Becoming Ballerina: The Portland Ballet


“Good, Nick…Now Look at him, Medea…Hold it through the note…Good, good…Which arm are you using, Nick? Yeah, that’s fine, yes.”

Nancy and Jim sit beside one another against a wall of glass reflecting the leaping, bounding dancers using every inch of Studio B of The Portland Ballet, a building nestled behind Wilson High School on Capitol Hwy across the street from a food pod easily mistaken for a dentist’s office or a start-up graphic design firm. The sun reaches in through the window and stretches across the floor turning darting shadows into caricatures as Nancy’s eyes carom from Nick to Medea, toes to fingertips, engagement to eye contact, while she starts and stops with directions and encouragement at key moments.

The sweat hadn’t dried, the hallway still bustled with dancers in all manner of half-dress between street clothes and leotards and there began the next practice, this time of four, with more onlookers than participants. Jim, Nancy, Jason, and others take up station at the head of the room as young Medea, Nick, Charlotte, and Henry keep the studio for a performance practice of a piece close to Nancy’s heart which few get to perform.

Nick and Medea, teenagers still juggling high school quizzes, are performing Tchaikovsky’s Pas de Deux, choreographed by Balanchine, arguably one of the most difficult performances by history’s greatest choreographer. Children performing art so cherished that it is held in a trust. The same art that Nancy and Jim, in a life lived on stages and in studios such as this, performed many times in the Los Angeles Ballet. To get to Balanchine, The Portland Ballet, and as far as it takes to earn your later fond reflections on a career well lived, it starts with that sweat still acrid in the air.


“It takes a decade to build a dancer,”

says Nancy Davis. Not train, teach, coach…but build beginning at age 8 in the average scenario; get them young like any other athlete. It is here that the dream can be made real. Children convinced by society that they can achieve anything have the audacity to believe it. They have the brazen ignorance to think that they can turn the very object of halloween costumes and themed, prepubescent birthdays into an occupation. Before long the dancer and the teacher, the builder, turn their eyes to the future and the real work begins…the audition.

It’s a room filled with fidgeting children, preteens hoping to take the next step, and young men and women in their final years preparing for academies or maybe just to fulfill a desire to dance out of a massive love and passion in this over other sports…though, no other sports are referred to as an art; even boxing is just a sweet science.

It is few children, and they are very much that at 16, that are filling out college applications as backups to dance academies. So are the cases of a few of TPB’s more prized pupils. However, in this room of adolescents and preteens pinned with numbers and stiffened by nerves, their awkward steps and unsteady movements reveal what hope looks like, the stress and anxiety of opportunity meeting preparation on a fated Saturday which had its own countdown.

Nancy and others pore over notes and exchange hushed whispers through out the proceeding audition. Notes are scribbled on slips of paper corresponding to not dancers, but numbers. They look for skill, teachability, technique, focus, but it all starts with facility, the body.

Ballet, not unlike similar athletics of strength and skill, has the occupational hazard of championing skinny women and lean men; like it or not, the societal ideal of modern beauty is pretty close to that of the perfect dancer. Heavy, chunky, almost too short, pretty stalky, a bit husky, are all judgements passed post-audition Even being too tall, can lead to disadvantages and exclusions from upper classes. While society may debate subjective beauty, ballet demands it as an objective job requirement.

Hashing over the candidates from the audition is done manically at best. 5×8 sheets are scribbled on, shuffled, matched to faces and bios. Questions of facility and teachability do battle with class sizes, courses, scholarships, and current ability.

“Up with the 4/5 class?…down with level 3…25% scholarship?… can’t let him slip away…she is definitely in…she’s 13? That can’t be right. What did we say with this one? Let me see her again. Oh, she was cute. I liked her. Yes, she’s not there yet. Maybe she can fit in with your class? Where did she come from? Do you think he’ll come here? God, she was good. He was just amazing. OK, do we all agree?”


You want the best at your school, and to get them there is competition. For a good school to become a great, storied institution there are no greater tools for recruiting than name recognition and financial assistance. Think of college basketball. We’re Duke, North Carolina, Florida, Kentucky. You play here and you get to compete with the best, be on TV, free education, and maybe the NBA. That same promise can be offered by TPB even as a thriving non-profit organization. Scholarships, the ability to perform more publicly, the opportunity to work with a seasoned and impressive faculty; work with the best, become the best…

For the full story and more photos, check out issue 6 from Poppycock available at Reading Frenzy on Mississippi Ave. until summer 2015.


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