Watching Ellie Frith’s serene, poised grace onstage, it’s hard to imagine the anxiety and crazy scrambling of about a year and a half ago.
At 15, she had just completed a summer stint with the Houston Ballet Academy when she learned she had been accepted for its year-round program. Though Ellie was thrilled by a pivotal opportunity in her lifelong quest to be a professional ballet dancer, she knew that staying in Houston would mean missing her last two years at Myers Park High – and all of the important experiences that would entail.
The short-term logistics were even harder. “It was very stressful,” she recalls. “I had a week to decide whether I would take their offer and stay for the year.
“I decided I did want to stay, so after the program ended I had two weeks until I had to be back for the winter – which meant I had to find an apartment, find roommates, enroll in an online school and figure out how that would all work, and completely move my life to Houston.”
Somehow she made it all work, with a big assist from her mother. Barbara Frith can laugh about it now. A little.
“We had a flash-and-dash of figure out the classes, figure out the apartment, furnish it, get set up,” she says. “It was like a four-day go-to-IKEA, take-your-Allen-wrench, assemble-everything-and-leave. It was a little terrifying as a parent, and a little terrifying for her, too.”
Once on her own, Ellie also had to learn quickly about various adult life skills such as cooking, cleaning and grocery shopping – the latter a three-block walk because she was too young to drive. “Mom had to try to teach me to cook, briefly, before I left,” Ellie says with a chuckle. “Now I really like cooking.”
Her mother says, “Even something like doing laundry doesn’t seem like much of a task, until you don’t have any clean clothes.
“Last year was a rather steep learning curve. She was actually asked to go (to the year-round program) the year before that and chose not to, in part because of some of those life lessons. She didn’t feel she was quite there yet. ... It was kind of like going to college at 16, only you’re not in a dorm but in an apartment complex where nobody’s monitoring you.”
The right balance
Always a strong student, Ellie began classes online from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ eLearning Academy, through Performance Learning Center. She quickly found that the balance she so easily masters onstage was more challenging in terms of making her academic and ballet life work together.
The school schedule she chose during her first year in Houston – two Advanced Placement and two honors classes – proved very demanding. She’s much more comfortable with the adjusted class load she’s taking now, a better fit for a ballet training and rehearsal schedule that’s 9 to 6 every weekday and 9 to 3 on Saturdays. She’s on schedule to graduate in June.
Ellie says her typical day starts with a ballet technique class for an hour and a half, followed by classes that involve pointe work (in which the dancer supports all body weight on the tips of fully extended feet) and working on dancing with boys. That’s followed by more technique classes “or rehearsals on what we’re working on at the moment. If it’s something I’m involved in a lot, it can be very tiring.”
She says physical and mental stamina are underrated components of what she does – and part of the reason she’s so proud of it.
“A lot of the purpose of ballet, a lot of what makes it hard for us, is that we’re expected to make it look easy,” she says. “That’s what makes it fun to watch. Really, standing on your toes for six or seven minutes is not easy,” she says with a laugh.
“A lot of times, it takes a lot of energy, a lot of effort, a lot of stamina to do the things we do. I know people think they’re just twirling around in pretty tutus. Performing can be fun, but it is hard work and very athletic, which a lot of people don’t realize.”
Goal within reach
Ellie has known this since she began dancing at age 3. Her interest in dancing grew at 7, when she attended the N.C. Dance Theatre’s School of Dance in Charlotte for a year-round program. She began attending the summer program in Houston at 13.
Her most recent accomplishment was performing in “The Nutcracker” Nov. 29-Dec. 29 (with only four days off) with the Houston Ballet, where she danced with professionals from the Second Company as her proud mother watched.
“That’s far more shows than I’ve ever done of one performance,” says Ellie, who also performed in “Nutcracker” with N.C. Dance Theatre for many years. “It was great to be able to be up there with the Second Company” – where she performed the significant roles of the snowflake and flower.
Still just 17, Ellie’s already in select dancing company in Houston, where she’s one of only 13 girls and eight boys who train in Level 8 with her. It’s the highest level before dancers may be hired in a junior company and audition for professional ballet companies.
That’s her next step, a process she anticipates will be ongoing all spring. For now, though, she’s enjoying a winter break with her family and catching up with Myers Park High friends at her Charlotte home, where she hadn’t been since August.
Ellie misses the actual classroom experience and would like to go to school while dancing if she can at some point. Whether or not that happens, she says she’s happy with her decision to go to Houston.
“As a dancer, it’s very time-consuming from an early age,” she says. “But you make sacrifices starting early on, as far as a social life and things like that. I knew, going to Houston, that I would have to grow up very quickly and become very responsible and very self-sufficient.
“It was very hard, especially at first. But it was an amazing opportunity, and I get to do things I never thought I would get to do, and the training is fantastic. I’ve also made a lot of good friends there.
“It was a big risk to take, but it looks like it’s paying off.”