Sisters Isabella Shaker and Alexandra Pullen. Photo Courtesy Alexandra Pullen.

Following in My Footsteps: The Joys and Anxieties of Watching My Younger Sister Pursue Ballet

This is the second in a series of articles this month about ballet siblings.

My mom was in the corps de ballet at American Ballet Theatre. A generation later, so was I. As if that's not enough for one family, my younger sister Isabella Shaker dreams of following in our dancing footsteps. Her endeavor, and her status as somewhat of a child prodigy, stirs feelings of pride and apprehension within me, since I have lived through the ups and downs of this intense yet rewarding career.

Ballet will always be my first love and the thing that brings me the most joy, and my dance career has opened endless opportunities for me. However, it's a difficult career path that requires a lifelong dedication. It's super competitive and can lead to body image issues, physical injury and stress. Most dancers will face some of these problems; I definitely dealt with all three.


As a result of burnout from managing the demanding side effects of my career, I took a two-year break from dancing altogether. I'm now dancing professionally again and freelancing in Los Angeles, with a fresh new perspective and other interests outside of ballet. My wish for my little sister is that she won't have to face any similar situations that may tarnish her happiness or love for dance.

A young white ballet student with blond hair stands on one leg on pointe, with the other propped in front of her on a ballet barre.

The author's younger sister, Isabella Shaker, poses at the barre.

Courtesy Alexandra Pullen

Competition Is the Thief of Joy

I see a lot of my younger self in my little sister. Bella and I have always loved the spotlight and the feeling of performing. We're both total hams—on and offstage. Our shared genes lend a physical resemblance, but we have different strengths when it comes to dance. We're both natural turners, but I'm more apt to jumping, whereas Bella thrives in adagio. We were both fortunate to have been afforded with natural facility (thanks, Mom!).

Bella's resemblance to me fills me with pride—but some anxiety as well. From a young age, the stress of wrapping my identity into ballet and the demands of the profession took a toll on my well-being. It makes me uneasy to think about the possibility of her experiencing any of the struggles that I did. All I can do is encourage her to follow her dreams, focus on her craft and tune everything else out, create a well-rounded life, and stay true to herself in the process.

I can also show her the tools I discovered that helped me find balance. Ballet tends to eat up all of your time, focus, attention and identity. I'm here to remind her that her studies, social life and relationships—as well as her interests outside of dance—are equally important to nourish. I always tell her, "I've done this. Ask me for help. If you have a problem or a question, you can come to me about anything."

A blond ballerina in a blue leotard and pointe shoes poses with her left arm up high.

"I tread lightly and gently guide her when she comes to me for advice."

Shelly Xu, Courtesy Alexandra Pullen

A Glimpse of the Past

My once baby sister is now achieving awards and scholarships, and I couldn't be prouder. Bella was recently recognized as a Royal Ballet School International Scholar. She also attended ABT's New York Summer Intensive on scholarship (as my mom and I did in our respective time).

While there, her daily reports via FaceTime brought back so many happy memories. Her teachers were all either former teachers or former co-workers of mine. My mentor when I first joined the main company, soloist Katherine Williams, even taught her technique class one week! How many students can say their big sister texts the teacher? It was pretty cool for both of us (albeit maybe a little embarrassing for her).

Bella is at the point in her training where she can see a future in professional ballet within reach. It reminds me of the excitement that I felt at that time in my life, and flushes me with gratitude for where this path has taken me. There's a purity in her relationship with dance, as she hasn't experienced any big disappointments—and I truly hope she never does. I can only do my best to continue encouraging her to believe in herself and develop self-love and self-worth so that body-image issues and the overall pressure of this field don't wear her down.

A teenage ballet student in a blue leotad, pink tights, skirt and pointe shoes poses with her right leg lifted high to the side.

"Bella is at a point in her training where she can see a future in professional ballet within reach."

Courtesy Alexandra Pullen

The Wisdom of Experience

Instead of going into overprotective mode, I tread lightly and gently guide her when she comes to me for advice. Even though we've competed in the same competitions, danced the same roles, and may end up in the same profession, our experiences will always be our own. The most important thing is for her to know that I am always here for her.

It's too bad you can't go through life with the wisdom of an older person. We become who we are because of the struggles we go through and the decisions that we make. Bella and I are individuals, but how lucky are we that we get to experience and share the same joy through dance! My little sister will be faced with difficult moments, as with any career, but ultimately it will lead her to who she is meant to be—and I'll be right there in the wings cheering her on.

