The author and Joffrey CE Intern Leah Ollie

By Leah Ollie, Joffrey CE Intern

As summer sets in on the city and graduates peel off on their own personal paths, I’ve had the opportunity to do much reflection on my own journey over my last year of high school. How my life has changed as a dancer, a student, and as a friend. I’ve been able to ask myself: Does it feel like this new way of life has been normalized? What does the passage of time feel like in retrospect?

Before I explore the changes to my artistic involvement over the last year, I’ll provide context as to what I was missing out on. Over the past 4 years while living in Chicago, I’ve remained involved with the dance community in various ways. From training at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts in ballet, modern and jazz dance styles in 2017, to committing to in-school dance programs such as the Whitney Young Poms Team and Guys and Dolls Dance Company, I was all in. My journey with Joffrey CE journey began in the summer of 2019 with the After School Matters Downtown Intensive. Other teens may not consider spending 7 hours a day on their feet in a dance studio their ideal summer, but that experience prepared me formatively for my future in dance and provided me with the tools needed to continue as a student and an artist. No matter where it was, I was heavily active, and my life was consumed by dance for as many hours of the day as possible: until it came to a complete standstill.

During the first weeks of quarantine in 2020, my life felt suspended in limbo. Guys and Dolls Dance Company was tentatively hosting virtual yoga sessions, the Exelon Strobel Dancers hosted weekly check-ins for students’ mental health, but nobody seemed to have answers. As we watched the world and waited, we danced. Going from 100 to 0, I tried to maintain the spirit of collaborative art by attending virtual masterclasses with friends, workouts with teammates, and continuing to stay active at home. I quickly found that the transition in environment, stress of current events, and physical constraints made this unsustainable. At the “peak” of my physical ability, collaborative spirit with my team, and artistic engagement, I felt as if my days were being wasted without time in the studio. I became burnt out and exhausted, impatiently waiting for this period of my life to end.

As with most struggles, getting through it is the worst part. A light in the tunnel appeared amidst lockdowns in the form of virtual rehearsals for a spring dance concert at my school; the show would go on! I grew even closer to my teammates, bade farewell to graduating seniors, and braced for the foreseeable future training independently from the safety of my bedroom. This, of course, included my second year attending the aforementioned Downtown Intensive virtually. The joy of being able to reconnect with peers and skilled choreographers from across the country for an extended period over the summer renewed my soul and reminded me of the passion I kindled back in 2019. That dancer was still within me, however altered and weary she may have been a year later. These reminders carried me forward into the next challenge: my senior year of high school.

From spring of 2020 to the fall of the same year, not much changed in my daily schedule. My class schedule remained the same (with a lightened load of coursework), my extracurricular engagements persisted, and college applications were in full swing. It seemed as if the world refused to wait for the pandemic to be over; there were places to be and people to meet. I continued to research universities I was interested in, while throwing myself into audition preparations and further virtual rehearsals for my company at school. Evidently, I hadn’t learned my lesson about burnout from the previous spring, because by the time I had submitted my last application in mid-November, I had lost my creativity and motivation. Luckily, I had the best possible support system surrounding me and renewing my spirit with the work I was accomplishing. My family and friends could sympathize with my situation, my peers and dance educators took lengths to understand each other in such an odd time to be creating, and my supervisors here at Joffrey CE sustained me through my internship with encouragement and instruction that I wouldn’t have been able to attain anywhere else.

Guys and Dolls Dance Company persisted and crafted an incredible virtual show alongside our Advanced Dance classmates for a winter concert, for which I had the pleasure of choreographing a piece. Constructing a full length piece and teaching it to my stellar cast reminded me of why I am so dedicated to the art of dance and the joy it brings. Once again, the people around me made me stronger, better, and a better artist.

As I write this, the year has begun to wind down and slow. I will film portions of my final Whitney Young Dance Department performance in a matter of days, and graduation is on the horizon. Having solidified my decision to study English and Journalism at Butler University in the fall, I have begun to reflect on what lessons a global pandemic has taught me and arrived at three primary truths. The first: Balance is crucial. Rest and work don’t need to be traded for one another, and they complement each other and improve each other more and more every day in my life. As time flies by- especially when cooped up in the house for months- retaining memories of the busy times and still moments are equally valuable. The second: Starting from the basics- improv, class, introducing movement in simple ways- helps build the foundation for further creation. Working my way back up to my potential and fullest capacity of movement in a different environment has been a challenge, but through this labor I feel more connected to my body than ever. The third is the precept I will leave you with: Being ready for anything and adapting to change are invaluable assets. You never know what will come your way, so staying grounded and grateful for what you have is crucial, and opens you to the beautiful future that awaits!