Ivy League Dancer: ABT's Melissa Thomas

Somewhere in the history of ballet, a rumor started that dancers weren't very smart. Luckily, there are plenty of brilliant ballerinas who prove that rumor wrong. Take, for example, Melissa Thomas, a former American Ballet Theatre dancer who just graduated from Columbia University with a degree in psychology. She's now planning to pursue a master's degree in social work and eventually practice clinical psychotherapy. But as she tells it, ballet not only gave her the discipline she needed to succeed in her second career, it also became a passion that will never leave her.

 

What inspired you to go to Columbia?

In 2005, Lewis Ranieri (former ABT chairman) made a particularly important contribution to the company; he helped fund college classes at Long Island University for any dancers who wished to enroll. I signed up. At the time, I didn’t imagine the impact those courses would have on me, but after a while, I began wanting more. Fortunately, Columbia’s School of General Studies accommodates students with nontraditional backgrounds, like me.

 

How did your ballet career prepare you for the challenges at Columbia?

The discipline required as a ballet dancer helped prepare me for the high volume of work and challenging exams in college. Even as a young dance student, I was learning how to delay gratification, which is so important in college—stay in and study tonight, so that I might do better on the test tomorrow, for example. Dancers know delayed gratification as well as anybody, I imagine. Even after the show is over, dancers continue working, preparing for their next day of rehearsals—icing, stretching, rejuvenating themselves.

 

Were you involved with the Columbia Ballet Collaborative?

In the spring of 2011, I choreographed a brief dance for them. I found I can’t really choreograph, and it is a lot harder than I, rather ignorantly, had assumed! That said, I thoroughly enjoyed working with the dancers, two of whom are former professional dancers (one from Pennsylvania Ballet and the other from Orlando Ballet). Another exquisite dancer that performed in the piece was trained at the JKO school of ABT, and another had chosen to pursue a degree in medicine in lieu of a professional career in ballet. My fiancé Grant DeLong, a corps member at ABT, performed in the piece, too. The Columbia Ballet Collaborative combines ex-professionals with gifted dancers who wish to take alternative career paths to ballet, and the occasional guest artist from ABT or New York City Ballet. The company has grown to be an important part of the cultural life at the school, and I imagine it will continue to provide an artistic outlet for its students and training ground for those who wish to dance professionally post-graduation.

 

In what other ways is ballet still part of your life?

I find it hard to see in what ways dance is not still a part of my life. I read about it, write about it, think about it, dream about it, and, of course, watch it, whether live or on video. Being engaged to a dancer also means hearing about it! Perhaps the only way in which it is no longer a part of my life is that I am not paid to do it.

Latest Posts


Complexions Contemporary Ballet's Tatiana Melendez Proves There's No One Way to Have a Ballet Career

This is Pointe's Fall 2020 cover story. Click here to purchase this issue.

Talk to anyone about rising contemporary ballerina Tatiana Melendez, and one word is bound to come up repeatedly: "Fierce." And fair enough, that's a perfectly apt way to describe the 20-year-old's stage presence, her technical prowess and her determination to succeed. But don't make the mistake of assuming that fierceness is Melendez's only (or even her most noteworthy) quality. At the core of her dancing is a beautiful versatility. She's just as much at ease when etching pure classical lines as she is when boldly throwing herself off-balance.

"Selfish choreographer that I am, I want Tatiana to stay with Complexions for all time," says her boss Dwight Rhoden, Complexions Contemporary Ballet's co-artistic director and resident choreographer. "She has a theatricality about her: When the music comes on, she gets swept away." Not too shabby for someone who thought just a few years ago that maybe ballet wasn't for her.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

The Anatomy of Arabesque: Why Placement and Turnout Are Key to Achieving This Crucial Position

Audition for any school or company, and they'll likely ask for a photo in arabesque. The position not only reveals a great deal about a dancer's ability, but it is also a fundamental building block for more advanced movements, like penché or arabesque turn. Beyond technique, it can be the epitome of grace and elegance onstage, creating unforgettable images—just try to imagine Swan Lake or Balanchine's Serenade without an arabesque.

Yet many dancers are unsatisfied with their arabesque lines, and students frequently ask how to improve their extensions. (Social media posts of dancers with extreme flexibility don't help!) In an attempt to lift the back leg higher, dancers may sacrifice placement and unknowingly distort their position in the process. How can you improve the height of your back leg while maintaining proper placement and turnout? We talked to a few experts to better understand the science behind this step.

Keep reading SHOW LESS

#TBT: Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov in "Coppélia" (1976)

Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov share the unique experience of having danced at both American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet during their careers. The two overlapped at ABT in the mid-'70s, where they developed one of the best-known partnerships in ballet. They were both celebrated for their dynamism onstage; however, in this 1976 clip of the pas de deux from Coppélia, Kirkland and Baryshnikov prove they are also masters of control.

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks