(Tony Anderson Photography)
The beauty and athletic artistry that is ballet is something I am eternally curious about. I thoroughly enjoy learning more about this high art form whenever I get the chance. Fortunately for me, Anisa was more than open to speaking about her journey from student to professional ballet dancer.
Eclectic Arts: Hi Anisa! Are you back home in Colorado right now? How are things there during the pandemic? I heard on the radio that some of Colorado is opening back up which is causing some controversy (is too soon, etc).
Anisa S.: First off, I just want to thank you for having me for this interview! Since coming to WA this past winter I was introduced to Eclectic Arts through Olympic Ballet Theatre and have been a fan since! So, I was really excited when you reached out.
I’m not in Colorado currently, when the pandemic hit, I was lucky enough to have been in Seattle with my younger sister Maia (she goes to UW) and I have been here ever since! In the beginning I debated on going to my parents’ home in Florida, but with so much uncertainty and a high-risk brother, I made the decision to stay here. My sister and I have been sharing her studio apartment and abiding by Governor Inslee’s ‘Safer at Home’ order. I’m sure you can imagine what it’s been like to spend so much time with someone in such a confined space! We are lucky to be where we are, and I really am grateful to have this opportunity to get to know her better. She’s the baby after all!
EA: Thank you so much for the kind words. I'm glad we got a chance to chat today.
EA: Tell me about your background please. Where were you born? Where did you grow up? What you were like growing up, how did you get involved with dance, what you enjoy about dance, etc.
AS: I was born in Mesa, Arizona but actually grew up in a small town called Parker, CO. My family moved to CO when I was 3 so I don’t have many memories of Arizona and it tends to feel like a random marker in my life rather than a cornerstone. I am one of five kids, four girls and one boy! I have an older half-sister Krisi (39), then me (27), Kasidy (25), Maia (22) and then Austin (20). I’m actually terrible with ages and I definitely had to double check this. I know we are getting older but for some reason they remain at a fixed age in my mind, like Peter Pan or something!
Anyway, my brother Austin was born with a rare genetic disorder called Prader-Willi Syndrome. This syndrome causes a person to never feel full which means they are always hungry as well as developmental delays, physically & cognitively. He’s also been diagnosed with OCD, Bipolar disorder, Autism and extreme anxiety. So growing up with him has its challenges because he can go from his worst, having countless violent meltdowns, running away and him searching for food to his best self, being excited that he was able to draw dotted lines, waiting for the garbage truck to honk his horn and still believing in Santa! I believe that having a family member with disabilities is a life changing experience and growing up with him gave me a completely different perspective on life. A perspective that has opened my heart to countless possibilities that I otherwise, would never have known were there.
I’m naturally a very out-going, empathetic person, and as a kid I loved making my family happy. I was always the one trying to make sure everyone was ok! It made me happy and gave me a sense of purpose. However, I definitely wanted to be the “star of the show” and ballet was the perfect outlet. Granted, being the star of the show came much later and I spent my fair share of being cast in roles not very star like (Nutcracker’s party boy number 7, I’m looking at you).
Growing up I was always the tallest girl in class and ballet was no different. I was very tall & gangly and a few studios in CO told me that I would never be a dancer because I was too tall! Luckily, my mom hates being told “never” (or no for that matter) and ignored their advice. Eventually, we found a studio near us called International Ballet School where I started ballet training at 12 years old. I was very far behind my peers and naturally, I was placed in a lower level with kids who were 9 and up. I was not only older, I was so much taller, already 5’8”! I hated being behind (call it my competitive nature) so I worked as hard as I could to catch up.
(Beau Pearson Photography)
EA: What have you had to sacrifice in order to move forward with your dance career aspirations?
AS: For me falling in love with ballet was a slow, natural progression. Because of my height, I didn’t realize it was a career option until my ballet teacher sat me down and told me that if I worked really hard, I could make it, height and all. It was right then that I decided I would become a professional ballerina and completely devoted myself to the craft.
