Freelance ballerina Kylie Shea is turning traditional ballet stereotypes upside down. For most classical dancers, company work seems like the only viable professional opportunity available. But with a long and celebrated career that straddles multiple paths within the dance industry, Shea is proving there is more to ballet than just the Nutcracker and Swan Lake.
Shea began training at eight years old at Dance Peninsula Ballet in Los Angeles California. The director, Patricia Stander, became a mentor to her, and set the foundation for her future. “Everything that I am stems from her,” she says. “She was a mother to me because her training was about so much more than just dance.” After graduating high school, she briefly freelanced in LA while doing some career soul searching. “I was torn because I love contemporary, modern and classical work,” she says. “I didn’t want to do a straight classical company.” So in 2008 she moved to Seattle, Washington in hopes of eventually joining a dance company and finally landed at a contemporary ballet company called Spectrum Dance Theater. “I started taking open adult classes there and and knew a dancer in the company who encouraged me to ask the artistic director, Donald Byrd, if I could attend company rehearsals and potentially learn some of the rep,” Shea says. The director obliged, and just before the company was set to go on tour one of their dancers sprained their ankle. “As the staff tried to work out who could take her place, they realized I knew the choreography, and put me in,” she says. “That was my audition for the company.” She danced with Spectrum for the next three seasons and eventually became a principal dancer for the company. “I wanted to save some cartilage in my hips for other things, so I left the company in 2011 and made my way back to LA to do more freelance work in the entertainment industry,” she says. Some of her professional credits from the commercial industry include It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Glee, and Bruno Mars’ music video Gorilla. She has also written a children’s book titled, Save Your Tears For the Stage.
Here, Shea shares what her life looks like as a freelance ballerina, the role social media has played in her career and how she stays grounded in such an unpredictable industry.
On Her Day-To-Day Life as a Freelance Ballerina: “My life ebbs and flows from season to season. I’m either dancing like crazy, or have nothing happening. Regardless, I try to stay pretty active with at least three hours of training on my own every day. I have to be extremely disciplined with that as a freelancer. I start each day with barre and some center. Then I put on my pointe shoes and improv for a while before doing some jump rope or cycling. Social media plays a major role in my career right now, so I typically move on from training to take pictures, edit videos, and do anything else I need to do to be ready for my next project. A lot of times, that plan will go out the window if I get a last-minute call from my agent for an audition. I never quite know what is coming next. I just have to stay positive and in shape so I’m always ready.”
The role social media plays in her career: “My career is 100 percent where it is because of social media and the opportunities that I have gotten because of it. Instagram changed everything. I’ve been able to work with so many exciting brands. One of my favorite projects I have ever done was a Father’s Day advertisement for Nordstrom [a video in which Shea filmed her father taking a ballet class with her in a tutu.] I am picky with the brands I choose to work with. I want to be sure we are aligned on messaging etc, and I won’t sell stuff I don’t naturally use in my own life.”
How she stays grounded in such an unpredictable area of the dance industry: “As a freelancer you have to remember that what is meant for you won’t miss you and what misses you was never meant for you. There was an opportunity this summer that I wasn’t chosen for, and I was so bummed because I felt I had the skill set for it, but I also had to respect that for whatever reason it was meant to be someone else’s job. The more you stay true to yourself, the more opportunities will come to you.”
The most helpful advice she’s ever received: “My teacher taught me that the more solid your foundation, the more you can grow. That works for dance broadly: The stronger your classical ballet background is, the wider you can cast your net in terms of dance styles. And it applies to technique specifically: The stronger your supporting leg is, the more freely you can use the working leg, and the better your balance is. The deeper your roots are in the ground, the taller you can grow.”
Her advice for teachers: “Be reliable and constant for your students. Be a safe person for them to go to. Teach them work ethic—they won’t make it anywhere without it. Lastly, help them know that they are always students because there is always room to grow. The fact that they are showing up is what is most important. Help them remember that being able to dance is a privilege, that their healthy bodies are a gift, and they should be grounded in gratitude.”