Last Dance

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"That lasted about a month," Pamela Passey says, "but then we couldn't stand the pain on her little face," and they signed her up for more ballet lessons. By the time she was in sixth grade, she was taking class twice a week.

Gail Passey-Reed's first recollection of wanting to be a ballerina burns like an omen in her mind. She was 13 and attended a performance of Romeo and Juliet at the San Francisco Ballet.

"Linda Meyers and Vane Vest were dancing the leads," she says, "and there was one moment--the famous balcony scene--when Juliet's alone in her nightgown, and looking vulnerable. It was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen, like this little sculpture, and I thought I would like to capture a moment like that."

After that revelation, Passey-Reed's ballet study started in earnest at the Contra Costa Ballet in Walnut Creek, California, studying under Donald Eryck, who has since died of AIDS.

"As soon as I got there, I knew I was in the right place," she says, and although she was older than most beginning serious students, Eryck assured her that she could learn as much dance as she wanted.

That was the beginning of a ballet dancer's austere and disciplined life.
Passey-Reed was never the victim of a ballet mom, a genre of stage parents who want their daughters to act out their own aspirations. She was self-inspired, and in fact, her parents worried about her obsessions with dance.

"Any sacrifices I made were my choices," she says now of missed proms and football games.

But the sacrifices may have been harder on her parents.
"She loved it so much that at times we worried she had blinders on," says Pamela Passey. "We wanted her to reach out and see other things."

Her parents worried also that she was a 13-year-old in the company of 18-year-old dancers. But by the time she was 15, they threw up their hands. And when they saw her dance her first lead role, they "were somewhat amazed at how good she was."

Young Gail attended class every day, and to help pay for her lessons, she worked in the school office and even cleaned dance studios. And she honed her work ethic.

"I worked hard for what I had to do," she remembers. "Sometimes I had friends who were taller and had better feet and longer legs, and I would think, 'She makes it look so easy and it comes so easily for her.' And maybe it didn't really, but in my eyes I felt like I had to work a little harder."

She worked hard enough that when she graduated from high school, while her schoolmates were packing off to college, she was auditioning for the school of the San Francisco Ballet.

As in a Nintendo video game, each higher level in the dance world has a crueler and more impossible set of challenges to be overcome; and if you make it through that level, the only reward is to be launched into a harder and even crueler level.

It is not enough to dance well. A ballerina who aspires to professionalism has to have a lot of luck, has to be willing to pack up and travel to where the jobs are. And on top of all that, she has to meet a physical aesthetic that demands an impossible shape and litheness.

In her first year in the San Francisco Ballet school, Passey-Reed realized two things. The first was that she was performing even less than when she was in high school, because the school students only participated in the annual Nutcracker and in a school recital. The second was that she was too short to be accepted into the main company and was consequently wasting her time by trying, regardless of her dance abilities.

"It's not something you can improve. That was a big frustration," she says.
And so Gail Passey transferred to the school of the Marin Ballet. She got a summer scholarship with the Boston Ballet. She auditioned in Atlanta and was again told that she was too short. Then, finally, in 1983, at age 21, she landed a job with the Baltimore Ballet.

That first gig was like being in the army. Because it was a fledgling company, the ballet corps did a lot of promotional lecture demonstrations at local schools, hoping to drum up an audience. They'd meet the bus at 5:30 in the morning and travel from school to school. And after each show, her small size notwithstanding, she'd help tear down the portable floor and load it onto the bus.

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Michael Kiefer