Syndey: Struggles and Triumphs
Each summer for the past 10 years, I have asked a group of dancers where they are with dance. I leave the question open-ended in order for them to answer however it resonates personally. My goal is to create a yearly check-in to chart how these dancers evolve with time. This project began in 2013 when they were still in high school. Below is Sydney’s yearly update, as well as her shifting perspectives over the past 10 years. –Emmaly Wiederholt
2022: age 23
Every time I get the email to participate in this wonderful project, I am blown away that yet another year has gone by. Will I ever be aware of the passing of time while I’m in it? Maybe, maybe not.
This year, like all the others, had its own specific brand of insanity. I taught 10 ballet classes, three privates, two nights of customer service, and danced full time, every week for the whole season. It was busy, it was often overwhelming, but it was ultimately rewarding and growth inducing.
Being an apprentice with Avant Chamber Ballet this past year was a lovely and demanding experience. I was in every show, and in one show was in every single piece in that show(!). We started the season off with Napoli and Ragtime, moved swiftly into Nutcracker and setting Concerto Barocco for the spring, had Barocco and a new ballet by the director alongside a returning work for our spring show, and closed the season with A Soldier’s Tale and Jeux, a ballet choreographed by Fernanda Olivera from Philadelphia Ballet. Needless to say, there was lots of dancing, lots of rehearsing, lots of performing. My favorite show was definitely the first spring performance. I was fortunate enough to be the only apprentice selected to be in the director’s new work, Bartok Duets, and had an absolute blast in both the process and the performance. Being in every piece, especially with Barocco opening the show, was a challenge but extremely satisfying to push through and ultimately enjoy. I felt myself push my own boundaries and improve artistically and technically throughout the year. I will be returning in the fall as a promoted second year apprentice, with weekly pay (!) and pay per performance. She’s on her way up in the professional world, folks! I am excited to continue my journey with the company and will be teaching some classes to little ones at ACB as well as at The Dallas Conservatory for supplemental income. Teaching has been a surprising joy and challenge, but I think there is definitely a future for me in that field.
It would be inauthentic for me to write this whole update without mentioning some hardship. This year has not been easy on me, mostly mentally. I have been struggling with high anxiety and some depressive side effects of that exhausting mindset, and it has been affecting my whole life, especially in the studio. On a good day, I was on top of the world and enjoying every moment. On a bad day, I questioned everything—my body, my abilities, my career, my future, my relationships, my desires. I’ve had anxiety throughout my life, but I think it has come out fully as of the new year.
I participated in a beautiful program, Yoga for Dancers, and a huge part of that was not only building physical strength for cross training health, but also diving deep into our psychological roadblocks and learning a lot about what makes you think the way you do, and what may be holding you back. That, alongside starting therapy to work through the grief and trauma of losing my father almost nine years ago, has opened me up in huge ways, allowing for healing, but the healing begins with the seeing and feeling, and I have been overwhelmed often with what I’ve found, new and old. I’m working through these cycles of feeling, and know that navigating these challenges will be a lifelong experience that will evolve and shift as I do, and hope that I will find more self-love and confidence on that journey.
Dance has yet again proved itself to be my first love, and like any love, there are ups and downs and fluctuations that I am trying to embrace and not shy away from. These struggles and triumphs are informing my artistic growth and trajectory, and I need to remind myself that this path is none but my own, and I need to own that and dive deep into it, holding tight to my intention and passion in this world I have planted myself in.
P.S. I miss contemporary movement. I am still in love with ballet, and I cannot imagine hanging up my pointe shoes, but I do miss moving in that way and hope that I can find a dance home in the future that can satiate my artistic hunger in a fuller way. I am happy at ACB, but something tells me it isn’t my end all be all for my career, and I need to trust in myself and in the universe to guide me to whatever my next steps may be, whenever that change will be made.
2021: age 22
I am continuously amazed by how unexpectedly life unfolds at every turn. At almost any moment in my life, you could ask me, “Is this how you thought life would be a year ago?” And I would laugh and say, “Absolutely not!” And yet, there has been beauty in every moment, despite any and all hardship or trial, and I hold nothing but gratitude for the path I have been on and the path I am forging for myself.
When I was writing my yearly reflection last June, I was taking ballet classes in my living room with a makeshift piece of dance floor and a barre for one. I was awaiting my trip to Chicago to dance with A&A Ballet and see if I would be hired into their company. Oooooh how the tables turned, and how quickly as well! On my first day at A&A, I looked around and realized I was, quite noticeably, the oldest in the room. I turned to one of my classmates and asked her if this demographic was normal, or if it was a result the pandemic. She replied that this past year, there was one girl over the age of 20, but otherwise this was normal.
I, a seasoned 21-year-old at the time, was startled by this revelation. I pressed on, “So how does the company work, is it separate from this program or…?” and she calmly replied, “Oh, we don’t really have a company here.”
BOOM. That was the sound of my heart dropping through the floor. After the pandemic had robbed me of not only my last few months of college, but also my audition season and the beginning of my career, my last hope had just vanished before I even took my first class. I decided to stay calm and simply enjoy being in a studio again, doing what I loved, in a city that I loved, for the next month.
Despite those comforting thoughts, I couldn’t help but start to plan Mission Impossible: Figure My Life Out Amidst Global Pandemic as a Dancer. I decided I needed three things to survive at the present moment: a place to live, a place to dance, and a source of income. I’m a list person, so this actually helped me put things into perspective. I had a couple of options. I could’ve stayed in Chicago and paid to dance with A&A, I could’ve moved back to Utah and figured things out, or I could’ve moved home. After more lists and comparisons, the only option that made sense overall was moving home. That covered the first necessity: a place to live. Income was also covered, as I had been working as a barista and had also been offered a nannying sort of position by a family friend, so check off box number two.
But the most important box, a place to dance, was still muggy. I began sending out even more auditions for dance positions in companies in Dallas. I had never anticipated moving home before this point, so I had not really considered the local companies yet. I also was considering paying for dance classes at night to maintain my technique while I lived at home and saved up money to be a normal human once this all faded away. The last week of A&A arrived, and besides Alexei offering me a position in their training program in Chicago (for about $1000 a month, sheesh), my inbox was empty of offers or replies. I was starting to feel the weight of the unknown and the weight of the pandemic’s losses hitting me.
And then, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I received a call from Avant Chamber Ballet’s artistic director offering me a full tuition scholarship to be a trainee.
Box. Number. Three.
I was elated. Out of nowhere, when I had felt the most lost, things had fallen into place, and even better than I had hoped. Not only did I have a spot to dance, but it was with a real company, and I was valued enough to be offered a scholarship. It was official: my career had begun. I was going to be just fine.
I came home from Chicago a literal TWO DAYS before my time with Avant began, but was ready to start my next adventure. I, a dancer who had never really had Balanchine training, dove headfirst into a Balanchine company, and adapted accordingly. One of my favorite things about ACB is that although a lot of their repertory is Balanchine or neoclassical, a wide range of styles is practiced, both in technique classes and in performance. I was able to add another tool to my tool belt in getting comfortable with Balanchine movement, while also maintaining my classical training. Even further, we performed a contemporary work by one of my old Booker T. classmates, Madison Hicks. Talk about full circle.
We were lucky enough to be able to perform at an outdoor stage, right next to Booker T. in the arts district. It was a beautiful performing environment and gave us the opportunity to perform during an era of empty stages. We had a set of performances in October, filmed Nutcracker for an online viewing, and had another set of performances in March. As a trainee, I was asked to perform with the company in all these shows but was also a part of trainee-specific performances at a couple of venues between and after company shows! I also feel like my technique has grown a lot with ACB. Eugene and Katie have helped me so much to push beyond my self-created boundaries, finding new potential and fostering new abilities I had not known myself capable of prior to being in this environment. As always, the goal for me is to grow and experience, and I got that and then some, all thanks to the miracle Katie gifted me with last August.
Also! Just to clarify: box number 2, income, was happily replaced by teaching dance after rehearsals and working front desk for the studio as well. Being a barista was fun, but sharing dance was definitely an upgrade. I also started teaching private lessons as well, which is a whole new level of rewarding.
Our season at ACB ended a couple of weeks ago, and it was announced that I was offered a first-year company contract as an apprentice with ACB, and I happily accepted. I am so grateful to be a part of Avant Chamber Ballet, and I look forward to continuing my journey here.
I think ultimately, looking forward, I would like to be in a bigger company, in a city I don’t know so well, dancing Wheeldon, Cerrudo, and Kylian amongst the classics. I know I am on track to where I long to be. And I’m just going to trust that all my efforts and all the love that I have for this art form are going to carry me forward, and that the universe will plant me where I will grow the tallest. If there’s anything I have learned from the past year, it’s that I cannot plan each and every step, because things are constantly inconsistent. All I can do is go forward with love and kindness in every intention and know that my path will become clear in time.
As for the present, I think it’s time for a snack.
2020: age 21
Oh, what a year this has been. It was a year of extreme highs, lows, and unexpected blows. From the very beginning of the school year, it was unusual for me. For starters, it was my last year of college! I had finished my degree the year before and was uncertain whether I was going to return for my fourth year. That summer, I had received an offer from Oklahoma City Ballet to be a trainee but, seeing as it was more of a training program than a job, I decided to return to the University of Utah in the fall. After speaking with my mentors, it seemed like the better option, especially because I was on full tuition scholarship at the U and would have had to pay for the traineeship.
It was my fourth year, and my (second) senior year! I was excited, I was riding the high of performing on Broadway with BalletNext, and I was in the best shape of my life, going to the gym, taking yoga classes, and dancing all throughout the summer so I would be at my best.
And then…I HAMMERED MY FREAKING FINGER. Yes, you read correctly. Hammered it. I was doing work in the garage with my mom, and literally slammed my finger with a rubber mallet so hard that the tendon on my left index finger completely lacerated (a super gross medical word I learned – it literally just means torn-clean-through. Yuck.). I had to get surgery immediately and was told that I wouldn’t be able to exercise or do anything that would produce sweat for SIX WEEKS. Obviously, to a dancer, especially one who had worked her butt off all summer to stay in tip-top shape, that was basically a death sentence. I was bawling in the doctor’s office, feeling as though I was witnessing every dream for this year fade away.
I drove back to Utah with my mom, knowing that everything was going to be different. After all, if I couldn’t even dance as a Ballet Major, what the heck was I supposed to do? About a week being back, I went to see my physical therapist they had assigned to me, and my world completely changed.
“What do you mean they said you can’t sweat? Of course you can. Just keep your brace on, and don’t be an idiot.”
“You mean I can dance?”
“Yes, go for it.”
WOOOOOOHOOOOOO! Once I got the green light to MOVE again, I was on a mission. After two weeks of completely no dancing, I was ready to get back into it, no matter how weird it was going to be. I took barre without ever actually holding the barre for about two months and made the most of the experience. Was it hard? UM, YES. But! I grew so much as a result of that body awareness. Life was hard one-handed, believe me, but I made it work as best as I could, and I made it out the other side with a lot more core strength!
During all that insanity, we also had auditions for the fall show, which included Act II of my favorite ballet of all time, Giselle. I was forlorn at the complication that my tendon and massive splint brought for auditions, but not hopeless. I was going to try my best and hope that the faculty could see that I would be healed in about a month’s time, which would be about a month or so from opening night. And I could still dance fully as long as there were no barres involved, so I figured it was worth a shot. During auditions, I was cut from the contemporary audition, as there was too much floor work and partnering for me to be able to do it with my healing injury. I was extremely upset but knew that didn’t necessarily mean I wouldn’t be considered for the ballet. And then, a couple days later, I got cast as the lead. My dream role was finally being realized. I was Giselle in Giselle. WHAT. I genuinely couldn’t believe it!
The rehearsal process was a dream. I have never felt so invested in a role, so immersed in the character and choreography, so in love with ballet. I worked hard and enjoyed every single second of it. The shows went well, and I can say with all certainty that it was the greatest performing experience of my life to date.
