Gabriel Gaffney Smith with Caitlin Valentine in Edwaard Liang's Distant Cries

Jennifer Zmuda, Courtesy BalletMet

Gabriel Gaffney Smith Says Farewell to BalletMet for Careers in Visual Art and Music

In addition to cancelled shows, the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted final performances for many retiring dancers. Pointe is giving several retiring principals and soloists a chance to reflect on their careers and offer advice to the next generation.

For 35-year-old Gabriel Gaffney Smith, retiring from BalletMet is more about switching focus than a bona fide farewell to dance. A modern-day Renaissance man, Smith is also a choreographer, composer and visual artist. His road to being a dancer began at age 12 at New York's Saugerties Ballet Center. He then attended Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School before becoming a member of the main company in 2005.

In 2008, he joined BalletMet, where he has not only danced but has had opportunities to choreograph and compose music for the company. He has also collaborated with musicians and choreographers, composing works created for The Washington Ballet, Kansas City Ballet, Cincinnati Ballet and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. As a visual artist, his woodcarvings have been shown at the Columbus Museum of Art and in galleries across the United States. (See samples of his artwork and music at GabrielGaffneySmith.com.) Smith, at home in Columbus, Ohio, with fiancée and fellow BalletMet dancer Carly Wheaton, reflected on his career and talked about why he's shifting his attention toward his other artistic loves.


Carly Wheaton and Gabriel Gaffney Smith, wearing knee-length black leggings and zip-up tops, face each other and lunge towards the audience. Wheaton looks into Smith's outstretched hand as a string quartet plays in the background.

Smith dancing alongside his fiancée, BalletMet dancer Carly Wheaton

Jennifer Zmuda, Courtesy BalletMet

When did you decide that you wanted to make dance a career?

A game-changer for me was attending Miami City Ballet's summer program as a young dancer. I was around amazing dancers at a high level that were training to be in ballet companies. There, I felt how incredible ballet was and how I could express myself in it.

What were some of the challenges you faced as a student?

There was a bit of bullying as a kid, but I never really let that bother me. For me the biggest challenge was starting a bit late, at 12, and trying to catch up. Those things were just fuel for my fire to prove I could make it.

What advice would you give young dance students looking to pursue a career like yours?

Work hard and be respectful to the people around you. Explore your physical body, such as your port de bras, along with movement outside of ballet. If you have an idea, just use your imagination and make it happen.

Why are you retiring now?

I had been thinking about this for a couple of years. For me, I really wanted to spend more time making visual art and music. I am not afraid to move on to the second act of my life.

What will you miss most about company life?

Going in every day and taking class, creating characters and the process of making dance. I will also miss the people and the friendships made in the studio.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, you missed out on an onstage farewell. Have you looked into returning for a final onstage performance?

I am definitely interested in one and have been in conversation with artistic director Edwaard Liang. It would be pretty incredible if things worked out, but if not, that's just how the cookie crumbled for me.

One of Smith's abstract artworks, entitled Shark Girl.

Courtesy Gabriel Gaffney Smith.

You have choreographed and created music for several dance companies. How will that play a role in your career going forward?

I see myself creating multimedia events, like a gallery opening that incorporates dance and music, or dance films and music videos, along with choreographing and composing more for dance companies.

Has the pandemic sidelined or delayed any of your projects?

Yes and no. Right now, there are a lot of private collections I am creating artwork for. I also have things in the works for an art opening with music and more that will happen post-pandemic.

What else is in your plans going forward?

I want to ski. I was a major skier before I got seriously into ballet. I want to travel too. I also see myself doing small projects as a dancer.

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De Roos' organization, Peace Love Leotards, has collected about $2,600 of new and gently-used dancewear and $2,000 in grants and donations since formally launching in April. Dancers or studio owners can request items through a form on the organization's website.

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"To have them be like 'We want to help you with this and we love this idea and what you're doing is amazing,' that was really exciting to me," she said. "It was very heartwarming."

Jordan Reed, the creator of custom dancewear brand Lone Reed Designs, said she has donated seven items to Peace Love Leotards with plans to donate more consistently every quarter. Custom leotards often retail at higher prices, but Reed, a former Houston Ballet corps member, said the one-of-a-kind clothing offers an "extra bit of confidence, which can go more than a long way in a dancer's journey of training."

Paul Plesh, a sales director for Wear Moi in the United States and Canada, said the company donated 11 leotards after finding Peace Love Leotards' mission to be "commendable." Joey Dowling-Fakhrieh, the founder and creative director of Jo+Jax, said dancewear "can make a significant impact on a student's confidence, as well as how much they enjoy the process of learning dance."

De Roos has worked to expand Peace Love Leotards, Inc. rapidly in the past few months, but she first created the organization at eight years old after participating in a mentorship program with competitors in the Miss Florida and Miss Florida's Outstanding Teen pageants. The pageants, which are part of the Miss America Organization, require competitors to have personal platforms they advocate for as titleholders. As a competition dancer, de Roos instantly thought about the cost barriers to dance when wondering what her own future platform would be.

De Roos said she and her young classmates often outgrew nearly brand-new dancewear, so she approached her studio's owner about placing a collection box at the studio.

Barbara Mizell, who owns Barbara's Centré for Dance in Florida, said she was unsurprised by de Roos' proposal. De Roos always had "such a way of pushing herself and she never forgot those around her," Mizell said. As the box filled up, she distributed the dancewear to others at the studio, local schools with dance programs, and the local YMCA.

"When they could start to see that it was providing happiness for others, then it was almost like the kids couldn't wait to donate," Mizell said.

Nearly a decade after the Miss Florida organization inspired her to launch Peace Love Leotards, de Roos is now a titleholder herself, as Miss Gainesville's Outstanding Teen 2020. Her new mission for Peace Love Leotards is applying for grants, and she has already received a $1,000 grant from the Delores Barr Weaver Legacy Fund that will be used to fund a Title 1 school class.

"The whole organization behind Peace Love Leotards is the dancers," de Roos said. "Being able to help the dancers that are in need and being able to think about the dancewear that they're going to be receiving or have received has been truly amazing."

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