Few students at Wilson are as committed to their sport as junior Keith Newman is to ballet. In any given week, he spends more than 25 hours working on his craft at the Washington School of Ballet. Newman epitomizes the no-days-off mentality. “It’s very physically and mentally draining,” he says. “Unlike other sports, for dance, it’s difficult to take time off.”
Newman is currently fighting through the pain of a chronic back injury, a hip injury, and shin splints, but continues to practice regularly. The intensity of Newman’s regimen is wildly unique when it comes to sports in general, but it is not one of a kind. In fact, Wilson is home to a number of highly dedicated ballet dancers with extreme schedules, the likes of which few can handle.
Sophomores Elena Remez and Leonie Aksyonov, both of whom have similar schedules to Newman, have been dancing for 12 and nine years respectively. Aksyonov, who played soccer when she was younger, will tell you that it isn’t comparable to ballet in terms of competitive nature. “Soccer is a more competitive sport, whereas ballet is a performing art with the intensity of a sport,” she says. “It’s not only about who wins – it’s about the performance you give.”
With this mentality, competition exists from within as opposed to between teams or clubs. “So many dancers want the same spot as you within a company,” Aksyonov says. This is what pushes Newman to fight through his injuries. “Being one of nine guys [in a group of 29], I need to learn a lot of material for performances that we have. So taking time off means you fall behind,” he says.
Part of this can be attributed to the structure of ballet schools, which involves moving through levels. Like students changing grades in school, dancers rise through the ranks with other dancers, in performing groups. However, sometimes they don’t advance with their peers. “It’s always a pretty tough situation [when someone gets held back],” Remez says. “Ballet is a pretty cut-throat sport with competition between dancers. As the levels increase at my studio the dancers get so close that the competition is more internal rather than external.”
Ballet has several unfair stigmas and stereotypes surrounding it. Some people don’t believe ballet is a real sport, and many people incorrectly assume that all male dancers are gay. As a male ballet dancer, a minority in the field, Newman is familiar with this ignorance. “I used to never want to admit that I danced, but after a while I learned that people were very accepting. Especially my friends. And the stereotype that all male dancers are gay is completely untrue. Also that dance is easy and that other sports are harder is also untrue. Dance takes a lot of skill and talent and it is very difficult to be the best of the best.”
These stigmas regarding dancers and the argument over its legitimacy as a sport means that some of the school’s most talented athletes go unrecognized. Newman, Remez, and Aksyonov all have aspirations of furthering their dance careers, be it in college or beyond. But all three are grounded. “Dance careers are extremely unpredictable because you never know if you’re going to get into a company or get injured,” Remez says. “I definitely want to try to become a dancer, but I will also apply for colleges.”
Aksyonov agrees: “Dancers push their bodies to do things they naturally are unable to. For example, your toes aren’t built to be danced on top of. This causes problems sometimes and dancers must go to physical therapy and to doctors often. A career may be painful but the outcome is usually worth it if dancing is what you love.” •
PHOTO COURTESY OF KEITH NEWMAN