Busted toes and beauty: Whidbey dancers keep in shape with summer classes

While some kids start the early summer days testing the waters with their toes before that first swim in the surf, other island kids are busy wrapping the blistered toes of their well-trained feet. Whatever her dreams, every dancer knows those dreams will never come to fruition without hours and hours of deep practice. And a pair of ravaged feet become symbols of her certain dedication. There is, on Whidbey, a contingent of fleet-footed girls who keep that dream alive and dance every day during the concert season at the Whidbey Island Dance Theatre.

Grace Swanson performs the role of the doll in a Whidbey Island Dance Theatre production of “The Nutcracker.”

While some kids start the early summer days testing the waters with their toes before that first swim in the surf, other island kids are busy wrapping the blistered toes of their well-trained feet.

Every serious female dancer dreams of one day playing the great principal roles of the ballet, like the title role in “Giselle,” Odette in “Swan Lake” or the sylph in “La Sylphide.”

Or perhaps she is more inclined toward modern dance and dreams of playing the title role in Martha Graham’s “Clytemnestra,” or any of Twyla Tharp’s energetic masterpieces, or perhaps making it as a dancer on Broadway.

Whatever her dreams, every dancer knows those dreams will never come to fruition without hours and hours of deep practice. And a pair of ravaged feet become symbols of her certain dedication.

There is, on Whidbey, a contingent of fleet-footed girls who keep that dream alive and dance every day during the concert season at the Whidbey Island Dance Theatre.

This tiny company of dancers, housed in their Ken’s Korner studio in Clinton, are led by the dedicated passion of their directors Charlene Brown and Susan Sandri and by the devotion of their talented teachers.

These girls run through their paces day after day for the annual production of “The Nutcracker,” the “Dance & Choreography Showcase” each spring and various competitions for regional events throughout the year.

But such fine-tuned feet can’t rest too long, especially through an entire summer.

Keep at it

To keep in shape and progress in their technique, some of these girls are off to sweat it out at several summer dance intensives.

Just as there are countless summer programs for athletes, dance companies the world over hold camp-like sessions for dancers of all ages and skill levels through the summer months.

Dancers can spend from two weeks to two months at an intensive, or may choose to go to a variety of sessions held by different companies.

Most summer intensives work similarly by splitting up dancers into levels within the camp.

The dancers attend a series of classes throughout the day, with rehearsals in the evenings, in preparation for a final performance at the end of the session.

The classes usually include ballet technique, pointe, modern, pas de deux (partnering), variations, jazz, yoga, hip-hop, acting and character work.

It is no easy feat to be accepted to any of the hundreds of dance intensives that are held by major and minor dance companies throughout the United States and Canada.

Dancers must participate in a series of highly competitive auditions that begin in January and go through March.

But any dancer worth her salt knows the summer intensives are a good way to get closer to the dream.

“I do have a lot of work to do to become a professional dancer but I am willing to put myself through the training to become one,” company dancer Avery Grant said as she prepared herself for her auditions.


Fourteen-year-old Misha Flem was accepted to several programs after her auditions were completed. She chose a four-week program at the American Ballet Theater’s campus in Detroit, Mich.

The auditions Flem attended for the big dance schools — American Ballet Theater, School of American Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet and the Joffrey Ballet School — were packed with serious ballet competitors.

But she also attended auditions that had only 15 dancers at them.

“It was scary to audition for the big companies, especially when there were 150 other dancers all vying for the same spot,” she said.

“In the end, it all works out and you leave feeling like you put all that you could into it and you had fun doing it.”

Raelani McLean Kesler, also 14, was equally impressed by the audition process. She was accepted to a three-week American Ballet Theater intensive in Orange County, Calif.

“Auditions are really intimidating; you’re in a room with all of these other girls; some of them are serious ballet dancers. You just take a normal class, only you wear numbers and there are really scary people with clipboards watching you.”

“It’s really hard to stay positive but you have to,” Kesler said.

Grace Swanson, 14, was excited to be venturing to Canada for her five-week intensive at the Okanagan Summer Dance Institute, and hoping to soak up some of her Canadian roots.

