For 17-year-old Ryan Stroble, Monday morning class begins at the ballet barre, where she adjusts her shoulders and alignment to find the right body position and activate the correct muscles. She progresses from toe pointing exercises to bigger movements, eventually sending her legs soaring into kicks and later jumps. Two hours later, Stroble’s muscles already burn from hundreds of pliés, relevés and kicks. And she still has hours of practice ahead of her.
So what makes the blistered feet worth it? Performing on stage with The Florida Ballet, a conservatory and training center for aspiring professional dancers.
The Florida Ballet was founded by Michael Byrd and Laurie Picinich-Byrd. They fell in love while working together at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. In 1979, they moved to Michael’s hometown of Jacksonville and started The Florida Ballet, a classical and contemporary school, which has developed dancers who have gone on to world-renowned companies. Although Michael and Laurie have both passed away, their dream to cultivate fine arts on the First Coast lives through student dancers who want to follow in their ballet shoes.
In downtown Jacksonville, Linda Reifsnyder Jenkins, artistic director for The Florida Ballet and an accomplished former professional dancer, gathered a small group of her elite students to talk about the pain and pleasure of serious ballet.
“There’s always something that hurts,” Stroble says, wearing a white leotard and her hair in a bun. “Plus, you have to look good while you’re doing it.”
On the topic of toe shoes, Stroble and her female friends agree that getting that first pair made them feel like women. But eventually they all grew to hate the hard, unforgiving footwear. Just as soon as the shoes soften and mold to their feet, they must be replaced with a new stiff pair.
Classmate Princess Reid, 17, who has piles of worn-out toe shoes at home, says her problem is mental not physical.
“My body hurts me,” Reid says. “But the main thing that hurts me is my attitude. I can deal with my body, but I can’t deal with myself. I think that I need to get everything perfect. When I can’t, it makes me mad.”
The Florida Ballet puts on the Nutcracker and two other performances each year. Children older than 8 must audition to join the ballet, and all students follow the American Ballet Theatre’s National Training Curriculum. Jenkins runs a rigorous program at the conservatory, made up of 100 middle school and high school students, who dance about 30 hours a week.
During the chat with Jenkins, Landry Ridener, a 16-year-old male dancer, pulls out a plastic bag of carrot sticks. The girls reach for it, but he slaps their hands away.
“We get excited about food. We eat whatever we want, and we don’t gain weight,” laughs Reid, nodding to a nearby dancer holding a McDonald’s bag.
They banter like typical teens, but their passion for a discipline they’ve spent most of their lives perfecting makes them extraordinary. When not at school, they turn the kitchen counter into a ballet barre or spontaneously spring into dance steps while just going about their day.
“You can’t walk through a Walmart without doing grand jetés across the floor,” Ridener says, referring to leaps that resemble mid-air splits.
Ridener can’t help it. His thoughts and actions always return to ballet. Who knows, all those leaps down the grocery aisles might one day land him on the stage at the Metropolitan Opera House.
For more information about The Florida Ballet please visit floridaballet.org.