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.
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."
"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.
"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.