“Both of my parents grew up in Canada and I have grandparents there as well,” Swanson explained.

Swanson said she used her power of concentration to fight off any nervousness she might have at auditions.

“During the audition I tried to focus on getting the combinations and showing proper technique,” she said.

“Afterward, I felt relieved and hoped I had done well and was excited to get the news that I had been accepted,” Swanson said.

The institute auditioned more than 800 dancers from across Canada and the United States and Swanson was hoping she had what they were looking for. She did.

“They only accepted 64 students. I am the second youngest of those whoare attending,” she said.

At 15, Grant said she is in the youngest age group at the Boston Ballet summer intensive where she will be for five weeks this summer.

It will be a solo journey, she added.

“I am flying there all by myself on June 27,” Grant said. “I’m going to miss my friends, family and boyfriend super, super bad!”

Contrast that with her performance before a band of judicious eyes. Grant said she didn’t mind the audition process.

“I wasn’t nervous at all, and I don’t even see a reason to be nervous. That would just make me dance worse. Nervous is just silly,” she said.

Additionally, WIDT dancers Jachen Mackner, Juliana Nolen and Emily and Katie Alice Rookstool were also accepted at summer intensives.

Mackner, 16, was offered a scholarship to attend Repertory Dance Theatre’s modern dance summer intensive in Utah and Nolen, 13, was accepted at the Regional Dance America Summer Intensive and Craft of Choreography Conference at the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s north campus.

Emily Rookstool, 14, will attend the American Ballet Theatre intensive in Alabama and then join her sister Katie Alice, 12, at the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan for another three week program.


Not just any 14- or 15-year-old girl could get on a plane and fly across the country to a strange place for weeks at a time, but this group from Whidbey Island Dance Theatre has been inspired to devote this part of their lives to dancing and to be the best they can be.

“Our artistic directors Dr. Sandri and Char Brown offer support and training that make us competitive for these summer programs, even though we come from a little island,” Swanson said.

Amy Arand, 14, will be attending the Illinois Ballet Theater Academy of Dance Arts Summer Intensive for two and half weeks.

Dancing is a boost for her.

“I love dance, it inspires me,” Arand said. “I love performing and making people feel good while they watch something that I enjoy so much. If I’m feeling down and things aren’t going well, I can forget about everything and just dance.”

A love of dance

Grant expressed a similar feeling.

“It’s not that I like to show off how high I can kick my leg, or how long I can do an arabesque, but it’s just that adrenaline rush and you also get to make people smile. I love it when people are happy, especially when I make them happy,” Grant said.

Although Kesler is trying to learn Italian, and looks forward to one day traveling internationally, right now dancing is her thing.

“It’s a really big commitment and you have to love it or else you couldn’t stand putting so much work into it,” she said.

“I do have other interests that

I want to try out, but guess I’ll have to wait and see what happens. But I know I definitely won’t stop dancing anytime soon, if at all.”

Swanson, too, said there is something special about dance that keeps her interested.

“Dancing is my passion.

I dance at least five days a week. I hope to always keep dancing in my future,” Swanson said.

Flem takes a realistic approach to a career in dance, realizing that perhaps she is not yet ready to decide.

“As of right now I am just dancing because it’s something I love to do,” Flem said.

“I have thought about making a career out of dance, but I still feel like I’m young and have a lot of time to decide those major life decisions.”

Ultimately, these young dancers devote countless hours, days, months and, for some, years to perfecting the point of a foot, the cleanliness of a turn, the extreme subtlety of a hand that an audience can appreciate without quite knowing how excruciatingly hard it can be to make the fingers so soft.

The summer intensive is a way for a dancer to keep fit during the lazier days of summer; to keep moving forward in her technique and maturity as a dancer. It is a demonstration of one’s respect for the art form and a dancer’s commitment to it.

“I would definitely have to say that the worst part is waiting for the letters saying if you have been accepted or rejected,” Flem said.

“I can’t even begin to tell you how many times my parents drove me to the post office to see if I had received anything,” she said.

Patricia Duff can be reached at 221-5300 or pduff@southwhidbey


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