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.

Latest Posts


Vikki Sloviter

Sydney Dolan Takes Center Stage at Pennsylvania Ballet

This is Pointe's Summer 2020 cover story. You can subscribe to the magazine here, or click here to purchase this issue.

Just days before the world shuttered under the strain of the coronavirus pandemic, and the curtain came down indefinitely on dance companies everywhere, Pennsylvania Ballet soloist Sydney Dolan debuted Gamzatti in La Bayadère with captivating ease. Her jumps soared, her technique was sound, and her cheeky smile paired with exquisite port de bras was beguiling. Though she didn't know the company would soon cancel the remainder of its season, her beautiful performance acted as a kind of send-off into the unknown.

Dolan's career could be described in one word: charmed. At just 19 years old, she's flown through the ranks at PAB, debuted a long list of roles, won a Princess Grace Award and been named one of Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch." Yet it's her challenges that have shaped not only her training but her outlook, giving her a solid foundation for becoming one of Pennsylvania Ballet's rising stars.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
VAM/Siggul, Courtesy YAGP

YAGP Has Announced the Winners of the 2020 Pas De Deux Virtual Competition

Last weekend, Youth America Grand Prix took to the internet, hosting its first virtual pas de deux competition. Over the course of three days, YAGP streamed videos from its regional events' highest-ranked competitors for a panel of esteemed judges. And, drum roll please... YAGP has just announced the winners, spanning three categories: Senior Classical, Junior Classical and Contemporary.

You can watch the full virtual awards ceremony, hosted by YAGP director of external affairs Sergey Gordeev, below, or scroll down for the list of winners. And if you're missing the thrill of competition, don't fear: Gordeev announced that registration for the 2021 season will open on July 10, with both in-person and virtual options available.

Congratulations to all!

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT

Defining and Refining Musicality: How to Tune In and Develop Your Artistic Voice

Ask a hundred people what musicality is, and you're likely to get a hundred different answers. "Musicality is where an artist's personality shines brightest," says Smuin Contemporary Ballet member Ben Needham-Wood. For American Ballet Theatre soloist Skylar Brandt, "it's what distinguishes one dancer from another. It helps me express myself more vividly and emotionally."

Teachers encourage it, directors seek it out and dancers who possess it bring choreography to life in compelling ways. But what exactly is musicality, and how can dancers get more of it?

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks