How ballet changed four lives in South Carolina

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GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) — Ballet.

The word itself seems to define it, filling our heads with an array of associations.

Swirling colors in pastel and pink, sounds of the melding of classical instruments, soft pink slippers covering tipping toes, tutus twirling.

But those familiar with ballet – they know.

The strenuous calf work. The meticulous positions. The daily goal of coming close to perfection.

They know that it’s more than a hobby. It’s a way of life.

It’s certainly true in the Upstate for four people who shared their lives with The Greenville News this past year: a dance studio executive director, a teenage ballet student, a professional dancer and instructor, and a collegiate ballerina.

Despite the pandemic, they had to keep dancing, keep in condition, keep teaching. To interrupt their training for months wasn’t an option. So, like many of us, video conferencing became the vehicle for the new normal.

Here are their stories about how the complex art of ballet has impacted their lives, as well as a look at their life in ballet this year.

The grit of a ballet studio executive director

Who: Sarah Shoemaker of Greer, executive director at International Ballet Academy

Definition of ballet: She sees ballet as a dichotomy of selfish and selfless, as a dancer pours his or her time and effort into perfection, but inspires and gives back to others at the same time.

Her story: Sarah Shoemaker lives in a house of ballet.

She met her husband, Thomas, when she danced in a ballet company in Charleston in the late ’90s. He was a guest artist who came to town to perform as her partner in a ballet called “Hearth of Embers.”

“Apparently we took the ballet title quite literally and started the fire of our love then,” she said with a laugh, reflecting on their journey.

Her 11-year-old son, Sam, also dances under instruction daily. It has been part of the glue that has kept them close as a family.

And similarly, when Shoemaker steps back and looks at her life, she knows that a lifetime of ballet is what gave her grit.

“In ballet you, just go back every day, and you face it again,” she said.

“Ballet training gave me the ability to endure long hard fights toward practically imperceptible goals with no promise of glory. It also gave me millions of opportunities to fail and move quickly on.

“These are the skills I’ve built my career on.”

Recent recognition: Shoemaker directed a documentary that won in the Tyron International Film Festival 2020

The confidence of a teenage ballerina

Who: Macayle McMullin of Taylors, homeschool high school senior

Definition of ballet: “Ballet’s a very visually, perfect, athletic … sport … art … form … thing.”

Her story: Most mornings, you can find Macayle McMullin at the small desk in her room.

Sunlight cascades in her window and bounces off the big green leaves of a tall Mass Cane plant. Her Deer Head Chihuahua, Buttercup, trots between her legs and under her chair as she homeschools on an iPad.

She has a simple routine: homework and then ballet.

At ballet class, McMullin’s calm demeanor turns bubbly as she catches up with friends and stretches — she’s the center of attention as she finds her happy place. But when dance instructor Liz Blackwood arrives, focus sets in among the girls in maroon leotards with their hair pulled back into tidy buns.

Movement seems effortless as McMullin extends her arms above her head and shifts her weight to the tips of her toes, eyes fixed on the repetitive motion. With various tendus and pliés, she is quickly absorbed into the rhythm and delicacy of the music.

Words from her instructor, like “you’ll be sore now” or “we have to make sure we’re improving on this,” barely seem to affect her concentration.

Six months later, even a pandemic hasn’t broken the routine.

The faint noise of a workout video mixes with the sound of a creaking bar as McMullin balances on one foot in the attic of her home. Her breath echoes against the silence in the small space, and the air is scented peppermint by an essential oil spray used on her sprained ankle.

Though the scenes are different, McMullin is the same: focused, confident.

That confidence is a gift from the “sport … art … form … thing” she’s spent years perfecting. And she wears it like a gold crown, whether she’s on stage in front of hundreds or in the attic alone.

“Ballet has given me a different kind of confidence,” she says slowly, as if determining exactly the different kind it is.

It’s a rhythm not only in her attitude but in her movement and posture. It’s brought her through seasons of self-doubt over body image or comparing herself with other dancers.

When McMullin began ballet as a 6-year-old, she’d tell people she was going to be a ballerina some day. And that aspiration is still very much alive.

“I want to inspire people. I wish for people to be moved and left with a sense of pride and joy when they watch me,” she said. “That’s all I’ve ever dreamed of really, on the stage or in the street. I want people to look at me and feel inspired.

“If you can inspire someone, I would consider that to be one of the greatest accomplishments a person can do.”

The determination of a professional dancer

Who: Vlada Kysselova of Greer, artistic director at International Ballet Academy

Definition of ballet: “When your soul can fly.”

Her story: For Vlada Kysselova, moving to the US. from Kiev, Ukraine, at age 28 was scary enough. Then she woke the next day — on Sept. 11, 2001 — to a different world.

Separated from her family by more than 5,000 miles, she felt the fear of Americans as they watched the two towers fall.

But determination — honed through her rise to the world of professional ballet — taught her to turn hard circumstances into something beautiful.

Far from the dance recitals that ballet is mostly limited to in the American South, Kysselova grew up in and around grand ballet theaters and opera houses. She started classes at age 7 and by age 10 earned a place at the Kiev State College of Choreography, the only professional ballet school in the Ukraine at that time.

Twenty years of training landed Kysselova at Kiev Classical Ballet as a professional dancer. Ballet didn’t change her life; it became her life.

Describing ballet has a weight for Kysselova as she thinks of her lifetime committed to it: “unforgettable feelings that make your soul fly.”

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When she looks back and considers the hard times she’s gone through, the level she’s achieved, the new country she calls home — she knows the relentless drive from ballet brought her through.

“My hardest moment was when I was physically or emotionally not feeling 100%, I still had to rehearse or perform.

“After pushing through and disciplining myself, I always felt better.”

She pushes her students with that same discipline using a gentle, direct voice to lead them to the ideal technique.

The journey of a collegiate ballerina

Who: Gabrielle Brown of Greer, Riverside High graduate, Oklahoma University student

Definition of Ballet: “There’s so much that goes into even the simplest hand movement and hand gesture. It’s so appealing because we make it that way.”

Her story: Brown has loved ballet as long as she can remember.

It’s a deep dedication that’s resulted in a lot of missed “normal” moments — birthday parties, football games, after-school events.

It’s repetition that didn’t reap an immediate reward: “Improvement comes very slow in ballet.” And after 15 years, her calves still get sore after every class.

But she got to do what she’s passionate about, and she’d choose the same path again, and again, and again. She is energized by the tiring repetition.

The enjoyment, she’s found, is in the journey. And that’s exactly how she views life.

Whether it was homework or rehearsals, volunteering at the Humane Society or applying for schools with auditions all over the US, she took each challenge one at a time, day by day, step by step.

Through practice and endurance she reaches her goals.

Although it’s not easy to watch her every moment in mirrors daily — it can bring on self-doubt — she always sees something in ballet that’s positive. There’s always the potential to improve.

“I know that I always have the power to change what my dancing looks like.”

And that is the very essence of dance.

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