a community around yourself. You feel like some people actually want to see you and are paying just to see you, so it’s kind of like a comfort feeling.”

Bria: “When I dance, I just feel a different type of energy coming out of me. Some people that are watching are not fortunate enough to dance for whatever reason, and I just want to make sure that I use this gift to the best of my ability, because everyone does not have the opportunity to dance. When I dance I try to make sure that I’m telling a story and that I’m just not going through the movement, but adding a little personality into it.”

What is your advice for someone who is on the cusp of trying someone new or expressing themselves through something like dance?

Zion: “At first it’s not going to be easy, but don’t give up. Don’t just take a class and be like, ‘OK I like it or I don’t like it.’ Make sure you keep taking classes, because in different classes you learn different things and you develop different feelings about dance. A lot of people say dance is your passion, but as it develops over time you can find that passion in dance.”

Bria: “Dance is very demanding. It takes a lot of work. But if you’re really passionate about it then maybe the work won’t really get to your head, because it’s something that you love. Also you shouldn’t worry about well, ‘She’s more flexible than me or she has better turnout than me’ or whatever it may be. It’s just you getting yourself better each day. I would just say, go for it. It’s a challenge, but if you continue to do it and continue to train, then your results will show.”

As a dancer, what do you take away from your ballet training, specifically, to improve your broader technique?  

Zion: “Whether you like ballet or not, it’s the basis of every dance. Everything drives from ballet just like Latin helps every other language form. In Horton, you always have to go navel to spine; even though the arms may be different, your main body frame and structure stays the same. Or in tap, you always have to stay on your toes or on the balls of your feet, so your relevé in ballet helps to make sure your calves are strong enough to do the exercises needed in different dances…Dance requires a lot of discipline, and ballet especially… Like posture in ballet: Some people will ask me, ‘Why are you sitting like that?’ And I didn’t even notice. Or I’ll be sitting and already pointing my feet, and I won’t notice that either. I feel like that influence in ballet, you carry it on through life.”

Bria: “Ballet is the foundation of all genres. Whatever genre you’re taking, ballet is going to show up in some way, shape or form. In ballet, you have to really understand the anatomy of your body. If you’re in any other genre, ballet is just there. That’s why I try each day in ballet to really get that down, so I can take it with me wherever I go.”

What was it like to take class with Dance Theatre of Harlem dancers?

Zion: “At first it was very intimidating. I see (Lindsey Croop) walk in, and I’m like, ‘Wow, she’s really graceful, she looks like she’s a really good dancer.’ And of course she is. I expected her to be really tough and hard on us, but she was very graceful and funny. She would also be really informative and tell us why we’re doing something, and make sure we’re breathing and just make sure that we’re doing what we’re supposed to (through) a friendly banter. You can see her personality. And when she danced and showed examples, you could see how her personality would show, which was a good influence on us.”

Bria: “It was kind of scary, because pointe isn’t really my strength at all and it’s just something that I have to continue to work on. But it turns out that she wasn’t as strict as I was expecting. She just really wanted us to know the different placements of our body. She wants to make sure that we’re dancing instead of doing the basics and just going through the movement. It was a nice class. She taught us some of her repertory, and it was really nice.”

Do you have a dancer role model?

Zion: “I think it would be Katherine Dunham or Pearl Primus. We had a choreographer come in and set some choreography on us that was choreographed by Pearl Primus, and I looked up how she used to dance. She was a very powerful woman and she was a very powerful dancer. She started in track…in something almost totally different from dance, so she inspires me.”

Bria: “Ingrid Silva. She is a dancer at Dance Theatre of Harlem. I watched her documentary a few days ago, and it just showed that you can do whatever you want to in life, no matter the obstacle or circumstance. It just really pushes me to make sure that whatever dream I have, I continue to go for that and I succeed no matter how long it will take me.”

What was your biggest takeaway from today’s master class?

Zion: “Our teacher today helped us understand that there are breathing points in ballet, and ballet is basically all breathing in the movement. Not to just do the movement, but to live in the moment. So while you’re living in the moment, you’re telling a story, and when you tell a story you have to breathe. Ballet is living…you have to breathe.”

Bria: “I learned to be more loose instead of being timid. She also taught that while we’re doing a fun and funky dance, make sure that you still continue to do the technique… the ballet foundation. Also I learned, you are your biggest competitor. Even though she didn’t say that bluntly, that’s what I got from it. You can’t compare yourself to whatever someone else has, you just have to fight to make sure that you’re better than what you were yesterday. That’s just the motto that I’m trying to keep with me throughout my dance career and I hope that takes me far.”

