Pre-Professional Ballet Dancer
(King of Prussia, PA)
When I came to visit Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet in Narberth on the last day of September to meet with Abby McGahey, she was at the tail end of rehearsing her Snow Queen part in Nutcracker with a local professional ballet dancer who played her counterpart, the Snow King. She was beautiful and graceful as I had expected. She was engrossed in her choreography and seemed to relish being lifted high into the air especially. Then, she and two other advanced ballet dancers continued with their class with the director of the studio. I enjoyed watching and photographing a part of the lesson. After her class, Abby and I chatted a bit about her aspirations in dance. 17-year old Abby is trying to become a professional ballet dancer with impending auditions with ballet companies this academic year.
Hazel: Thanks for letting me interview you, Abby. It’s nice to meet you. I know you are a senior in high school. Which high school do you go to?
Abby: I attend on-line high school. I’ve been doing this since the beginning of high school.
Hazel: How do you like it?
Abby: I actually enjoy it. Initially, I had to get used to working independently and staying motivated but it turned out fine. I especially like the fact that my schedule is so flexible. It works well with my dance schedule.
Hazel: Do you ever miss the social aspect of being at school?
Abby: I never went to a public school. Up through middle school, I was homeschooled by my mom. I have four older sisters and am the youngest in the family and we’ve all been homeschooled. The next youngest is 23 so there’s a bit of an age gap.
Hazel: Wow, your mom must have been a good teacher! When did you start dance/ballet?
Abby: I was 3 when my parents put me in a dance class for the first time because I was hyperactive. I danced continuously since then but I was not really serious until 11 or 12. That’s when I realized how much I cared about dance.
Hazel: So were you doing ballet from the beginning or dance in general?
Abby: I didn’t really get seriously into classical ballet until I was 13. I was at a dance studio where I was introduced to all different dance forms including ballet, jazz, modern, etc. All those different dance classes taught me how to love dance.
Hazel: What made you go into ballet specifically when you were 13?
Abby: I performed my first solo variation and was watching videos of great performers for inspiration. There was this one video from the Paris Opera Ballet where the prima ballerina was so special and graceful. I really wanted to do what she did.
Hazel: Great. By the way, what is a variation?
Abby: It’s a solo dance in classical ballet.
Hazel: What aspects of classical ballet do you love the most about?
Abby: I like the fact that classical ballet is so difficult technically. I like the challenge so much! I also love the music that I dance to.
Hazel: I heard that you are an accomplished classical pianist who can play pieces by Rachmaninoff beautifully! Is this true?
Abby: I do play the piano. I’ve played it since I was a baby, and music is a big part of my family.
Hazel: So you grew up listening to classical music?
Abby: Yes. I love classical music.
Hazel: It must be so helpful to have received classical music education as you have as a ballet dancer.
Abby: Very much so. Dance and music are so interconnected.
Hazel: Where do you get your inspirations when you dance?
Abby: There are dancers I look up to, but the music I’m dancing to at the moment inspires me the most.
Hazel: Any particular music you are drawn to?
Abby: I love music from the romantic period that is dramatic and flowing. I love works by Tchaikovsky, Chopin, etc. There are so many!
Hazel: What is your daily routine?
Abby: I take 2 classes a day. I would typically take a 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. class, then I would have a rehearsal after that.
Hazel: Just so I know, what is the difference between a class and a rehearsal?
Abby: A class is primarily for refining your technique, whereas a rehearsal is for working on choreography for an upcoming performance.
Hazel: Thanks for the clarification. Do you ever have one-on-one private lessons?
Abby: No, all classes and rehearsals are in a group setting.
Hazel: Do you like that aspect of ballet? Do you like the teamwork?
Abby: Yes, definitely. I love dancing with other people and feeling the community of dancers around me. Waltz of the Flowers from Nutcracker is so fun because it requires all the dancers to work hard together.
Hazel: Wonderful! Let’s go back to your daily schedule. What do you do after your morning class and rehearsal?
Abby: So after a rehearsal of 1 to 2 hours, I go have lunch. After that comes my schoolwork which takes most of my afternoon. From 6 to 8 p.m., I take another class at the studio. If it’s a show season, I would squeeze in another rehearsal after that.
Hazel: Wow, that’s a long day! When do you get to eat then? Doesn’t seem like there’s much time for dinner.
Abby: I eat a really late dinner. But I do eat some snacks in between things so I’m not starving.
Hazel: So… I have this pressing question. As a person who knows very little about ballet, a common myth is that ballerinas starve to keep their shape. Is this true?
Abby: (laughs) I eat whatever I want. I try to eat a lot of protein but I love pasta and eat a lot of it. Dancers have to be strong and need the energy to dance. So no, we don’t starve ourselves.
Hazel: Good to hear that! Another potential myth… Is it true you all have foot issues?
Abby: So that one is true and real. I get blisters and toenail issues but no bone or muscle problems yet. Taking care of my feet is of utmost importance. If I dance correctly, I should be minimizing my risk of getting injured. So dancing with a good form is very important. I also try to take care of them at the end of the day.
Hazel: How do you take care of your feet?
Abby: I massage and ice them, and I also make sure my pointe shoes are supportive.
Hazel: I heard you are going to audition soon to join a ballet company. Tell me about the auditioning process.
Abby: First, I have to submit a pre-audition video to the ballet company I’m applying to. The companies usually have very similar requirements. I have to show: 1. Contemporary variations, 2. Exercises from a class, 3. Classical variations, 4. Full length photos and 5. A comprehensive resume of my dance career. If I pass the pre-audition round, I get to go on to a physical, in-person audition. If I make it to that round, I would be auditioning sometime between January and March of next year.
Hazel: That’s really coming up soon! Good luck with that. How do you choose the repertoire for the pre-audition videos and live auditions?
Abby: For classical variations, I’ve chosen to do one I performed a couple of years ago. I know it already so well and just need to brush it up. I think it plays well to my strengths.
Hazel: What are your strengths?
Abby: (blushes) Well, I feel confident about moving in general. I feel good about my movement quality and turning. I have a very flexible back so extensions to the back is a strength of mine whereas my side and front extensions are not as high.
Hazel: Sounds like you are a dynamic dancer! What has been your biggest hardship as a dancer so far?
Abby: It’s easy to get frustrated day to day. I can be my worst critic. I have to push myself to get better but not to the point where I’m too hard on myself. I have to be patient. It’s hard to find the balance between being positive but also making progress.
Hazel: Lastly, any people you want to thank in particular?
Abby: My parents have been the most supportive of my endeavors. They always motivate me and it’s so nice to come home to them after a long day. I also want to thank all the teachers at the Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet as they have created so many wonderful opportunities for me.
I wish Abby the best of luck with her ballet career. I hope to hear good news soon and will post about it once I do.