Pointe shoe brand Gaynor Minden recently welcomed 32 young dancers to its coveted roster of Gaynor Girls. But this year, the company included two applicants who push the boundaries of what it means to dance on pointe. While both Mason Simon Underwood and Colleen Werner are longtime GM wearers, they stand out from the rest of this year's group: Underwood is the first ever Gaynor Guy, and Werner is a body-positivity activist.
These two influencers prove that you don't have to fit into the stereotypical ballerina mold to love dancing on pointe. Get to know these inspirational young dancers below.
Mason Simon Underwood
Mason Simon Underwood's favorite variation is Aurora Act III, from The Sleeping Beauty. Last month on Instagram, he shared a video of himself rehearsing it in his family's living room. His lines are long and clear as he moves confidently on pointe. Underwood, age 16, started dancing when he was 12, and like many of his peers at the School of Nashville Ballet, he got his first pair of pointe shoes two years ago, at 14. "I was in the level where all my friends were starting, and I thought it was really cool," he says. "I saw some guys on Instagram doing it, so I thought I might as well try."
While Underwood was the only guy in his school interested in pointe classes, his teachers were supportive. "They encouraged it, and said it would be good for strength and expressiveness," he says. And his hard work has paid off. Having attended virtual intensives at Nashville Ballet School, American Ballet Theatre and San Francisco Ballet School over the summer, Underwood is now moving to California to start full-time training at SFB in October.
Mason Simon Underwood practices his pointework at home
In addition to Aurora, Underwood's Instagram page includes forays into classical roles like Giselle, Lilac Fairy, Kitri and Raymonda. Though he's learned a few of these variations in school, the rest he's taught to himself. "I love male variations and female variations," he says. "I think it would be great to have the opportunity to try both." His dream roles? "Albrecht, Romeo or Giselle."
When thinking of his future, Underwood dreams of joining a big company and "getting to dance all the time." He also hopes to be an inspiration to younger dancers, in the same way that pros like James Whiteside and Carlos Hopuy were to him, supplying him with courage through their Instagram posts to break down ballet's rigid gender lines. "I think the ballet world needs to be more inclusive, and accept everyone for who they are," says Underwood. "Everyone should have the chance to live their dreams and fight for what they want."
Colleen Werner is not your typical Gaynor Girl. While most are on a pre-professional ballet track, Werner, age 23, is getting her master's in clinical mental health counseling at Trevecca Nazarene University. "One of my overarching career goals is to create an eating disorder treatment program for dancers, because dance was a huge contributing factor to my eating disorder," says Werner.
Originally from Long Island, New York, Werner began dancing when she was 3. She started on pointe at 13, and attended intensives with the Joffrey Ballet and Eglevsky Ballet before entering New York City's Hunter College as a dance major. But while recovering from an eating disorder, she switched her major to psychology. "I realized that as much as I loved dance, it was coming from a toxic place," she says. After a healthy period of distance from ballet, Werner got back into the studio two years ago. Since moving to Nashville last summer to start graduate school, Werner has made taking classes with Nashville Ballet's Community Division and performing with The Dancer Project a central part of her life.
Werner posts regular dance content, usually clad in whimsically printed leotards, on her Instagram page, where she has nearly 35,000 followers. She also posts about her work as a therapy intern, and her belief in the Health at Every Size Paradigm. "Health isn't defined by a particular size, and people can pursue health regardless of their size," she says. "It's getting away from the numbers." Her posts have received a lot of feedback, and not all of it positive. But Werner forges ahead, eager to inspire. "Dancers reach out who are struggling with body image. They say they're being represented, and that they really look up to me."
Going forward, Werner plans to continue performing, and keep dance in her life as a necessary stress-reliever from her work as a therapist-in-training. "It's incredible that Gaynor Minden is representing me and celebrating me as a dancer even though my body type is very different from the traditional dancer stereotype," says Werner. "Growing up, I never saw anyone who looked like me in magazines or on the stage. It's a really fulfilling moment for me, my younger self and this new generation of young dancers."