What are your plans for the future and for your career?

Zion: “I personally want to dance with Philadanco, because I like their style and how it’s really fast movement. It’s to its full extent. They do Horton, and that’s my favorite style of dance. Horton, Graham, Dunham, I like those types of dance styles, and Philadanco does that and it’s really upbeat. Every piece has a story behind it, and it’s really fast and I like that. And then I want to open my own dance company like Miss Ayisha has.”

Bria: “I’m a rising senior, so in college I do plan on dancing, depending on whether it’s a major or minor. Then, after college, if dance sticks with me throughout the four years, the company I would like to join is Ronald K. Brown Evidence. I just feel like that’s the company that I can relate most to. I think it was two years ago, they came to Pittsburgh and did an open community audition to perform with their dancers and I was picked among three other dancers. Right then and there I knew that I could see myself in that company when I grew up. I’ve seen a lot of companies, so me saying that now…says a lot. Hopefully I keep that mentality throughout my college years.”

What has dance given you that you’ll always carry with you, both within and beyond the dance world?

Zion: “Discipline. In dance there’s a lot of discipline. You have to know when to ask questions, when not to ask questions. Your posture. How to greet and make connections with people. The dance world is so small that you have to make different connections with different people and that will go a long way. In the real world it’s kind of like that…making different connections can get you pretty far in the dance world or not.”

Bria: “You have to network and put yourself out there and not be afraid to connect with other people. You might meet up with them a year later and you might be looking for a job and they might be one of the people who interview you and they might remember you. Not to be afraid to take on any challenge that comes your way and to never throw away an opportunity, because you never know where that could take you.”

Performing. Is that a big part of the equation for you – the ability to share your gift with others?

Zion: “My first time performing with HDAT I was 8 or 9…and even though I was in the back I felt like the spotlight was on me. I liked that feeling of having people watching you and coming just to see you. I like the rush of performing. Even backstage, preparing to perform, you meet so many people and there’s so many memories. Not everything is going to be perfect. Things go fast, and you have to be able to react quickly to those things. I have a lot of memories to take back with me before, during and after the performance.”

Bria: “It just brings you a satisfaction to know that you touched someone out in the audience in some type of way. I feel like dancing is just a way of life. Even if you don’t pursue that for the rest of your years, I feel like there’s always going to be a part of you that will always have a connection to dance. That’s where I am right now. I’m just trying to enjoy my last year here. I’m also in the stage of trying to find myself and trying to see how I’m unique and stand out from the rest.”

Why is it important to take class with and be exposed to people with different professional backgrounds?

Zion: “It keeps letting you get inspired to do different things and it helps you touch on different genres of dance that maybe you weren’t thinking about doing in the future or you haven’t done. I know sometimes in dance it gets really hard and it’s gets hard for you to keep moving on and pushing forward. When you keep having master classes, it inspires you to keep going so you can see the excellence that you can become when you get older.”

Bria: “It’s good to take master classes, because you never want to stay stuck on one style of dance. You want to get all the opportunities that you can to try other things, because you never know, you may like it. Also, taking master classes with different people, you may see them again. They may remember you…You just never know what you can get out of a master class. I just feel like it’s great to take every opportunity that you get.”

Why do you think dance is universal?

Zion: “I think dance is universal because I feel like whatever you do there’s going to be something that you love encrypted into it. Some people use dance as a stress reliever, and some people might use art, like coloring, as a stress reliever, so I feel like we all have different hobbies and different things that we can share with each other. To me, wherever I go, especially in Pittsburgh if you go to one of the cultural events, dancing is always part of the show. Or, you’ll see someone just getting up and dancing to their favorite song, whether it’s nodding their head or actually dancing. So even if you’re not taking classes 24/7, I feel like you still have a part of dance and that rhythm in your body.”

Bria “Dance is just one big community. The dance world is known to be small. Whenever you go out to different functions that revolve around dance, you can meet up with someone that you may have been in a master class with a few months ago…you can just meet people from all over. Also, I just feel that dance is in every type of activity. I know some football players take ballet classes for their muscles…or track…or any other type of sport. I just feel like dance is in everything and there’s no escaping it.”

We’re celebrating diverse, inspiring dance stories all month long. Join the dialogue and follow the series at #FacesOfBalletPgh.

