The summer after I turned 7, I started taking ballet lessons from Laurie Picinich-Byrd at The Florida Ballet at Jacksonville. After my first summer intensive, Miss Byrd called my mom into a meeting to tell her she didn’t think I wanted to be there. “She talks too much and was a distraction to the other dancers,” she said. My mom responded that I loved ballet—that I talked about it all the time. “I’m sorry she’s a distraction, but she really wants to be there,” she told her. So Miss Byrd let me stay. Despite my being a handful, she loved me like she was my second mother.
I had a very challenging childhood growing up in a low-income household, and Miss Byrd graciously offered me the opportunity to train at her school on scholarship. She taught me and a few other dancers from low-income families how to clean marley floors and take care of the studios as payment. When we came to dance each day, we were often dealing with issues and emotions that we didn’t know how to handle. Miss Byrd could sense that and told us to take our rehearsal time to focus on something other than our families and school; she wanted us to be present with the work we had in front of us. I appreciated that as I got older and started dancing professionally. I use her words to ground me whenever my brain is struggling to focus. It’s a tool to both escape and compartmentalize the many challenges of life.
Miss Byrd’s teaching style can be described as “tough love.” She yelled a lot, but you always knew she meant well. She wanted us to be prepared for this career. She used to call the professional dance industry “the cold cruel world.” When it came to corrections, Miss Byrd was known for her creativity. If I stuck my ribs out (a habit of mine), she would say, “Princess, your ribs are poking out. I need to go grab some BBQ sauce!” When I went through a phase in which I couldn’t stop falling in class, Miss Byrd told me that she would buy everyone in the conservatory some chocolate cake from my favorite restaurant if I went one full day without falling. (It took me a full week not to hit the floor and earn that reward.) Whenever someone did six pirouettes for the first time, she took them out for ice cream—but only if she saw it happen; otherwise, it didn’t count. I don’t think I ever actually got my ice cream—she must have forgotten. But I was just happy she saw me nail six pirouettes!
When I was around 14, Miss Byrd was diagnosed with ALS. It was the kind of terrible thing you watch happen to someone slowly, over time. I watched her general health decline (I can still remember the first time she fell in class), then her speech, and finally her ability to walk and take care of herself. For a long time she still showed up to teach every day; later, she came just to be there for us, even if she wasn’t physically capable of educating. At some point, she had to stop, and we all knew what was going to happen next. One day, when I was 16, we were told that she passed away. It still makes me emotional to talk about. She was the most influential person in my life.
If she were still here, I would thank Miss Byrd for taking the time to care for me. I think I took what she did for granted back then, but I am the person I am today because of her. Without her I probably wouldn’t be a dancer at all, and my life would be very different. She means so much to me, and I miss her dearly.