When Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan was 9, she had a teacher who didn’t think much of her desire to be a professional ballerina. Pick something that’s more realistic, she recalled the teacher telling her.
That was about five years ago, the same year the young Holmesburg resident was chosen to dance in the Pennsylvania Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker.
The teacher was invited to a performance, Sarah’s mom, Vanessa Ryan, recalled during an interview last week at their Leon Street home.
“She didn’t come.”
Sarah, now 14 and home-schooled, has been in The Nutcracker every year since. This year she is dancing in several roles of the holiday production, which is on the stage of the Academy of Music, at Broad and Locust streets, through Dec. 31.
It’s an impressive resume at her age. So dancing professionally, as far as Sarah’s concerned, is a perfectly realistic goal.
Dancing is very real. It requires lots of hard work, determination and stamina. Sarah practices eight hours a day, six days a week, and sometimes on Sundays too.
“She’s responsible,” her mother said.
Sarah gets up early every day to get her schoolwork done before heading for the Rock School of Dance in Center City. Her daughter understands the ground rules, Vanessa Ryan says.
“She knows: No good grades, no dance.”
Sarah has been dancing since she was 3. There was some pain before her feet got used to the rigors of practice.
“Now the feet are fine,” Sarah said. “It’s the other parts that hurt.”
There’s a dancer’s resignation to that pain. As one of Sarah’s teachers bluntly told the young ballerina, “If nothing hurts in the morning, it means you’re dead.”
So whenever Sarah hurts after a demanding practice, she beats those inevitable aches by taking Advil, or she’ll rely on ointments like Bengay and Icy Hot to calm muscle pain.
She also has to be careful of injury during recreational pursuits away from the dance floor. Some activities are off-limits. No rolling skating or ice skating, her mother said, especially now that The Nutcracker performances are underway at the Academy.
Sarah also has to be mindful of what she eats. The dedication that must influence her choices isn’t for everyone, she added, noting that she has seen other dancers just quit when they were 12 or 13, unwilling — or perhaps unable — to adhere to a dancer’s lifestyle.
“It just too much for them,” Sarah said.
The look of a ballet is grace and elegance, but it requires a lot more strength from the dancers than most people would think, she explained. “They think we’re fragile, but we’re not,” the ballerina said.
Emotional strength is another virtue for dancers. Sarah acknowledges that, when waiting in the wings to perform, “you are anxious,” but once onstage and into the rhythm of the performance, “you feel relaxed and calm.”
Sarah said she’s the youngest of 16 dancers cast as snowflakes in The Nutcracker, the enduring story of Clara, her beloved nutcracker gift and a magical dream. Sarah will dance several other roles as well, but she counts the snow scene as the most difficult.
ldquo;You must work as a group,” she said. “It’s hard to dance with all the other dancers.”
The applause, of course, is the reward for all that hard work. “It feels really, really good,” she said.
A good ballet performance naturally relies on the strength and precision of the dancers, but not everything works out all the time. Sometimes, it seems, a lot can go awry.
In a school production of The Nutcracker, Sarah recalled, “all the tricks were going wrong.” One prop was supposed to be on fire; instead, it just fizzled. Cannons were supposed to discharge; they remained silent. In one scene, Sarah was one of several “dolls” to be carried onstage by male dancers.
The dolls were carried onstage as scripted, except for one — Sarah. Somehow she got left behind.
“I had to run onstage.”
As well as energy and determination, pursuing a ballet career requires a lot of family support — and money.
Sarah enjoys plenty of backing. Family members go to all her performances, and Vanessa Ryan logs the same hours as your stereotypical “soccer mom,” only she’s a ballet mom who commits a lot of hours and miles to getting her teenage daughter to dance school, rehearsals and performances.
In fact, Vanessa quit her job and now handles the home-schooling of her daughter through the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Cyber Academy.
Her mother isn’t an obsessive stage mom, Sarah will tell you. And Vanessa says she’s happy to back her daughter’s pursuit of a dance career, and that if she ever wants to quit and move on to something else, that’s fine too.
That other requirement of a successful ballet career — money — is significant. A ballerina’s pointe shoes cost $150 a pair, and dancers go through dozens of pairs a year. The little bit of skirt known as a tutu can start at about $1,000, Sarah said. Then there are auditions and tuitions and travel expenses, mom added.
Sarah began studying ballet at a Frankford Avenue dance studio when she was 3. When Sarah was 5, her mother said, a teacher recommended she study at the Rock School. She has been there ever since and has attended programs with the Bolshoi Ballet Academy and the San Francisco Ballet — which, coincidentally, performed the first full-length American production of The Nutcracker in December 1944.
The Ryan family knew the reality of Sarah’s career goal when, as a 5-year-old, they took her to a performance of the timeless holiday musical.
“She had her picture taken with the Mouse King,” her mother said, “and then announced she was going to be a real ballerina.”
It was an announcement not taken very seriously at first, she said.
ldquo;Who’s going to believe a five-year-old when she wants to be a ballerina?” ••
Reporter John Loftus can be reached at 215-354-3110 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Joy of ‘The Nutcracker’
The Pennsylvania Ballet’s production of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, now in its 43rd year, is onstage at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust streets, through Dec. 31.
The ballet, with music by Peter Tchaikovsky, also features the Philadelphia Boys Choir and the Pennsylvania Ballet Orchestra. Available tickets are priced between $77 and $260. Call 215-893-1999.