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Peter Mueller, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet

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Dara Holmes, Joffrey Ballet

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Dara Holmes and Edson Barbosa in Myles Thatcher's Body of Your Dreams

Cheryl Mann, Courtesy Joffrey Ballet

Wanyue Qiao, American Ballet Theatre

Wearing a powder blue tutu, cropped light yellow top and feather tiara, Wanyue Qiao does a piqu\u00e9 retir\u00e9 on pointe on her left leg and pulls her right arm in towards her.

Wanyue Qiao as an Odalisque in Konstantin Sergeyev's Le Corsaire

Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT

Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson, Houston Ballet

Three male dancers in tight-fitting, multicolored costumes stand in positions of ascending height from left to right. All extend their right arms out in front of them.

Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson (far right) with Saul Newport and Austen Acevedo in Oliver Halkowich's Following

Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet

Leah McFadden, Colorado Ballet

Wearing a white pixie wig and a short light-pink tunic costume, a female ballet dancer poses in attitude front on pointe with her left arm bent across her ribs and her right hand held below her chin.

Leah McFadden as Amour in Colorado Ballet's production of Don Quixote

Mike Watson, Courtesy Colorado Ballet

Maria Coelho, Tulsa Ballet

Maria Coelho and Sasha Chernjavsky in Andy Blankenbuehler's Remember Our Song

Kate Lubar, Courtesy Tulsa Ballet

Alexander Reneff-Olson, San Francisco Ballet

A ballerina in a black feathered tutu stands triumphantly in sous-sus, holding the hand of a male dancer in a dark cloak with feathers underneath who raises his left hand in the air.

Alexander Reneff-Olson (right) as Von Rothbart with San Francisco Ballet principal Yuan Yuan Tan in Swan Lake

Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

India Bradley, New York City Ballet

Wearing a blue dance dress with rhinestone embellishments and a sparkly tiara, India Bradley finishes a move with her arms out to the side and hands slightly flexed.

India Bradley practices backstage before a performance of Balanchine's Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2.

Erin Baiano, Courtesy NYCB

Bella Ureta, Cincinnati Ballet

Wearing a white dress with pink corset, Bella Ureta does a first arabesque on pointe in front of an onstage stone wall.

Bella Ureta performs the Act I Pas de Trois in Kirk Peterson's Swan Lake

Hiromi Platt, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet

Alejándro Gonzales, Oklahoma City Ballet

Dressed in a green bell-boy costume and hat, Alejandro Gonz\u00e1lez does a saut\u00e9 with his left leg in retir\u00e9 and his arms in a long diagonal from right to left. Other dancers in late 19-century period costumes watch him around the stage.

Alejandro González in Michael Pink's Dracula at Oklahoma City Ballet.

Kate Luber, Courtesy Oklahoma City Ballet

Nina Fernandes, Miami CIty Ballet

Wearing a long white tutu and crown, Nina Fernandes does a saut de chat in front of a wintery backdrop as snow falls from the top of the stage.

Nina Fernandes in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker

Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Miami City Ballet

Evelyn Cisneros-Legate. Photo by Beau Pearson, Courtesy Ballet West

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Evelyn Cisneros-Legate is bringing her hard-earned expertise to Ballet West. The former San Francisco Ballet star is taking over all four campuses of The Frederick Quinney Lawson Ballet West Academy as the school's new director.

Cisneros-Legate, whose mother put her in ballet classes in an attempt to help her overcome her shyness, trained at the San Francisco Ballet School and School of American Ballet before joining San Francisco Ballet as a full company member in 1977. She danced with the company for 23 years, breaking barriers as the first Mexican American to become a principal dancer in the U.S., and has graced the cover of Dance Magazine no fewer than three times.

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This is Pointe's Fall 2020 cover story. Click here to purchase this issue.

Talk to anyone about rising contemporary ballerina Tatiana Melendez, and one word is bound to come up repeatedly: "Fierce." And fair enough, that's a perfectly apt way to describe the 20-year-old's stage presence, her technical prowess and her determination to succeed. But don't make the mistake of assuming that fierceness is Melendez's only (or even her most noteworthy) quality. At the core of her dancing is a beautiful versatility. She's just as much at ease when etching pure classical lines as she is when boldly throwing herself off-balance.

"Selfish choreographer that I am, I want Tatiana to stay with Complexions for all time," says her boss Dwight Rhoden, Complexions Contemporary Ballet's co-artistic director and resident choreographer. "She has a theatricality about her: When the music comes on, she gets swept away." Not too shabby for someone who thought just a few years ago that maybe ballet wasn't for her.

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