Graduating dance student Anelise Leishman reflects on her time at BYU
Ballet has been a central force in my life from the beginning, and one of the greatest blessings of my BYU experience was being able to continue dancing in college. While working towards my English degree and pursuing my passion for writing, I earned a minor in ballet and performed with Theatre Ballet for four years alongside a wonderful group of people who would become my closest friends.
One of my most fulfilling experiences was performing in George Balanchine’s “Walpurgisnacht Ballet.” The Balanchine Trust has high standards when choosing who performs their works, and it has always been a dream of mine to dance Balanchine’s choreography onstage. In “Walpurgisnacht,” all the women let their hair down — literally — for the final movement of the ballet. I’ll never forget the exuberance and joy I felt onstage, free for once from the restraints of hairspray and bobby pins, dancing with my best friends. I got to cross something off my bucket list that weekend.
However, for any serious dancer who has devoted their life to the art form, dancing in college rather than embarking on a professional career comes with a certain stigma in the ballet world. The implication is that you’re not “good enough” to make it onto a professional company and get paid to dance without a degree. That view is, of course, extremely short-sighted, and one that I’ve found to be fundamentally untrue: after all, I’ve been fortunate enough to perform works from famed choreographers like Balanchine and to share the stage with some of the most talented dancers I know.
Even so, that stigma is enough to give anyone an inferiority complex. Every now and then, those thoughts creep in — I’m not good enough, and What’s the point? And lately, as my time in the studio has come to an end, the most depressing thought of them all — Did any of that hard work even matter?
Merce Cunningham, one of the forefathers of American modern dance, once said, “You have to love dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that fleeting moment when you feel alive.” That rings true for me, now more than ever. It can be difficult to appreciate the value of all those years of training when the only souvenirs you’re left with are the memories of past performances, of the adrenaline you felt in those few minutes onstage.
My last performance with Theatre Ballet was this February, dancing “Swan Lake” at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City. When the show was over, I had taken off my costume and was packing up when one of my friends came backstage to tell me that someone in the audience had asked to see me. I was confused because no one I knew was in attendance that night.
It turns out a four-year-old girl had seen me in the program and wanted to meet me because we have the same first name. I got to chat with her and take a picture. She even showed me some of her dance moves, and her mom told me how excited she was to start dance lessons. After COVID-19 hit and classes everywhere were postponed indefinitely, Annelise’s mom got in touch with me for advice on how to feed her daughter’s insatiable love of dance and continue her ballet education from home. It almost felt like I was passing the torch, from one Anelise to another.
Ballet is meant to look easy, but it’s not without struggle; it takes its toll. I came to BYU still recovering from my first ankle surgery, my second surgery kept me off the stage for a year, and last summer I discovered I had been dancing on a torn ligament for the entire season. But to know that I made a little girl’s day just by being onstage made my last performance a very special one.
As my time at BYU — and my dance career — draws to an unexpected close, I’ve come to realize that more than anything else, dance is an exercise in sharing joy. Everything we do as dancers is for the audience. We may cross off some bucket list items along the way, but at the end of the day, it’s all for them. That’s what makes the hard work matter.
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