Everything about Emily Ramirez says “ballerina” except her X-rays.
She walks in a dancer’s flat-footed way and stands with toes pointed out in “first position,” which lets a performer move quickly in any direction. Her arms, taught to be expressive since elementary school, complement her speech even now.
What you can’t see are the twice-reconstructed knee, rebuilt after two ACL surgeries, that made dance impossible, or the once-broken facial bones that were repaired after she flew off a bicycle in a severe accident.
Those injuries shattered not only her body – which could be fixed, if not fully restored – but the dream she’d had since she was 2 years old in her hometown of Katy, Tex.
What does a dancer do when she can’t do the thing she loves most?
“I could make peace with not being able to dance,” says Ramirez, 32, as she relaxes in the dancers’ lounge at McBride-Bonnefoux Center for Dance. (She teaches summer intensive classes there.) “But I could not make peace with not being a creative person.”
A woman born to ballet
Even if you’re a Charlotte Ballet fan, you may be thinking, “Emily Ramirez. She’s .... ” And the correct answer is, “Someone you never got to see realize her potential.”
She came here from BalletMet in Columbus, Ohio for the 2012-13 season, “because I wanted to dance in a place where everyone’s accountable for hard work, where the directors are kind to dancers – which is rare – and where I could work with (resident choreographer) Dwight Rhoden, whose work fit my body.”
She played Tinker Bell in Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s “Peter Pan” and had a key role in the mad humor of Jiri Bubenicek's “L’heure bleue.” Associate artistic director Sasha Janes scheduled her for the lead in a 2014 “Dangerous Liaisons”: The scheming Marquise de Merteuil, a part he’d created for wife Rebecca Carmazzi two years earlier.
“Emily had a wonderfully dramatic quality,” says Janes. “She was a powerhouse packed into a small physique – she had a massive jump – and was a dream to work with in the studio. She could pick up choreography in a second. She’s extremely intelligent, and she can apply that intelligence to any role.
“When I choreograph, I always want it to be very organic, a collaborative process. I always ask for feedback, and she’s a strong, outspoken person. Some people, when they go to work, they’re there but they’re not there. She was one of those artists who was always present.”
Then, rehearsing for “The Nutcracker,” Ramirez literally ran into a bad patch.
“November 12, 2013. I was ready to make a jump, I hit a slippery spot on the floor and heard two huge pops in my right knee,” she says. “The ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) had ruptured. The pain came from my tibia slamming into my femur.” She’d had injuries before – what dancer hasn’t? – but realized this could be career-ending: “I went into surgery, knowing I might not come back.”
Her doctors made a new ACL from a hamstring tendon, drilling a screw into the tibia to attach it. They shaved off loose cartilage at the back of the knee, sewed her up and scheduled aggressive physical therapy three times a week to prevent the buildup of scar tissue.
She sobbed uncontrollably the first time she crossed a room on crutches, but she was able to take class by summer 2014. Doctors suggested she try bicycling as a way to strengthen her knee.
Fate was ready to kick her again.
“August 1, 2014. Chase (her husband) and I were biking in Cotswold when I accidentally grabbed the handbrake. I flew over the handlebars and landed on the pavement on my chin. The bottom teeth in front got knocked out, and the top four cracked in half. My chin broke in two, and joints broke on both sides of my jaw.
“My eyebrows relaxed so much that they wouldn’t raise. I could barely blink. I was thinking, ‘I can’t use my freakin’ face! How can I perform?’ They wired my jaw shut for a month – I actually threw up with my jaw wired shut, because pain medicine made me sick – and they fished inside my head to get out pieces of bone.
“Ten days after the accident, I had an MRI that showed the ACL graft had thinned and lengthened, so they had to do another surgery. The doctor told me his goal was to have me walk without a limp.”
A long-postponed decision
Her goal was to go back to class and see if she could dance again. She got that far but suffered ongoing pain and had to have her knee drained. At last, after 18 months of struggle, she went to artistic director Bonnefoux – who had kept a spot open for her on the roster – and told him she was finished as a ballerina.
“If I tried to make myself dance (full out), I’d probably have done serious damage to my knee,” she says. “I hate to see older dancers cherry-pick parts where they can give 85 percent.
“You know, walking around looking like Frankenstein means you say, ‘F--- it.’ Not to be able to smile or laugh liberated me. You only go around once.”
But Emily Ramirez had been going around in the same rarefied world since she watched Mister Rogers take his TV show to a ballet studio when she was 2. (“I swear I remember this.”)
