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.
Murphy in Balanchine's "Emeralds." Photo by Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB.
“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.