#FacesOfBalletPgh: Adon Quinerly

Adon-Quinerly performing in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School's Spring Performance at the Byham Theater.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School student dancer; recipient of PBT’s Community Youth Scholarship

Adon Quinerly, a scholarship student at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre SchoolAdon Quinerly was six years old when he auditioned for the inaugural class of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Community Youth Scholarship program. In his own words, “I thought it would be fun; I thought PBT would be a cool place to experience.” Now, at age 10, nearly four years into the training program, dance still makes Adon feel “happy.” He says his favorite part is “learning new dance moves” and picking up new choreography. Since joining PBT School’s Children’s Division, Adon has performed in the company’s main-stage production of The Nutcracker at the Benedum Center in addition to PBT School spring performances at the Byham Theater. Here’s why Adon’s pursuit of dance makes his mom, Maximillion Elliott-Quinerly, happy too.

Why do you think ballet is a good opportunity for Adon? Why did you decide to help him pursue or discover it?

“Dance was such a large part of my life during my pregnancy with Adon and directly after. I took him with me wherever I’d dance. When he was a baby, at times I would wear him when I taught or during congregational dances. I would grab a piece of cloth and wrap it around him and wrap him onto me.  As Adon grew, I began to incorporate him into the choreography whenever I could. Dance was very natural for him, as it was for me. Unfortunately for me, as a young person I did not have an opportunity to receive technical training. When I heard about PBT’s scholarship program, I wasn’t sure that Adon would want to pursue ballet in the way that he does.  However, I knew I had to at least put him in a position to have that option.  I wanted Adon to be able to explore his full potential in dance and not be limited by a limited dance vocabulary.  When he was awarded a scholarship with PBT, we were both very excited.  

Ballet is a beautiful language of discipline and grace, a foundational language from which one can build a dance vocabulary. I believe technical training offers the natural dancer an opportunity to expand their abilities and perfect their natural gift. Adon is developing beautifully under the guidance of PBT, and I am looking forward to watching his continued growth as a dancer and as a man.”

Why do you think these classes are an important part of his weekly routine and his life?

“The weekly routine is helping Adon to learn time management and prioritization of tasks. The discipline he is learning in ballet is transferrable to other areas of his life.”

Adon Quinerly performing in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s The Nutcracker

What do you think ballet brings out in Adon?

“Confidence.  Ballet is building Adon’s confidence and self-esteem; this is translating ballet into every area of his life.  Additionally, when he is at PBT and/or participating in PBT activities and performances there is a sense of community. He is a part of something that he loves and a part of a group of people who he is developing long-term relationships with.”

Why do you believe dance in general, and ballet in particular, is universal?

“I’ve spent almost a decade using dance as a platform to communicate with and bring together multi-cultural, multi-generational people from extremely diverse backgrounds. The language of dance transcends geographical, socio-economic, political and other boundaries; it draws people together to create beauty in community. Ballet in particular is a technical language that appears consistent cross-culturally. The issue is the foundational language is not known to all. This language, ballet, should be as accessible as one’s first language. However, even in the absence of audible cues, there is a kinesthetic teaching that takes place in dance. This way of teaching is invaluable particularly when one travels to teach.”

We’re celebrating diverse, inspiring dance stories all month long. Join the dialogue and follow the series at #FacesOfBalletPgh.

#FacesOfBalletPgh: Aditi Kumar

Aditi Kumar with her father at a Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Adaptive Dance class.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Adaptive Dance student

On a Saturday afternoon in March, eight-year-old Aditi Kumar walks through the front doors of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Studios with a spring in her step.

“I can’t believe this is my last ballet class,” she says wistfully, smiling up at her father, Kumar Sankaranarayan.

Her father returns the smile, reminding her that it’s just the end of her second “dance season,” but not the last class she’ll take. Aditi is part of PBT’s Adaptive Dance classes, a specialized class series developed for students with special needs. The 10-week class meets weekly on Saturdays at PBT Studios, where they learn ballet basics and modified choreography from classic ballets like The Nutcracker.

Simply put, Aditi says that dancing makes her feel happy.

And her joy is apparent.

As soon as she sets foot in the studio she’s off – chasséing large circles around the studio, and counting off each movement as she goes. Before class has even started, she announces that she’s glided through more than 50. It’s a talent that earned her the rank of “Chassé Queen” in the class.

Aditi Kumar takes class at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre as part of the Adaptive Dance Program, a class series of students with special needs.
Aditi Kumar in the studio at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre before an Adaptive Dance class.

“I love dancing,” she said.

But at one time, her parents questioned whether she would ever walk. Aditi has been diagnosed with Right Hemiplegia, a type of Cerebral Palsy, which is a disorder of movement, muscle tone or posture that is caused by damage that occurs to the developing brain, most often before birth.

“She likes it, which is a great thing. She looks forward to coming here. I think she genuinely likes the music,” Sankaranarayan says.

First and foremost, Aditi’s parents say that dancing brings her joy. But they think it also serves as a form of physical therapy rolled in with the art form.

“It’s a great feeling. Especially with her condition, we were not even sure whether she would walk, so to see her do some of the intricate dance movements is very satisfying to say the least,” Sankaranarayan says. “For example, holding the barre and going onto her tippy toes, for her condition it’s a very difficult thing to do. That is something she learned here. She has made good progress.”

And that’s not all Aditi has learned.

She ticks off a list of her favorite movements: Plie, saute, chassé. The french terminology rolls off her tongue, and a smile lights up her face. Her biggest accomplishment? The grand battement. And tiptoeing and jumping along the dots never disappoints.

Aditi Kumar with her Adaptive Dance teachers, Jamie Murphy and Kaila Lewis of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre
Aditi Kumar with her Adaptive Dance teachers, Kaila Lewis (left) and Jamie Murphy (right), at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.

“I love Miss Kaila and Miss Jamie,” she says.

Sankaranarayan says Aditi also loves being part of a group activity, making new friends and getting to know her instructors, Jamie Murphy and Kaila Lewis.

“It takes a lot of patience and passion on the part of the teachers. They’re awesome. You can see they’re doing it with passion,” Sankaranarayan says. “As a parent of a child with special needs, we really appreciate that Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre is doing a program like this, which gives kids an opportunity to experience an art like this.”

We’re celebrating diverse, inspiring dance stories all month long. Join the dialogue and follow the series at #FacesOfBalletPgh.

#FacesOfBalletPgh: Rashard Mendenhall

by Rashard Mendenhall, former Pittsburgh Steelers running back and honorary co-chair of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre + Dance Theatre of Harlem Premiere Party

I’ve had an affinity for dance my entire life. After a fractured scapula placed me on injured reserve my rookie season, I knew I wanted to do something fun and active apart from rehab, so I signed up for dance classes at Vella Studio and Point Park.

Dance has done so much for me physically, strengthening areas of the body not traditionally worked in the weight room, finding flexibility through movement. It’s helped me to become a better athlete all-around, and is the inspiration behind the meditative martial art I now practice, Crescent Moon.

Rashard-Mendenhall, former Pittsburgh Steeler, discusses importance of dance.

When I first started dance I’d have no problem jamming out with my classmates, but the second anyone else came to watch, I locked up. I suffered terrible stage fright. Through time I’d learn to overcome it, and embracing the intimacy and vulnerability of dance has made it easier for me to step outside of my comfort zone in many areas of life.

You can’t over train the muscles in football or it works against you. If you’re not grounded in the movements of Crescent Moon, it shows. Balance is something I believe parallels every aspect of our lives, and balance is the cornerstone of dance.

Rashard-Mendenhall, former Pittsburgh Steeler, discusses importance of dance

I believe dance is relevant to our lives, because movement is such a major part of our lives. So much of what we communicate to each other is in body language, so much of what we express is through movement. Without dance as a way of expressing our feelings unguarded, I don’t think we could even be considered three-dimensional beings.

We’re celebrating diverse, inspiring dance stories all month long. Join the dialogue and follow the series at #FacesOfBalletPgh.

#FacesOfBalletPgh: Chyrstyn Fentroy of Dance Theatre of Harlem

Chyrstyn-Fentroy & Francis Lawrence, Dance Theatre of Harlem
Chyrstyn Fentroy in "When Love"
Chyrstyn Fentroy in “When Love”

#FacesOfBalletPgh: Chyrstyn Fentroy
Dance Theatre of Harlem dancer

Dance Magazine has praised Chyrstyn Fentroy, of Dance Theatre of Harlem, for her “chameleon-like adaptability,” “technical prowess” and “charismatic stage presence.” Pittsburghers saw it all firsthand when she performed opposite DTH’s Jorge Andrés Villarini at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Pointe in Time: Gala Giselle in November. The Los Angeles native left guests enthralled with her evocative performance of Vessels, and she’s now dancing in several works on the PBT+DTH program in Pittsburgh. Fentroy trained with Ruth Fentroy and with Joffrey Ballet before joining Dance Theatre of Harlem, where she’s in her fifth year as a company member. Dance Magazine recognized her among its “25 Dancers to Watch” of 2015 and featured her as its cover artist for the month. She’s also a recipient of the 2016-2017 Princess Grace Honorarium, a prestigious honor for emerging talents in theater, dance and film. Here is what makes this talent tick:

Describe your first encounter with ballet. What hooked you?

“My mom was a professional ballet dancer, so I was introduced to the art form at a very young age. I remember growing up watching her perform from the wings. By the time I was 3 I had even learned the entire “Sugar Plum Fairy” just from watching her so often. I think growing up seeing her amazing musicality really gave me a deep appreciation not only for ballet but also for music. Often times I can hear a piece of music and I can almost feel the music inside of me and I have a lot of fun taking class and rehearsing solo works and trying to find all of the different ways I can play with the music. It really keeps me engaged and excited to come back for more.”

When was your ballet “epiphany” – the moment you knew you wanted to pursue this art form not only as a hobby but as a career?

“I knew this was something that I really loved and wanted to pursue as a career when I spent my first summer alone in New York City. Something about the idea of waking myself up in the busy city to head into the studio to work towards a new goal every day became sort of an addiction to me. I love learning something new about myself and the world around me every day, and ballet is a tool that really allows me to do that.”

Chyrstyn Fentroy and Francis Lawrence in "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux"Photo by: Renata Pavam
Chyrstyn Fentroy and Francis Lawrence in “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux”Photo by: Renata Pavam

What was one challenge that you had to overcome in order to make your dream a reality?

“When I began studying ballet full-time, I was your stereotypical “bun-head.” I was obsessed with perfection. I was obsessed to the point where I was inflicting damage on my mental and physical health. I would get incredibly angry at myself for anything that I considered the tiniest bit of failure unknowing that I was setting the bar impossibly high for myself, but fortunately I came across a teacher that gave me a serious reality check. Simply put – he told me that no director would ever want to hire an angry dancer. And as simple and obvious as that statement may seem, it really turned on a light in my mind and I began working on myself from the inside out and doing so, I fell in love with the freedom I found in loving myself and what I was given. No one is perfect and everyone has something to offer.”

What is it about ballet, and dance, that sustains your dream and rewards your hard work?

“Lately, I have been really intrigued by works that allow me to have a voice louder than my own. I know that I may not be able to make a difference in the world in one day, but the idea that I might be able to give power to someone who can is incredibly empowering. I want to continue to deliver the message of those today and those who came before me. I want to use my body to provoke thought and be heard.

Overall, in a world that is chaotic and often times dark, dancing reminds me that I am alive. That I am only human – but also that I am human! The possibilities that lie within our bodies and minds are endless!”

Chyrstyn Fentroy and Jorge Andrés Villarini in "When Love"
Chyrstyn Fentroy and Jorge Andrés Villarini in “When Love”

What excites you about ballet’s future and its possibilities?

“I think that the ever-changing world around us influences all forms of art and that alone excites me because it means that I will always learn and explore something new and that there will always be room for growth and new forms of inspiration that I may not have ever expected.”

When you dance, what do you hope to impart through your performances?

“Every time I step on the stage, it is my goal to make the audience feel something different than what they felt when they walked in the building. And that can be something different for every person, whether it be a reminder of the time they fell in love or what it feels to be angry. I want to be a relatable artist because when it comes down to it the thing that every person on this planet can relate to is being human. An audience member may not be able to understand a tendu or many pirouettes, but we all are human; we all feel.”

Why do you think ballet – a centuries-old art form – remains relevant to people today in 2017?

“As I mentioned before, ballet continues to evolve as the world does. New choreographers and innovators are born every day with a modern view on what dance should be in comparison to everything happening around us. I think it’s these new creations and the pairing of them with the restaging of classics that keeps ballet relevant – a reminder of what dance was created to be and a look into the future and its endless possibilities.”

What advice would you give a young dance student today (or yourself at a younger age)?

“I think that I would tell a younger me, or a young dance student today, to find the beauty in yourself as an individual. Comparing yourself to others does nothing to benefit you because you are not, and will never be anyone but you. Love yourself first, love your art, and then share that love with the world. Keep your ears open and let the music become your heart. Most of all find a way to feel free in your dancing, because it is your freedom in movement that will bring you nothing but pure joy, always.”

We’re celebrating diverse, inspiring dance stories all month long. Join the dialogue and follow the series at #FacesOfBalletPgh.

#FacesOfBalletPgh: Dr. Melonie Nance

Dr. Melonie Nance, co-chair of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre + Dance Theatre of Harlem commitee
Dr. Melonie Nance, co-chair of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre + Dance Theatre of Harlem commitee

#FacesOfBalletPgh: Dr. Melonie Nance
ENT otolaryngologist, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Trustee, PBT + Dance Theatre of Harlem committee co-chair

Dr. Melonie Nance is a surgeon, a wife and a mother. But for much of her life, she was a dancer. It shaped her identity then, and it remains part of it today.

Dr. Nance threw body and soul into ballet beginning at age 8. In high school she made the difficult decision to prioritize academics, and a future career in medicine, over a rigorous pre-professional training schedule. In college, she rekindled her passion for dancing and performing, but faced an inner conflict with the dance form she’d grown up loving.

Now, years later, her 3.5-year-old daughter, Lalitha, is the one dancing. And, as a member of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Board of Trustees and co-chair of the committee supporting PBT’s collaboration with Dance Theatre of Harlem, Dr. Nance is back to playing an integral role in the art form she’s loved for so long.

Here, she shares what drew her to ballet, what pushed her away, and ultimately what brought her back.

How did you first get into ballet?

“My mom took me to ballet when I was little. But she tells me that even when I was 3 years old I was the one that asked her if I could go to dance class. I took ballet when I was a little girl – ballet, tap and jazz – and then stopped when school got started and a I took piano and other things. When I was 8 years old I wanted to go back to ballet, and my mom wanted me to go to a place that was teaching serious ballet. She took me to the library before I started, and we checked out a book on the positions in ballet. We reviewed, and then she started me in classical ballet training at age 8.

I stopped in high school because it was getting to be the point where everybody was becoming pre-professional and you had to go five and six times a week and I had to stop and do my homework. It was a big decision. I sat down with my ballet teacher, Miss Ludmilla Dokodovsky, and we talked about it, and I told her that I wanted to go into medicine. When I went into college I started dancing again. I danced the entire time I was in college in almost every dance concert they had. It was a small school, and you didn’t have to be a dance major to be in every performance. It was modern dance and some ballet. A lot of students got to choreograph their own stuff, which was exciting. Three of my best friends in college were dance majors, so I was basically a dance major without the paperwork.”

What about ballet had you hooked?

“I love classical music. I think for me as a person, what I generally gravitate toward is something that is regimented and very difficult. I think that’s probably why I went into medicine too. I just liked the structure of it. I think it’s very analytical, the way you have to learn the combinations and stay on top of the music. I like the physicality of it. I love that it keeps you in shape. Even though you’re doing an art form it’s really totally physical training. Even now as I’ve tried to stay in shape and I go to the gym or yoga or pilates, it’s not the same.”

Dr. Melonie Nance as a middle school dancerHow do you feel ballet has shaped you as a person?

“For me, I’ve always been a person that can be really good at things without working too hard — but only certain things. So if something wasn’t easy for me, I would just do something else. But, ballet wasn’t easy for me at the beginning. My teacher, Miss Ludmilla, was just there, with me, on me, and she pushed me. Without that one-on-one interaction from her, I probably would have let it go earlier than I did. I remember specific days when she would come up to me in class and say, ‘Look at these muscles coming out. This is because you’re taking class so many times a week…’ or ‘Your body shape is good for doing really high jumps.’ She would do that with everyone. She would say, ‘you have the gift of having extension,’ or ‘look how you can turn.’ Everybody felt like they had these special gifts.”

Did you face any challenges in your pursuit of ballet?

“I don’t know if I felt actual racism in our dance school. There were a few other girls of color and boys of color in our dance company, and I felt that they got the roles that were commensurate with their level of talent. I didn’t feel that I couldn’t (achieve a role because of my color). I did know that I was one of the only ones, but that wasn’t really different from all of my other school activities.

But I have to talk about this other issue that I’ve had with ballet. When I was in college I came in as someone who had taken all of this classical ballet. Most of the classes were modern dance, so I had to kind of let that go, let it go out of my body. My best friend in college was a choreographer, and she was not a ballet dancer. She explained to me how ballet is Eurocentric, and that ballet pushed these European standards of beauty onto all dancers.These concepts expanded my mind, allowing me to see that there are so many types of dance besides ballet. During that time of my life, it was sort of uncool for me to love ballet because of the cultural references. It made me feel like I couldn’t love ballet as much because I was supposed to be searching for my own culture. I mean, I’m glad that it happened to me because it really opened my mind. You don’t have to have ballet training to be a good dancer, which I think is one of the main points she was trying to assert.

When I came to Pittsburgh and was in my residency, I took ballet for exercise, because I knew that was the best way for me to work out my body. It still is. Not until the last five years, when I started to really be involved in PBT and (a friend) got me back into ballet, did I realize that it’s OK for me to love ballet. And then with Misty (Copeland’s promotion to principal at American Ballet Theatre), it also helped me be like, ‘Hey I can love ballet and be a black woman.’ While in the past, I felt like I shouldn’t express my love for ballet because it was so European. But I don’t care anymore, I love ballet!

Now I think if we’re open to cultural diversity then…I think everyone can participate in it now and enjoy it in so many different ways. I’m glad that people are pushing to broaden and participate in their own way. I think the whole concept of Misty Copeland has allowed black girls, and women, to love ballet and proudly participate in it as a welcome part of the art form. There are so many different types of ballet choreographers now from all different cultures. I think we’re going to see a big widening and broadening of the field and what is ballet.”

Dr. Melonie Nance performing in college
Dr. Melonie Nance performing in college

Did it help you discover an inner joy or sense of expression?  

“Yeah, I think so. In high school you get to be involved in this whole other world. I played music, I played the flute and I was in band. I didn’t feel as much of an ability of self-expression as I do with dance and with ballet. Even after I stopped taking a lot of the high-intensity class schedules for ballet, I always was known as a dancer at school. I choreographed the school musical and other things. I felt like people knew me as a special talent. I won the talent show in sixth grade, so after that everyone knew that I was a ballet dancer.”

Dr. Melonie Nance's daughter, Lalitha, in her first ballet class at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.
Dr. Melonie Nance’s daughter, Lalitha, at age 1.5, in her first ballet class at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.

Now your daughter, Lalitha, is taking ballet classes. What do you see it bringing to your daughter’s life?

“I was so excited to take her (to her first Mommy and Me ballet class at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre). I was like, ‘OK, you gotta get this under control because this is not about you anymore…I don’t want to push this on you.’ But she really loved it. I should share part of something I wrote to her on that day…

Dear Daughter,

On your first dance class, I may have been overjoyed about the fact that this happened today. I am not going to push you. But I do feel a special fulfillment in sharing something I love so much with you… I hope someday that you love something as much as I have loved and still love to dance — ballet and many other forms. God help me to open doors to many opportunities for you to choose your passion — whatever they may turn out to be…

Right now both of my little girls love ballet, and they’re around it a lot because of my involvement. If they really want to do it they certainly can. What I’m excited about is that they see so many girls of color in their dance classes and onstage…Lalitha just thinks it’s a regular thing. If they want to, the door is so wide open, but I certainly don’t want to push them. Right now it’s just about exposure.”


Why is this collaboration important to you personally and why do you think it’s important for our community?

“I just think it’s a doorway to get a whole bunch of people connected…It allows people to fall in love with ballet who may have thought ballet isn’t for me or it’s not for us. If they’re excited about Dance Theatre of Harlem and they come and see, I think people will get excited for the kids who may have opportunities to do ballet in a way that maybe they didn’t feel was a door that was open to them. I just feel like most people in Pittsburgh, when you talk about Dance Theatre of Harlem, get really excited. They’re excited about the history of DTH and how hard they’ve had to work to be there. Some of that same history is at PBT too in a different way. I think that it’s a real stepping stone to really widen the audience and widen the opportunities for kids in Pittsburgh to come and take ballet. It’s not going to be everyone’s career, for sure, but it can be a really important part of your upbringing.”

One thing that’s kind of funny is that my husband has never seen my dance. All the people who know me now, they know me as doctor, as a physician, as a mom. People that knew me in college and in high school and younger, they knew me as a dancer. They can’t believe I’m a doctor now. It’s so funny, because it’s so much of my identity in the past.  I’m so glad now it’s becoming part of my identity in a new way.”


#FacesOfBalletPgh: Daniela Moya

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre dancer Daniela Moya in "Serenade." Choreography by George Balanchine. © The George Balanchine Trust

There’s Only Plan A: Why One Ballerina Followed Her Dream to the United States

For Daniela Moya, ballet has always been part of the plan. She started dancing at age 4 – an age when “ballerina” isn’t an uncommon career aspiration. But for Daniela, this was no passing phase. Ballet had her hooked – from the rigor of training to its release of emotion – and she became determined to make it her life’s work. Six years ago, the PBT Corps de Ballet dancer left her family, friends and hometown of Mexico City to chase her dream to the United States. She accepted a spot in Joffrey Ballet’s trainee program in Chicago and went on to train in the PBT School Graduate Program before signing with the company in 2016. The transition hasn’t been without its challenges. Thanks to the love of dance and the support of Facetime, family visits and her loyal pups, she can still confidently say, “there’s only Plan A…and there’s only going forward.”

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre dancer Daniela Moya
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre dancer Daniela Moya

Describe your first encounter with ballet. What hooked you?

“My first encounter was when I was four. My mom took me because the doctor said ballet would help (with my posture). I walked like a duck. I just really liked ballet and the challenge of it. It’s really disciplined. Technique-wise, it’s not where your body wants to go naturally. You don’t force it, but you have to train your body to move that way for it to be correct. That’s the hard part. Also, what I love about it is the artistry you can bring to it so that it looks effortless and natural.”

