A Career in the Corps

Anspach McEliece (in peach) in Ronald Hynd’s The Sleeping Beauty.
Anspach McEliece (in peach) in Ronald Hynd’s The Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB.

I remember the exact day my dreams were dashed.

I’d been dancing with Pacific Northwest Ballet for over four years. Having trained at the school, I’d been around long enough to know how things worked—or at least I thought I did. As a child, I’d sat in the red velvet seats of the opera house and watched this company of extraordinary dancers perform beautiful ballets. I saved every program and collected well-worn pointe shoes in the hope that one day I might see my name in those programs, I might have my own shoes to sign away to some little girl. I dreamed of being Clara or Cinderella. I dreamed of being a ballerina.

Fast-forward a few years, and the dream was coming true: I received my apprentice contract to dance with PNB, and the door seemed wide open with every opportunity laid out before me. Principal dancer, here I come! Because, let’s be honest, what dancer says, “When I grow up, I want to be in the corps de ballet”?

But as senior corps parts kept going to newer or younger dancers, that optimistic open door seemed like a mirage. At first, I’d rationalize away my feelings, making up any excuse, any story to keep the door open. Yet with every passing rep, disappointment hit.

Finally, my confusion and frustration reached a boiling point. So I did something crazy: I sought the truth.

In ballet we’re used to wearing next to nothing onstage, but I never felt more naked than on that November day when I went into my director’s office and laid it all out. Humbly, vulnerably, honestly, I asked him why I kept being overlooked.

His response? He didn’t see me as anything more than a corps dancer.

Those words were heartbreaking, but they were also freeing. Telling the truth is not always easy, nor is hearing it, but it is always good. I now knew where I stood. And a fighter at heart, I told him that while I appreciated his honesty, I respectfully reserved the right to prove him wrong. And boy did I try!

With an attitude of determination, I continued to push myself, and was constantly in his office asking to learn parts, asking to dance more. And while at first this approach seemed to pay off with new opportunities, the change was fleeting. His mind was already made up.

I wish I had a fairy-tale ending to this story: The underdog dances, proves her worth and her dream of principal dancer comes true. Instead, this June, after performing for 12 years professionally, I took my final bow on the PNB stage. There was no petal drop, no gala or fanfare. There rarely is for a career corps dancer.

And while at times I do wrestle with those whispers of inadequacy, I mostly reflect on my career with pride and overwhelming gratitude. It’s easy to focus on what we don’t have. But that mentality will poison every aspect of this gift we’ve been given: to be a dancer, to dance.

I don’t deserve this life I’ve lived. Sure, I’ve worked hard—I’ve sweat, and bled and cried—but so have countless others. And we all have dreams and aspirations.

Eventually I found peace and satisfaction with what I’d been given, relishing the role I had as a mentor within the corps and company. The bond that exists between a bevy of swans or a flurry of snowflakes is unlike any other. We hold each other up—sometimes literally. And the amount of time I had onstage, even if it was just as a villager or a Wili, was still an opportunity to perform. Sometimes every night. As a principal or soloist you get maybe a few shows, but in the corps I got to be in every show. Being onstage is what I worked so hard for. It’s the sprinkles on the sundae. And I got a lot of sprinkles.

The reality is that not everyone can become a principal—or a professional dancer for that matter. Accepting this does not mean that I settled or gave up. On the contrary, it took courage! I continued to push my limitations and honed my craft with every opportunity I was given until the very end of my career. Above all, I consciously chose to cherish every plié. Every sauté. Every second in the studio or onstage. Because it is all a gift.

My dreams weren’t actually dashed on that November day. The little girl who sat on those red velvet seats spent a career performing with the only company she ever wanted to dance for. Her dream came true. 

With her professional dancing days over, Jessika Anspach McEliece is pursuing her passions: traveling, interior design and writing.

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