After Giselle, it was November! My splint had been off for about two months, and life was busy and back to normal. We began rehearsing for the next show, and I was choreographing a piece for the Ballet Student Showcase. I started to film all my audition materials, and began audition season in November, as I was looking to do European auditions as well as American ones. Things were busy, but things were good! I got into Grand Audition, which essentially is a massive audition with eight companies all viewing invited dancers at once. This year, it was in Barcelona! My mom and I booked the flights, and that was the first thing in the books for the season. I sent more emails than I have ever sent in my life. I sent my videos to every company I could find, abroad or not. My life was spread sheets, cover letters, resumes, CVs, headshots, and dance photos for like six months! I heard back from a lot of places, and got invited to do two other auditions in Europe, as well as multiple company class and invite-only auditions in the States, and was having so much fun traveling and dancing, chasing my dreams all the while.
And then, COVID-19 hit. And it hit hard. On March 16, I attended an audition at Richmond Ballet, and felt fantastic about how it went. Little did I know that audition would be my last of the season, and the last time I would be dancing in a studio for the indeterminable future. By the time I flew back to Utah, the rest of my senior year was put online, and we were under a worldwide lockdown for the pandemic. It was surreal, and honestly still is.
I began to give myself class in the kitchen, using my countertop as a barre, and doing as much center work as I possibly could. I was even doing pointe on a hardwood floor, being as careful as I could be, and trying, desperately, to stay in shape. In April, my mom flew out to Utah, we packed up my car, and we drove back home to Texas to be together during these uncertain times. I was devastated to leave my home of four years, my best friend and roommate, and my boyfriend. But the one perk? I got to make a little personal dance studio in my house! My mom ordered me a barre as a graduation gift, we bought some shower-pan liner to tape down as a floor, and we moved the furniture out of the way. I was open for business!
For the past few months, I have been training hard six days a week, and have even been able to do complete classes on pointe, thanks to my floor! It has certainly not been what I planned, with graduation being virtually online, finishing out all my classes on Zoom, and dancing in my living room, but I have made the best of it and am honestly proud of myself. I have gained so much awareness of my alignment and feel as though I have been able to grow as a dancer during quarantine, thanks to lots of online ballet class videos, lots of self-correcting, and lots of notetaking. By being forced to really be in-tune with my body, I have found that I am balancing better, turning better, and altogether more aware of what I need to do to improve. I have been doing workout classes, using ankle weights, and have been doing lots of Thera-Band exercises, Pilates, and yoga to make sure that I am in the best shape I can be during these insane conditions. I feel like I am staying in shape well, and have not lost any technique besides grand allegro, since I really can’t do that inside my house. It has been really encouraging to see that I am able to be disciplined on my own, and I am grateful that I have that as an artist.
Looking forward, it’s really hard to say what’s going to happen. For me, for a lot of people, life is kind of in limbo. I am going to be attending a small dance intensive in Chicago with A&A Ballet, which will be an audition to be considered for their main company, and that’s all I have planned for the time being. I sent them my materials during the year, and they expressed interest, but said they could only offer me a paid position after working with me, and it just so happened that they didn’t cancel their program. Safety measures will be in place, but soon, I’ll be in a studio again, and I couldn’t be more excited. Besides that, the cancelled auditions that I had in place are TBD on whether they will be happening this year or just saved for next season, and I am still waiting on some video submissions. Unfortunately, my final European audition in the Czech Republic for Brno Ballet was cancelled, which was devastating after making it through the pre-screening process. However, I know that all this is out of my control, and I am just trying to stay in shape and optimistic, knowing that everything will end up working out, one way or another.
In a speech that Brené Brown gave to UT Austin’s graduating class, she discussed her career path and how, though all the hardships she faced, things ended up working out for her. She assured us that the same would happen for us, “But it will not be on your terms, and not on your timeline.” That really resonated with me, as this entire situation is not on my terms or my timeline, and a lot of my path has been the same way. However, just as the beginning of this year worked out for me despite all the obstacles I faced, I know that my professional career will work out, one way or another. The only thing I can do is everything I can: stay in shape, stay determined, and let my love of ballet fuel every step I make. In Frozen 2, Anna has a whole song revolving around the quote, “Do the next right thing.” I think that just about sums it up. I have not, and will not, be beaten down by this pandemic. Yes, things look different than I expected, but there hasn’t really been a time in my life when that wasn’t true. I am here to take on the life that has been thrown at me, and I am here to make the best of it. In the words of Lin Manuel Miranda, “I am not throwing away my shot.” Bring it on 2020. You haven’t knocked me down yet.
2019: age 20
This year I began my transition into the professional realm of the world I’ve loved since I can remember. A crazy year indeed, but a great one nonetheless. It began with me deciding at some point last year to condense my studies at the University of Utah’s ballet program into three years instead of four, so I doubled up on my dance classes. On top of that, I participated in every show! I was casted as the soloist in Melissa Bobick’s Fractured, which we took to California to compete in a choreographic competition in November. Then, I worked with two of my best friends in their student choreographic works, while simultaneously getting thrown into Michele Wiles’s company, BalletNext, to rehearse for my New York debut! I was also fortunate enough to be cast as a gossip girl in Bruce Mark’s version of La Fille Mal Gardée at the U. We rehearsed nonstop for this full-length experience, and it worked out great in the end!
The day after La Fille closed, I was on a plane to the Big Apple for a costume fitting, rehearsal, then a week of shows at New York Live Arts in Chelsea. It was an incredible experience as we were fortunate enough to share the bill with Amar Ramasar and Maria Kowroski. Being able to watch these two perform a duet as well as being able to perform in two of Michele’s own pieces in my favorite city was something that definitely will continue to shape me as a dancer. We ended up having another round of shows in upstate New York at Kaatsbaan, which was incredible, and I recently returned to the city to have another round of shows at the New Victory Theater on Broadway! Working with Michele has been amazing for me and has really changed the way I approach movement, especially with turning. I will be forever grateful to her for everything she has given her dancers.
Additionally, the week after we returned to Utah from New York the first time, my audition season began. I had five in-person auditions and sent videos to many! Got a lot of great feedback and even more great experience, and I am currently in Oklahoma City with OKCB to get further evaluated for a job with the company! This will be the deciding factor as to whether I return to the U in the fall, but no matter what, I just gotta keep pushing for it. Something I learned this year through everything is that a lot of auditioning is being in the right place at the right time, and that some seasons are just going to be harder to land a job than others, whether that’s because of look, availability, or anything else. It is a HUGE lottery, but the important thing for me is to just try to do my best at all times, and take the waves as they come! I will find my place in the professional world, be it this year or next. I just have to show myself to the world and follow the tides.
Another thing I did this year was participate in my first (and likely last) ballet competition! I competed two variations, Giselle Act I and Raymonda’s Daydreams, as well as my own choreographic contemporary piece, Ellipsis, in the American Ballet Competition in early June. I ended up placing third overall in the classical division and got a scholarship to attend a Bournonville workshop. It was a really great experience to work closely with Christopher Alloways-Ramsey, who is on faculty at the U. I balanced these intense classes and rehearsals with him with working with Michele, which was challenging but do-able, and totally worked out in the end.
I am so glad that I participated in everything that I did this year, and taking a second to sit and write it all out shows me that I am capable of so much, and need to continue to partake in everything I possibly can in an effort to know that I am doing everything I can to get to where I need to be. That’s all I can do, and it will be enough. I’ll never settle. In the words of Billy Joel, “Only fools are satisfied.” What a year it has been.
2018: age 19
Six years into this project, and dance is still my bread and butter. I’ve never loved something so much or been so passionately involved in anything, and I know that I’m in the world I’m meant to be in.
This year was my sophomore year at the University of Utah’s ballet program, and it was transformative to say the least. From the beginning, I was met with unexpected challenges, and I truly felt as though I grew the most I ever have in one year’s time. I was moved up to the senior ballet level as a sophomore, so not only was I challenged in technique, but I was also on my own, completely unfamiliar with my peers and the new teachers. Being thrown into this environment was at first a little jarring, but I quickly realized that it was a sink or swim situation, and I was determined to stay afloat. Being able to look up to my older peers and learn through example as well as through the wonderful staff, I was pushed to grow each and every class. I also switched pointe shoe brands from Gaynor Minden to Suffolk Solo Prequels, which changed a lot for me for the better.
I also did a lot of performing, taking on not only ballet department programs, but extra shows through the modern department as well! I performed in Konservatoriet in the fall, coached by Jeff Rogers at Ballet West, then participated in a modern grad show thesis, performed in Jay Kim’s faculty work while struggling with Achilles tendonitis, and finally was a part of Nicholas Gibas’ senior piece, which was an amazing experience. We had danced in Petronio’s MiddleSexGorge the year prior together, so it was truly an inspiration to work with him again. I also found a love for choreographing, and will be exploring this side of myself more. In the choreographic classes in which I participated, my work was met with praise and constructive criticism, so I hope to continue to seek growth, change and developments in this facet of dance. This summer, I will be attending American Ballet Theater’s ballet intensive in New York, as well as the University of Utah’s summer intensive to get some ballet BFA credits taken care of while also staying in shape for this upcoming crazy year.
Another development in my dance life is that I made the decision to audition for ballet companies this upcoming year! This potentially would mean graduating early, which I am currently on track to do, and beginning my ballet career next year. I am extremely terrified but simultaneously eager and excited to put myself out there. This has been a dream of mine for so long, and knowing that I am on the cusp of beginning that professional journey is thrilling. While I understand there is a lot of potential for failure, I know that I will not stop trying until I make it, and that failure is only fuel for the journey. I look forward to the year ahead, and all the years to come. Somehow, everything’s gonna fall right into place, and I cannot wait to be planted and begin blooming into the artist I seek to become.
2017: age 18
This past year has been one of the craziest and most exciting of my life! I started school at the University of Utah School of Dance as a ballet major, and was lucky enough to get to perform in every show! We did Les Sylphides in the fall, and I had a solo in a contemporary piece in the spring, alongside a duet in Stephen Petronio’s MiddleSexGorge in April.
I went through a lot of personal growth as well, realizing more and more that I am truly the only one who is in charge of where my life and dance career takes me. Though I cannot predict the future, all that matters is that my passion will never die and that my work ethic remains as strong as it can be. It is really nice to be supported by my faculty, and they give me valuable advice and corrections. They also gave me great feedback in conferences, and I look forward to continuing my time there, working toward my goals through my love of the art form.
I’m currently studying at American Ballet Theatre for the summer program, and have loved every moment. I think this would be my ideal place to dance when I’ve gotten older and better (fingers crossed), but I am keeping my options open, knowing that as long as I put my entirety into my endeavor, I will end up where I need to be. Lots of unknown, but I do know that I love what I’m doing, and that is enough.
2016: age 17
Dance for me has been a continual passion that I don’t ever think will cease. I have loved it for as long as I can remember and I will continue to love it with all of my being. I just graduated from Booker T Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, which was the best thing that has ever happened to me (the school, not leaving it). I am continuing my dance studies at the University of Utah’s ballet program where I hope to become a trainee with Ballet West. I am on the waiting list for Juilliard at this point in time, and though that is my dream school, I know that if I don’t get in in the end, I will have another good option waiting for me. I am currently studying at Joffrey Academy of Chicago for the summer, and I’m having a great time learning from all of the faculty as well as my classmates. I can only push forward and hope that all that I am doing is propelling me towards where I want and need to be.
2015: age 16
Dance is my soul’s way of getting out of my body. I have never felt freer or more alive than within the moments of movement that I am lucky enough to be able to do most days of my life. I am going into my senior year in high school at Booker T. Washington HSPVA, so I am dancing and growing every day. I am nervous about applying and auditioning for colleges, conservatories and companies this upcoming year. I hope for the best. I know I will end up where I am meant to be, and while that is in the back of my mind, the nervousness and anxiety is still present. I recently was Belle in my studio’s ballet production of Beauty and the Beast, which was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I truly had a fantastic time learning the part and being able to dance with my partner Paul again. I cannot wait to continue my passion for dance as long as I can, and I hope my career has just begun.
2014: age 15
Dance is my passion, and has been for as long as I can remember. I can’t see a time where it won’t be. I hope to be a professional one day, and am currently at a performing arts high school where I am pursuing a career. I hope to grow as much as I can every single day and know to be patient with myself as growing is a process, not a destination.
2013: age 14
Dance is my everything right now. I go to Booker T. Washington HSPVA for dance, and I hope that I will be able to have the wonderful opportunity of making it my career. I dream of dancing professionally, and I will do whatever it takes to make the dreams come true! Dance is my passion and has been for a long, long time and I never want to know what life is like without it.