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Spotlight: Emma Keyes

Author: Muzna Erum

Ballet has always been an important part of Emma Keyes’ life. She has spent fifteen years participating in the art form, and eight of those years being professionally trained in classical ballet. It taught her perseverance and resilience, and she recognizes that, unlike the princesses she plays in most of the pieces she performs, her happy ending is not guaranteed. Despite it being a passion she hopes to pursue, that future is not promised to her.


It was, in some ways, difficult for me to understand why someone would put so much time and effort into a dream with no guaranteed payoff. However, it became clear to me during my interview that passion and love for an activity often outweighs the struggles that accompany it.


Emma first started ballet when her mother enrolled her in the activity at the age of three. She recalls not particularly liking it at the time, but after hearing that she may be kicked out, she began to put more effort in. With that effort, her love for the art form grew.


On the other hand, Emma had to push through reasons that might have easily made her quit, such as the bullying she faced for dancing. After explaining that she had been picked on by one girl in particular for being a dancer, she said, “I’m never going to forget some of the stuff that [one girl] said to me. It was really, really hard for me.” Despite these incidents, Emma is happy that they didn’t make her drop dance, especially because some of her performances, such as playing a little lamb in The Nutcracker, were so memorable.


The hardships Emma faced due to ballet became greater as she grew because of the tough love and critical culture that she was subjected to. “I’ve learned [to] take things,” Emma explained. “I don’t cry about them anymore. If a teacher says something [critical] to me… I try to internalize it as constructive criticism.”



Emma added that a lot of dancers struggle with body criticism and unattainable standards. She actually had to let go of her dream of dancing in Russia when she realized that her body type would never allow her to do so. Those same standards affect whether she’ll get employed by a dancing company. She added that dancers have begun to push back against these uncontrollable standards, which she hopes will change things in the future.


When I asked whether she would ever consider dropping ballet because of the physical and mental challenges she’d described, her answer was no. “We prepare for years just to spend two minutes on stage,” Emma said. “It seems funny to people, but that’s the fleeting moment we are looking for as dancers. It’s so special to just go on stage.”


For Emma, the beauty and passion of ballet keeps her going. It’s about that glorious moment on stage, the light shining down on a beautiful costume as she brings a character like Odette to life. It’s witnessing the contentment and satisfaction on the audience members’ faces as the curtains come down.


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