By the time I was a Sophomore in high school I was dancing 8 hours a day (multiple classes and private lessons). Traveling the world for ballet competitions and being a full-time student was incredibly difficult. I struggled with balancing the two and ultimately my family and I decided the best option for me was to pursue an alternative education and focus on my training. I gave up everything I could. From high school dances and football games, dates, late nights (early rehearsal in the morning), concerts and even friendships. I had made my decision to give it my all, so I did. Sacrifices were made and it was/is incredibly difficult. I’ve struggled and spent many late nights (and days if we’re being honest) wondering what was lost or could have been. Ultimately, the positive results outweighed the negative and I’ve been able to truly grow as an artist. Of course, there are things I wish I could have done differently, but overall; I am proud of the steps I’ve taken to achieve my goals.
EA: When and how did you first become involved with the Olympic Ballet Theater? Do you also teach with the Olympic Ballet School? Are you a hired professional dancer with OBT? Do you fly back between Colorado and Washington? Please walk me through that timeline.
AS: Ok so for this timeline to be as accurate as possible, I think I need to back it up a little further. Starting at the age of 12, I began competing in a ballet competition called, Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP). It’s a competition where ballet companies from all over the world watch dancers compete and offer training programs or company contracts. It’s a great place for dancers to be seen, especially for a dancer who was unusually tall.
After several years, I realized there are very few companies who seek out a 6-foot female dancer. But, when I was 18, I competed in NYC at YAGP and I received my first professional offer. I accepted a contract to become an apprentice with the Semperoper Ballett, in Dresden, Germany. I spent two wonderful years training & dancing with them and around Europe. When my contract ended, I moved back to the states, trained for a year in Colorado and decided to compete in an International Ballet Competition (IBC) in Jackson, MI. I received and accepted a contract from Ballet West 2, which is Ballet West’s 2nd company. I moved to Salt Lake City, danced with BW2 for a year and then in 2014 I joined Ballet West’s main company. In 2019, I ended up losing my job and was in a very difficult relationship with ballet as a whole. I no longer knew whether I wanted to continue pursuing ballet as a career or start down a new path.
Luckily, my mom found Olympic Ballet Theatre and it checked off a lot of boxes, which I felt I needed, to continue dancing. One of the hugest appeals was the location! Not only is Washington beautiful, but my older sister Krisi and her fiancée as well as our youngest sister (quarantine buddy Maia) all live in Washington. It was an ideal situation; I could dance at a great smaller company while also being close to family.
I guess technically, I am a hired professional with OBT and have officially joined them for next season (or whenever Covid-19 allows). I love working with Oleg and Mara and I found Olympic Ballet Theatre at a time when I was ready to give up my entire career. Their kindness, training and overall ambiance of the school/company saved a piece of me I had nearly forgotten. I owe a lot to them.
EA: What were/are your goals as a professional dancer?
AS: When I was younger, I wanted to be famous and dance every principle role in front of the biggest audience I could; but as I’ve grown in my career, I’ve definitely refined those goals. Fame isn’t something that has the appeal it once did. Instead, my happiness and mental well-being have become a priority.
As a professional ballerina my dream role would be to dance Nikiya in La Bayadere. It has been my favorite ballet since first seeing it, the music, storyline, costumes- it’s just stunning. I was lucky enough to dance in Aaron S. Watkins version of La Bayadere when I was an apprentice with the Dresden Semperoper Ballett, and going onstage during the “Kingdom of Shades” is one of the highlights of my career. There was just something so magical about the process. From the grueling hours and hours of Corp De Ballet rehearsal to being onstage, standing in my white tutu, hearing the music swelling, and everyone truly breathing as one – and for a split-second, time really did stand still.
As of right now, my only goal is to dance professionally again. I miss the studio; I miss the structure of class (I’m currently taking virtual classes and using a bookshelf as a barre). I even miss my pointe shoes (that will probably last all of one week once we get back)! But since the pandemic hit, the arts community is at a complete standstill with an unknown future. Many dancers are mourning the loss of their season and unsure of what/when or even IF they will be able to dance again. The financial devastation to companies and studios around the world will result in many dancers, professionally and aspiring, to lose their jobs.
EA: What are your plans for post ballet life, career wise?
AS: Deciding to be a professional ballerina at such a young age, knowing my career and having my path laid out, allowed me to never question the big “What’s Next?” I was incredibly lucky. Now, within that same vein, Ballet (or any career really) creates this space of feeling secure, ideally if you work hard, you will rise through the ranks and live happily-ever-after. Unfortunately, life rarely goes as planned and sometimes a life shift hits so hard that everything comes into question at a blinding speed. And that is exactly what happened to me.
Before I get into it, to anyone who is/or has been a victim of assault, you may find this part triggering and would feel more comfortable taking space. I would like to mention that I have found my own triggers to be unexpected and if the reader is feeling something similar, please skip to the next question.
In 2018 I was sexually assaulted by someone I knew, and within the incident my sense of self and identity was completely shattered. I found myself unable to get out of bed most mornings and was struggling to work 8 hr days, 40 hr work weeks required. In the end, I was unable to fight for myself and lost my job, where I had spent 5 years, with Ballet West.
Through trial and error, long sleepless nights and a lot of tears- I survived. Eventually I left SLC and got the help I needed. While going through the healing process I started to see a “gap” within myself, that I had not realized was there. Although mental health care has made great strides, much more is needed to help heal others in similar situations; to be able to mend their own internal gaps and become whole again. My healing continues and I am forever grateful for the support from my boyfriend and my family.
I frequently find myself thinking about individuals who do not have the tools to navigate through their mental health issues and are suffering. It’s a thought I haven’t been able to shake and ultimately that thought is turning into a path for that big “What’s Next?”
So that brings us to today, where I am currently in the process of applying to colleges to become a Sports Psychologist. I believe it can be a perfect marriage of the past and future. I’ll be able to draw on my own experiences in training, being critiqued, not being good enough, being told no, falling, getting up, body image, size, being assaulted, being stalked and even being successful. The world of a professional athlete is a high-pressure job & you have to be on all the time. I can utilize my own experiences as a professional ballerina, and I hope I can make a difference in someone’s life. However, it is nerve wracking applying to colleges! I feel a bit out of place and uncomfortable because it’s been 10 years since I was last in school.
EA: That is just horrific. I am sincerely sorry that happened to you. I appreciate your candor and willingness to share your account with my readers.
(Tony Anderson Photography)
EA: What are your current summer dance plans (subject to change of course due to the pandemic)?
AS: Hopefully get into an actual studio! I miss dancing in the open space. If not, I’ll continue trying to stay in shape and take more virtual classes. I honestly need to be better about those & take more.
EA: When you're not dancing, what do you like to do? What are your other interests?
AS: I love to spend time with my loved ones. I miss them so much and the pandemic has heightened that longing exponentially!
I love to cook different types of food, bake bread, decorate cakes & cupcakes. The process is soothing and peaceful for me and in general I enjoy the art of slow living. I appreciate the beauty and time it takes to make the perfect meal and share it over some wine with the people who matter most. Also, looooove to play video games. My favorite is Overwatch (Mercy/healer main).
(First Competition - 11 Years Old)
EA: What advice would you give to a beginning ballet student?
AS: You can do anything you want.. Paths may open and close, adversity may make it seem impossible- but you are capable of everything & anything. Be the person you imagine yourself being. Trust in your magic!
OH and don’t forget to work on transitions! Clean footwork may seem tedious, but it makes all the difference (something I’m still working on!)
EA: Thank you so much for taking the time to do the interview. I'm looking forward to when OBT gets the green light to roll out ballet productions again.
AS: Even though life may feel completely upside down, just remember we are all in this together!
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