On any given day, Pacific Northwest Ballet’s rehearsal studios are filled with ballerinas decked out in a rainbow of colorful, innovative leotards—many designed and hand-sewn by principal dancer Elizabeth Murphy.
Murphy didn’t grow up sewing. In fact, she didn’t even know how to run a sewing machine until she was 18. She didn’t want to sit still long enough.
The Chelmsford, Massachusetts, native started dance lessons as a child in her hometown, and by her early teens decided to pursue a dance career. She moved to Pennsylvania to train at The Rock School for Dance Education. While still a student, she danced supplementary roles at Pennsylvania Ballet. Murphy then landed a position with Ballet West II before entering its main company in 2007.
But she was miserable. “My first year in the company was the hardest of my career, as of yet,” she says. Murphy didn’t expect overnight success, but she also never imagined how tedious it would be to stand around for six hours every day, waiting to rehearse short walk-on roles. For the first time, she contemplated quitting.
Instead, she decided to look outside dance for a new creative outlet. She discovered it in sewing.
Murphy found a bargain sewing machine online, along with a few easy patterns. Every evening, she came home from the studio to learn something new. When a friend suggested she try her hand at leotards, she found a simple bathing suit pattern, and turned to YouTube videos for guidance.
“It was freeing to practice and master sewing techniques, whereas in dance I sometimes felt stuck, or limited,” Murphy says.
The sense of accomplishment she found in sewing motivated her out of her dance rut: In 2007 and 2008 she attended Pacific Northwest Ballet’s summer intensive. Impressed by artistic director Peter Boal, and by the dancers she met in Seattle, Murphy kept an eye on the company and joined the corps de ballet in 2011. She’s moved up the ranks very quickly, and last November, Boal promoted her to principal dancer. In a pre-show speech, he compared her to a young Meryl Streep. “When she’s onstage, the audience can’t take its eyes off of her,” he says.
At PNB, Murphy has danced everything from Sugar Plum Fairy to featured roles in contemporary works, like William Forsythe’s In the middle, somewhat elevated. “It feels so good to dance things that don’t put a limit to your range!” she enthuses.
You can say the same thing about her approach to designing dancewear. Murphy sews each leotard using soft spandex and mesh, with the aim of crafting lightweight, breathable garments. “I try to create simple lines that accentuate the beauty of the ballet body,” she says. She’s also developed a unique leg seam. “It keeps the leotard down better, without cutting into the leg,” she explains.
PNB corps member Emma Love Suddarth says she’s never worn such flattering, and comfortable, leotards before. “I get a little sad towards the end of the week when my Liz leotard supply runs out,” she says.
Last summer, Murphy started to market her eight leotard designs on Etsy, under her own brand, Label Dancewear. “My slogan is ‘Love Your Label,’ which is essentially ‘Love Yourself,’ ” she says. She wants to inspire younger dancers to accept themselves more than she did at her first job. “We’re so passionate about what we do,” she says. “But I think a lot of times, when we’re in it, we don’t see the beauty.”
Murphy still makes each leotard herself but plans to hire somebody to help her meet demand. She’s sold more than 300 leotards in the past six months and hasn’t had time to replenish her stock.
For now, Murphy is content to keep Label Dancewear fairly small. But someday, when she hangs up her pointe shoes, the goal-oriented ballerina may reinvent herself as a big-time entrepreneur.
Ballet dancers often make good business people. They have the training and discipline to bring their ideas to life and the artistic streak to dream up a new, creative product. In fact, Pointe's "Dancer Spotlight" column often features dancers who have a non-dance business on the side.
Julia Erickson, a principal at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, has elucidated her five rules for how non-dancers can think like a ballerina to find balance in their lives— but what about how businesses might think like an arts organization to improve their practices? It's an odd comparison, since arts organizations are often portrayed as poorly structured institutions with financial problems. However, the National Post argues that arts organizations like the National Ballet of Canada offer important lessons when it comes to running a successful business—whether "maximizing performance" means onstage or in the office.
1. Selecting talent: Identifying what skills are needed
Yes, sometimes roles are cast largely based on rank. But most often, the best dancer is chosen for each role despite their rank and that means the artistic staff has to have a deep understanding of both what the role calls for and what each dancer in the company is capable of—or has the potential to achieve. In the business world, managers need to understand their employees' skills in order to implement them effectively.
2. Developing talent: Honing and training employees
All professional dancers know they have to keep taking class to stay in shape and take care of their bodies, no matter how technically proficient they are. Likewise, a business should maintain a constant cycle of relevant certification and re-certification for their employees, with an eye toward what skills and knowledge will be important down the road.
3. Managing talent: Understanding people and talent
Most ballet companies have hierarchies and it takes a rare combination of talent and sweat to reach the top. It's the artistic staff's job to recognize who deserves to be promoted and who needs new opportunities, while it's a manager's job to single out which employees need to be pushed into leadership positions and which ones need time to grow.
4. Building a team: Fostering a culture of engaged employees
This goes both ways for dancers and non-dancers alike: People who go into their chosen field with purpose are more likely to succeed, but its up to their superiors to offer them a work environment that is healthy and supportive.
5. Improving collaboration: Establishing a communications process
Dancers are champions when it comes to taking (sometimes harsh) criticism and using it as a means to grow and improve. They also know that their input is often an important part of the choreographic process, and that communication goes both ways. Dancers are also great at talking shop with each other—trading ideas for dealing with injuries and nailing technical steps. Managers of non-dancers can encourage what the National Post calls "informal coaching between peers," along with soliciting feedback from their employees as a way to improve their own practices and show mutual respect.