When was your ballet “epiphany” – the moment you knew you wanted to pursue this art form not only as a hobby but as a career?

“Since I was little I always said I was going to be a ballerina. That was always my thing. My parents were like, ‘Yeah, yeah, sure, sure, you’ll grow out of it.’ And then one summer intensive (at the Royal Ballet) when I was a teenager, I went to London and it was one of the first times that I went out of the country and away from my family. We created this production at the end of the program, and my mom came to watch. Just waiting in the wings to go out gave me that adrenaline rush, and I thought, ‘I want this. This is it.’”

What was one challenge that you had to overcome in order to make your dream a reality?

“There were many – but three in particular. First of all was my posture. In order to do ballet, I really had to concentrate. And still today, I try to focus on my posture, because it’s my weak point. Second was trying to like myself in order to be healthy. You look at yourself in the mirror in a leotard and then you get obsessed with how skinny you are. It was overcoming that mental (fixation) on how I looked. You just need to dance and not focus on your body. Third was just moving away from my family. When the moment came it was, ‘Yep, I’m going (snaps fingers).’ But once I was here I thought, wow I did leave everything behind. (But now) there’s only going forward…I guess my mind was set on Plan A. My mom was like, ‘but what if it doesn’t work out? Just come back. Plan B.’ And I said, ‘No, there’s only Plan A.’ I already moved away. I left everything – my friends, my family. I’m by myself. There’s only one way. Whatever means moving forward. That was it.”

What makes all of the hard work and sacrifice worth it to you?

“I guess just getting better. You could be at the top of your class, and then you move to another class and you’re at the bottom again. When I moved to Chicago, it was completely different, but I really wanted it. (Sometimes you think) maybe I’m not good enough. I think I am, but maybe I’m not. But then you have meetings and people keep pushing for you and telling you it’s the right thing to do, that you should be dancing. Sometimes the encouragement was the only thing that kept me going. I thought, OK I’m doing the right thing, so I just kept going.”

Culture-wise, the food adjustment was the most difficult. I had to figure out what to eat to be healthy and that was easy (to prepare) – trying to figure out what to make and modify. I always missed my Mexican food. Also the hours of eating are so different than back home. Food is huge (to my culture at home). When my mom is here, we just go out to eat (laughs). My first year was really lonely and then I got my dog. I mean I had friends, I met Diana Yohe (a fellow Joffrey trainee and current PBT dancer), and then I got my dog and I was like OK, now I’m good.”

What advice would you give an aspiring dance or to your younger self?

“I would have said to start earlier. I would just say to not give up. I had those moments of doubt. I might have wasted a little more time trying to figure it out instead of to keep pushing. Patience and perseverance will get you somewhere.”

What rewards all of your hard work? What makes it all worth it?

“What makes it worth it is that I’m still dancing. This is funny, but I made a note to myself with a friend back at home and what we’d be doing when we were 25. I looked back at it when I turned 25…It was to be in a professional company, to be dancing, to have traveled. I think I’ve accomplished a lot of that. It’s been my dream, so it’s just still rewarding that I’m still dancing.”

What excites you about ballet’s future and its possibilities?

“I think it’s always changing. There’s new choreographies and new music. There are new ideas that may not be classical, but I think that’s part of the challenge – to try to be versatile and learn to move however your body can move. It’s fun, because I feel like people are getting more educated about ballet, so more people come to see it and realize that it’s fun to watch. You don’t have to dance it (to enjoy it)…It’s an art form but it’s also athletic and it’s also entertaining. You just have to try it and see if you like it.”

Why do you think dance is universal?

“I feel like it’s a different kind of language. I’ve seen it with me, coming to a different country, maybe meeting a dancer from Japan, for example. Maybe we don’t share the same language, but we dance. We can get together and have the same dance. You express yourself, your feelings. You can show the music. It’s pretty diverse. You can speak through it.”

What advice would you give a young dance student today (or yourself at a younger age)?  

“Just do it. Life doesn’t work without risks. It’s boring. I’m going to sound super cheesy, but there’s a saying, ‘Find the job that you’re passionate about and then you don’t have to work the rest of your life.’ I just want to dance.”

Why do you find the PBT & DTH collaboration so exciting?

“It’s very inspiring to see another company work and perform so close. Just like in the real world, having connections and integrating ourselves with other people (in this case dancers) is so beneficial. We learn a new perspective, and like I said before, we have the same language.  It is just how we express that language and wish to share that artistry with the public that is different for both companies and individual dancers.”