“My mother thought I would forget, but I nagged her. At 4, I went into a creative movement class where the teacher would say, ‘What does this music sound like? Sunlight? Birds?’ You learn to interpret, which you’ll do all your life.”
Ballet gave her everything: Training, her future husband (whom she met at Houston Ballet Academy), scholarship offers from Southern Methodist University and Oklahoma State University – which she turned down to go pro – and eight years in Columbus.
“It’s weird to look back and realize you missed out on Halloween and parties and even college because you always had to dance, and now it’s over,” she says.
So who was she now?
A sudden reinvention
Ramirez had an idea: She could become a stage actress. So although she’d never sung in public – “not even in front of my husband” – she took singing lessons with Susan Roberts-Knowlson. The woman who had never done dramatic roles onstage entered acting classes at Spirit Square “with flop sweat in my armpits, which I never had when I danced.”
And less than two years later, she’s about to go on tour with a Tony-nominated Broadway musical, one that will one day bring her to Belk Theater. (She can’t identify it publicly; though she has signed a contract, the show hasn’t announced casting.)
“Susan said, ‘Oh, you can actually sing!’ when she heard me,” Ramirez recalls. “And after a few rehearsals, she asked, ‘So what musicals do you want to audition for?’ ”
Ramirez tried out in 2015 for CPCC Summer Theatre (no), “Cougar” at Actor’s Theatre (no, but try again), then “Rock of Ages” at Actor’s Theatre (yes to a supporting role). She played Morticia last fall for Salisbury’s Piedmont Players in “The Addams Family,” then went back to star this March as Sally Bowles in “Cabaret.” She followed that show with a nonmusical role in Sarah Ruhl’s “Stage Kiss,” playing a Midwestern schoolteacher at Actor’s Theatre.
She’d been cobbling together income while Chase went back to school: teaching classes at Charlotte Ballet Academy, publishing in Dance magazine, choreographing for Charlotte Ballet (“Dancing With the Stars”) and local directors. Could acting become a full-time job?
“My health insurance was about to run out, and a New York friend in ‘Phantom’ sent me an audition notice for a show that was going on the road. I watched a performance to make sure there was nothing in it I couldn’t do, and I auditioned.
“They expected a ballerina who couldn’t sing, so it went well when they found out I could. I got hired as the swing, which is perfect for my knee and my brain. I will dance less than anyone in the ensemble, and I’ll get paid more.” (Swings cover all members of the ensemble and step in for understudies who move up temporarily to leads.)
She’ll tour for months, separated from her husband of eight years much of the time. It’s a big jump for Ramirez, but she has spent her life doing those.
“I’m a Sagittarius, an archer, so I have to aim at a target,” she says. “And every huge jump I have ever made, I have landed in the right place.”
The Mind of Emily Ramirez
The Mexican-Irish dancer-actress has strong ideas about the ballet world. Here are some thoughts.
On body types: “The Balanchine model was in force at Houston Ballet Academy: taller, slender, very long legs. My body was shorter, curvier, more muscular. The principal told me, ‘If you’re serious about this, you should lose 10 pounds.’ I thought, ‘Please, somebody judge me for my dancing!’
“After I got onstage there, I started to take diet pills. I wasn’t throwing up food – I’ve seen ballerinas do that until the backs of their teeth were black – but I had ‘workout bulimia,’ where I would work out two hours a day before rehearsals .... I was fat-shamed in the ballet world and skinny-shamed in the outside world.”
On gender equality: “Men and women usually aren’t treated equally, because men are in such demand...Their technique doesn’t have to be as good. They’re listened to more quickly. They can speak out.
“I came into Charlotte Ballet with eight years of experience and got partnered by (a very young man) who couldn’t do the lifts. After he dropped me four times, I asked for a new partner. I was told, ‘Well, he’s learning.’ A man who asked would have been told, ‘We’ll take care of that right away.’ ”
On cautioning her students: “Female dancers work in a job where a man often tells them what to do with their bodies. The best roles are princesses or young ladies who are supposed to be 18, so it’s easy to start speaking in this high voice and developing a demure quality (to seek approval) ....
“Females bond by self-deprecation in the dance world: ‘Oh, you’re not fat. I’m fat.’ I looked at myself every day in that big mirror in the studio, and I started to have body dysmorphic disorder. I listened to a toxic inner monologue. So part of my lecture is to say, ‘The ideal body type doesn’t exist. We’re not all perfect snowflakes. Accept that and do your best.’ ”