She floats across stages around the world, tiny skirts billowing out like flowers with each delicate jump.
Given the ease and beauty of her onstage movements, it’s hard to imagine the blood, sweat, tears and pressure this ballerina endured on her path to becoming one of the top dancers in the world.
The dancer, Melody Mennite, is a principal of the Houston Ballet who grew up in Scotts Valley.
“Ballet is intense,” she said. “It is a rough, savage environment sometimes — what you put your body through, what you put your mind through emotionally and mentally, and everything. You’re pushing everything so far to the limit, and it has to be perfect. It has to look beautiful on stage, and it has to look effortless.”
Mennite said the 2010 psychological thriller “Black Swan” was the most applicable film portrayal of the behind-the-curtains ballet world. The film follows a dancer along her path to madness, as she loses her grip on reality under the pressure of a lead role in “Swan Lake.”
“Every time I say this, I’m like, I must make people think I am so crazy,” she said. “But when I saw (‘Black Swan’), I was like, at least people kind of can see how taxing this can be on someone mentally. This girl went completely psycho trying to obtain this perfection, and it got way out of hand.
“I think that all of us who are professional dancers are pushed to constantly try to reach that perfection. So I thought, OK, now they’re getting down to the grittiness of what it takes to be a dancer.”
Mennite, a petite 28-year-old, returns to Scotts Valley with her son, Isaac, 8, each summer during her only free weeks of the year to visit family and friends.
This year, when Mennite returned in early July, she taught a series of classes for Melanie Useldinger’s new Agape Dance Academy at the Cabrillo College campus in Scotts Valley.
Mennite met Useldinger when she was 10 or 11, through The Studio School of Classical Ballet in Santa Cruz, and she used to babysit Useldinger’s children.
“I became sort of an adjunct part of their family,” Mennite says. “Melanie asked if I would teach this summer, and it worked out perfectly, because I was already going to be here.”
The Agape Dance Academy studio is spacious and airy, with a wall full of windows, which Mennite particularly enjoyed.
Mennite said she and Isaac, who loves to watch her dance, went on a home-video kick while staying at her parents’ house.
“We have movies from when I’m 5 and on, so he thinks it’s hilarious to watch me,” she said. “We watched one this morning that was me doing a tap dancing routine when I was 6.”
When Mennite was bit by the dance bug at 5 years old, her mother enrolled her in classes at a small studio in Santa Cruz where she learned to dance “a little bit of everything.”
Several years later, she began training in ballet at The Studio in Santa Cruz, and at age 13, she spent her first summer at the Houston Ballet.
Mennite took charge of her dancing at a young age. She recalls wanting to arrive to class early and pleading with her mother to let her attend class even when she was sick.
“I remember that feeling, and it has just always been that way,” she says. “(Ballet is) completely mine; no one made me do it.”
That natural motivation, she said, was what helped her succeed as a ballerina. Mennite’s advice to young dancers: Have fun first and foremost, but get as much out of it as you can.
“You get a lot of benefits from dancing when you’re younger, even if you’re not going to take it into a profession,” she says. “The focus that it takes, the discipline you learn, not only on your body but also on your mind, carries over into whatever you're going to go on and do.”
While it’s difficult to peg the reasons for a lifelong passion, Mennite said she loved that dance is an expression that transcends culture, age and language.
“When you dance, there’s this feeling that whatever you’re giving and expressing is tangible to everyone,” she says.
Mennite added that when she was younger, there weren’t many dance classes available in Scotts Valley, so she was happy to see Useldinger’s studio blossom.
“I really do think the arts are undervalued, and people forget how much we need them,” she says. “I think ballet is no exception to that, and I’m glad to see there’s more of it happening in Scotts Valley.”
- April Short is a freelance writer. She can be reached by sending email to firstname.lastname@example.org