Decatur High School, GA

Strides and strifes of a 15 year old ballerina

It all starts with stretching, then barre, corrections, floor, corrections, ice and rewrap your feet, repeat. This is the life of a ballet dancer. Ballet is one of the most difficult forms of dance, because it demands  perfect technique, flexibility and strength. All of this is done while dancing on the tips of your toes seemingly, without effort.

Grace Brawn is a ballet dancer who is all too familiar with these challenges.

“I’ve been dancing since I was 3, now ballet feels like a necessary part of my life and routine,” Brawn said.

Brawn, now being 15, has performed in “way too many” shows to count and loves performing. Brawn recalls when she was only 10 and experienced stage fright for the first time.

Brawn performing the Nutcracker.

“I had never been scared to perform before, but I was performing in the Nutcracker and before me one of the girls dancing had dropped a ribbon on stage,” Brawn said. “ That’s when the director told me when I bowed I had to pick it up. For some reason this really freaked me out and I started to get inside my head about it. Luckily I grabbed the ribbon and everything went fine but that’s still the most nervous I’ve ever been for a performance.”

Brawn’s mother, Wendy Amko, recalls when she first saw her daughter’s love and talent for ballet.

“Ever since she was very young, she would dance around the house, giddy and laughing, but when she was around 9 years old, I attended parent observation and her natural ability was clear – her musicality, ease of movement and coordination,” Amko said.  “In a costume on stage, she is really in her element.”

Teachers also recognized Brawn’s natural ability for ballet. This propelled Brawn into higher levels of ballet, she was soon dancing with girls five years her senior.

Pointe shoes are a coming of age symbol for a ballet student. Pointe shoes are what allow dancers to dance on the tip of their toes, they require a lot of balance and ankle strength. Most ballet teachers wait until a dancer is 12-14 years old, to make sure their ankles are strong enough to support themselves dancing on their toes. Brawn however was an exception to this tradition.

“I got put on pointe when I was only 10,” Brawn said “ At the time I was dancing with 15 and 16 year old girls, which was really intimidating but ended up pushing me to do better.”

Pushing yourself to constantly improve is essential for a ballet dancer because it’s one of the most difficult forms of dance and is especially competitive as one begins to think of dance as a career.  Ballet is one of the oldest forms of dance, created in 14th century Italy before moving over to France and evolving it into the dance it is today. Over time ballet has developed a specific look desired for dancers and this includes an extremely structured technique. The technique required to execute moves well means daily practice.

As Brawn became increasingly serious about ballet the amount of classes and work she was putting into ballet kept increasing. Amko felt like the stress of being both in school and in ballet classes everyday was taking a toll on her.

“Her last year at Renfroe, Grace and I would leave the house at 7:30am to go to school, then she would go from school to ballet class, from 5:30pm to 8:30pm, or later if she had rehearsals,” Amko said. ” She would try to finish her homework in the car on the way home or during breaks, and somehow fit dinner in too.  There was class and rehearsals Saturdays as well, especially during Nutcracker season.”

Grace also felt the stress of having a full time dancing career and going to school.

“There just wasn’t enough time in the day for me to do it all. So, in 7th grade my parents took me out of Renfroe and put me into online school,” Brawn said.

The move came with positive changes, giving Brawn more time at home to spend with her mom.   

Brawn at the School of American Ballet, showing her flexibility and ankle strength.

“It really was a huge relief to have our evenings back again.  I didn’t mind when we were doing the long days, because she was the one who was doing all the work and she just loved it; but once we switched it really took a lot of pressure off to have that time back,” Amko said.

However, leaving Renfroe resulted in Brawn losing most of her friends from middle school.

“I have a few friends I’ve kept in touch with from school.” Brawn said “but for the most part most of my friends are also dancers which is pretty incredible because they are all extremely talented and from all over the world.”

Most of Brawns friends are dancers, despite the stereotype that ballet is extremely competitive and dancers, especially women are always pitted against each other.

“The stereotype isn’t completely untrue,” Brawn said. “There are girls I’ve worked with that are extremely competitive and take ballet very seriously, a lot of times they can be mean to other dancers. This is such a small industry that you can’t afford to be rude in, because that girl you were once mean to could become a casting director, choreographer, or someone else in the industry and you could lose a future job.”

The choice to pursue dance full time has created a lot of opportunities for Brawn. Brawn has traveled to New york to further her training as a dancer. Brawn attended the School of American Ballet a prestigious company whose most famous dancer is Misty Copeland.  

“I got an opportunity to audition for the program and ended up getting a full scholarship to live and dance there, I’ve been going for three years now,” Brawn said.

The School of American Ballet only accepts 10% of girls auditioning each year, making it one of the most competitive schools for ballet in the world. Only 1% of those accepted get a full scholarship.

“I fit in really well with their summer program because they tend to do adagio ballet, this means fast movements and a lot of jumps, and that’s what I’m best at because I’m more muscular than a lot of dancers, which helps me move faster and jump higher,” Brawn said.

Brawn practices her floor routine at the School of American Ballet .

Even though Brawn goes to the School of American Ballet every summer when trying to join the company as a permanent member she was denied.

“All the girls that are apart of the SAB (School of American Ballet) company are extremely tall and skinny, they have a classic ballet look,” Brawn said “I couldn’t join because I didn’t fit with the other girls, I’m shorter and more muscular compared to a lot of dancers. Of course this disappointed me but that’s just how the dance world works, you have to find a company that you fit in with, a lot of ballet is conformity, they want dancers to look like one unit when dancing.”

Sadly, companies not hiring dancers because of looks, height and size is all too common in the ballet industry.

Brawn also faces personal challenges being at a professional level and only 15.

“I love dancing, but sometimes when I see my friends that don’t dance going to football games, and having fun at school I feel really left out, Brawn said. I’m not having a typical high school experience at all, and I’ve grown to be okay with that.”

For Brawn small sacrifices like missing out on football games are worth it to achieve her bigger goal. To become a professional dancer you have to start young, because the lifespan of a ballerina is relatively short.

“A ballerina usually has a pretty short career, you start professionally in your late teens as a dancer and usually retire in your early 30’s. Ballet is so time consuming, physically challenging and rigorous most dancer retire around 30, and then usually become a (ballet) teacher, choreographer or something else in the industry,” Brawn said.

Brawn looks forward to starting her career as a ballerina, and she has full support from her mother.

“I think it is (ballet industry) changing more now than it has in several decades. It is becoming more accessible as a profession and as a form of entertainment, and ballerinas are now appreciated as the athletic performers they are.  I do believe the experience of working for a professional ballet company varies greatly depending upon the company and artistic director at the time.  So finding a good fit is very important,” Amko said.

Brawn hopes to join the Atlanta Ballet company this year and start her career with them.

Photos courtesy of Brawn. 


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