Ask any young child what they want to be when they grow up, and ballerina often makes the list of ideal occupations. But how many of these dance dreams actually come true?
For Cecily Shives, a 2017 BFA graduate of the Department of Dance, the dream of becoming a ballerina has remained alive throughout her life. As a toddler, Cecily was already dancing around her family’s home in pointe shoes, and then in eighth grade, she was voted “most likely to become a ballerina” by her peers.
Well, her classmates had it right. This fall, Cecily will pirouette into the professional world as a company member with Ballet San Antonio.
Through a series of three installments, we’ll be profiling Cecily and the many steps – and turns, spins and leaps – she’s made in her journey to become a professional ballerina. We’ll open with the early days.
Some may say Cecily was destined to dance. After all, as the daughter of two professional ballet dancers, ballet was not only in her blood, but it also was a major part of her upbringing.
“I danced pretty much as soon as I started walking. I must’ve been two [when I took my first class]. Probably not even two.”
Cecily was born in Pittsburgh as her father, the acclaimed ballet master Willy Shives, and mother, Evie Pena-Shives, an accomplished dancer in her own regard, were dancing with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. There, Cecily began her training at Ballet Alloy, though she says dance classes were more like a child-care substitute for her parents at the time.
“It was kind of like babysitting,” Cecily remembers. “It was like, go, take class, stay busy.”
Willy’s dance career would later take the Shives family to Austin, Texas, where Cecily’s younger sister was born, and eventually to Chicago when he joined the Joffrey Ballet in 1999. It was in Chicago where Cecily’s dance training intensified and her love for dance deepened.
By four, Cecily was training at the School of Ballet Chicago, a professional-track school where she spent six years immersed in classical ballet technique. By six, she was a youth star in Joffrey’s production of the Nutcracker. By nine, she had attended her first summer intensive.
“It was the Joffrey ballet workshop in San Antonio, Texas. You’re there from 9:00 to 5:00. And sometimes rehearsals would go until 10:30 at night.”
A rigorous, three-week training program for serious young artists, the Joffrey Texas workshop was the highlight of Cecily’s summer for four years straight. At this point, enrolling Cecily in dance classes and intensives was no longer a parent-initiated decision. Long gone were the days of dance equating to a daycare alternative; dance was Cecily’s passion and her own independent choice. However, this choice didn’t come without doubts.
“There was a point in third or fourth grade where all the girls in your dance class start to quit,” Cecily said. While she remained passionate about dance, Cecily admits there were times when she had second thoughts as she watched her friends and classmates opt for soccer fields over the dance studio.
“I didn’t want people to think I was stupid for doing ballet. And I never thought it was stupid. It’s not stupid, dear people who were in my third-grade class.”
Her early exposure to dance aside, It’s easy to see from Cecily’s childhood anecdotes that she was bound to be a ballerina, or some sort of artist at least. Look beyond her professional parents and lifelong training, and you’ll still see a young performer constantly thirsting for the spotlight.
“I was always in costume,” Cecily recalls, describing going to school wearing a tutu or dressed as a cowgirl. “I wanted every day to be a masquerade.”
Cecily played the violin for four years, reluctantly giving it up when her dance schedule became too intense. She also participated in countless musicals throughout her elementary and middle school years, taking on roles like Peppermint Pattie in “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” and Liza Minnelli’s character in “Cabaret.” In addition to school plays and musicals, Cecily wrote and starred in her own original shows, as well as putting her own spin on some age-old classics.
“My sister and I would put on productions for my family. At one point in my childhood, I even re-choreographed all of ‘Mama Mia.’”
After spending her entire life performing, dancing and surrounded by ballet, you might assume that pursuing a degree in dance was an obvious path for Cecily. But in truth, her collegiate dance career came close to not happening at all.
In the next installment of her story, read about Cecily’s near departure from dance and how she was “tricked into” an audition that would forever define her dance journey.