With eight years in American Ballet Theater fresh in her mind, Rebecca Massey had sworn she’d never date another dancer – or a guy who was younger than she. All she needed was a modern-dance teacher at her new ballet school.
Daniel Wiley, just out of college, was in his first season of his first job. He figured he’d perform for a goodly number of years with ballet companies, then move to the leadership side. He had always thought about teaching.
A mutual friend arranged for them to meet at Bombay Cuisine in the UNCC area. Rebecca’s mind wandered from the business at hand.
“I looked at him and thought, ‘He’s really cute,’” she recalls. “I really liked him. I thought, ‘Oh gosh, I can’t hire him and date him. So maybe we’ll just date.’ ”
They ended up doing all that and more.
When Daniel goes onstage this week as the mysterious but kindly Drosselmeyer in “Nutcracker,” he’ll be surrounded by budding dancers from Massey’s school – except that now it’s their school.
And they’re married. And one of the cherubs in their “Nutcracker” is their 5-year-old daughter, Mila.
Once Mila is off to kindergarten each morning, the couple spend their day on the office work of running the Piedmont School of Music and Dance and its performing offshoot, Piedmont Dance Theatre. As afternoon arrives and 400 or so students show up for lessons in Kannapolis and Charlotte, they teach. For the entire autumn, Saturdays are devoted to “Nutcracker.”
When Rebecca was the students’ age, she never thought of becoming a teacher. Daniel envisioned himself dancing – but not with students around him.
“Your dreams,” Daniel says, “reroute many times in your life.”
Rebecca grew up in Winston-Salem, where she began taking dance lessons as a child for $3 a week – when her family could afford it. The classes became steadier once she won a scholarship from UNC School of the Arts, though. She stayed through her junior year of high school, then landed a spot at one of the world’s top dance academies: New York’s School of American Ballet, the teaching arm of the New York City Ballet.
It was New York’s other big company, American Ballet Theatre, that gave her a job after graduation. Though she occasionally got turns in the spotlight during her eight years there, she spent more of her time in ensembles.
“I didn’t do Sugar Plum Fairy at ABT. I did flowers and snow,” she says. There’s no disappointment in her voice. Now she sees what the experience gave her.
From the background, she was able to watch a parade of dancers each season. She studied why one moved her and another didn’t, and how dancers could give personal inflections to the same choreography.
“I got to see seven Giselles. I got to see seven Juliets,” she says. “You learn a ton, if you pay attention.”
A house and a car
Daniel was a budding dancer in his home state of Florida.
When he was 14 or 15, he spent a few weeks in New York at a summer training program run by American Ballet Theatre. He got to see one of his favorite ballets: “Fancy Free,” Jerome Robbins’ story of three sailors who hit New York on shore leave. The brunette who played the girl in blue – one of the women who flirts with the sailors – caught Daniel’s eye.
“I was with my buddies, being a little doofus,” he recalls. “I said, ‘That’s the kind of girl I want to marry.’ Because it was this sultry, sexy role.”
But he was just a kid, of course, so that was it for that fantasy. After finishing high school at a Florida conservatory, he returned to New York to study at the Juilliard School rather than go right into a dancing job.
“I had offers,” he says. “But you were looking at a 17-year-old who was 5 foot 5, literally. I wanted to learn about styles (of dance and choreography). I jumped into the deep end on that.”
Juilliard offered experiences that professionals might envy. Wiley got to work with Paul Taylor, Jiri Kylian and other renowned choreographers, as well as theater veterans Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. Nevertheless, he didn’t set his sights just on the stars.
“My family life and my long-term life ... come way ahead of my professional aspirations. Always have,” Wiley says.
“That’s one of the reasons I came down to N.C. Dance Theatre. I wanted to be able to own a house one day and have a car – literally, that was my thinking – rather than go to Washington or Boston or New York.”
Realizing that she wasn’t destined to take over the spotlight at ABT, Rebecca decided to change course. She returned home to North Carolina in 1999 and opened a lingerie store in Cornelius. To supplement her income, she got a job teaching and coaching dancers at NCDT.
“I loved it,” Rebecca says. Working alongside NCDT’s Jeri Kumery offered guidance and encouragement:
“One day, she said, ‘Massey! You’ve got a gift.’ ”
She put that to work for herself when she opened her school in Kannapolis in early 2003. The following autumn, Wiley joined NCDT.
Rebecca was chummy with Mia Cunningham, one of the company’s standouts. When Rebecca said she needed a modern-dance teacher, Cunningham nominated Wiley. But Cunningham was thinking beyond that.
“I thought it might be the kind of thing where opposites attract,” Cunningham recalls.
“Daniel’s very calm and very quiet. Rebecca’s very high-energy and outgoing. He was very young at the time, and I though she would be someone who could really draw him out.”
So they all met at Bombay Cuisine. That led to an official first date a few days later. The next morning, Cunningham called Rebecca for a report.
“I said, ‘I’m going to marry this man. He is awesome,’ ” Rebecca says. “And we got married a year and a half later.”
But first they made a discovery. After they had been dating a few months, Daniel noticed a photo in the school’s lounge. It was a shot of Rebecca from an ABT performance. She was in a blue dress.
“I said, ‘That’s not “Fancy Free,” is it?’ ” Wiley says. “She’s like, ‘Yeah.’ ”
For several years, Rebecca had been the only brunette to play the girl in blue.
They began putting pieces together. When they checked the printed program from the long-ago performance, sure enough, there was the name: Rebecca Massey.
The dancer whom the teenage Daniel had singled out as his model wife was in fact his future wife.
The coincidences weren’t quite finished, though. When Wiley stepped down from NCDT in 2006, the performances that closed the season – and marked his goodbye – ended with his playing one of the sailors in “Fancy Free.” A busload of the couple’s students came to watch.
A new dream
“In my head, I see a ladder or some sort of staircase of dreams you have when you’re growing up. You reach different levels,” Daniel said as he left NCDT. Teaching in the couple’s school, he said, was his “new dream.”
As he joined in with Rebecca leading the school, the first years brought stresses and strains, they say. Rebecca, who had run things alone up to then, had to get used to sharing responsibility. Daniel had to find his niche – which grew to range from dancing to teaching to carpentry.
Learning Web design from an online tutorial involved “hours and hours and hours of frustration,” Daniel says.
“It was really tense in the house,” Rebecca says. “He finally had to leave the house to do it.”
A moment together
Now they’ve settled into their places, they say. They switch between being married partners – getting Mila off to kindergarten in the morning – and being business partners directing classes and performances.
Once in a while, the roles overlap. In “Nutcracker,” Rebecca makes a cameo appearance as a grandmother. She has a brief encounter with Daniel’s Drosselmeyer.
“There’s this one brief moment where ... she’s asleep. And she gets startled,” Rebecca says.
“So I jump up and wrap both my arms and both my legs around him and look at him. ‘Oh, he’s kind of cute.’ And I give him a kiss. That’s one of the few moments of the week when I actually see my husband.”