Despite having two professional dancers as parents, Cecily’s dance journey wasn’t choreographed for her. Just watch her move about the stage or studio, and you’ll see that she got to where she is with her own commitment, resolve and talent.
“You’re only in this because your dad is with the Joffrey,” Cecily recalls peers sneering and suggesting when she was younger. While at times she internalized these resentful jabs and doubted herself, her dad, Willy Shives, reinforced that she was deserving of every role and spot because of her own abilities as a dancer.
“Even the times that I questioned it, he reminded me that he wouldn’t put me in a place that would reflect poorly on him,” she said. “I know I’ve earned [my success], but this flak is something I’ve had to deal with my whole life.”
And though her parents were her teachers and the greatest dance influencers in her life, don’t expect Cecily to be their mirror image.
“I’m a very different type of dancer than they are,” Cecily asserts. “It’s a generational thing.” She attributes her unique style and versatility to her comprehensive education and training at both the Chicago High School for the Arts (ChiArts) and WMU’s Department of Dance. Cecily explains that whereas her parents might see ballet, modern and jazz as rigidly separate styles of dance, she sees them as interconnected and flexible.
“Because of my education, I’ve had to understand modern and contemporary dance. Today dance is so fluid. It’s like a giant hybrid.”
Her style, accomplishments and path are most certainly her own, but that’s not to say her dad, Willy Shives, didn’t play a role in Cecily’s decision to study dance at WMU.
As a student at ChiArts and a member of the school’s first class, Cecily developed as a dancer in a pre-professional, conservatory setting. But the summer before her junior year was when she feels things really “clicked.” That summer, at age sixteen, Cecily studied at American Ballet Theatre (ABT), and her eyes were opened to her potential and her prowess.
“Going to ABT allowed me to survey myself in the world of dancers,” she said. “I finally saw what I was capable of.”
Then, as a junior in high school, performing the Swan solo in ChiArts’ production of Carnival of the Animals reaffirmed her newfound confidence in the dance world. She knew she was growing as a dancer, and she was excited about her future.
“All of a sudden I felt on top. And I felt confident in what I was doing,” Cecily remembers. But between AP classes and heavy academic workloads, after-school rehearsals at ChiArts and 8:00 P.M. classes at the Joffrey Academy of Dance, plus hour-long train rides to school and back, it wasn’t long before Cecily felt strained.
“I think I burned myself out towards the end of my high school career. I was doing a lot,” Cecily reflects. Dance was still her passion, but she was ready to pursue other interests. As she started thinking about life after high school, her intent was to apply to Columbia University in New York City and study economics, maybe to go on to work for the National Endowment for the Arts. A degree in dance was nowhere in her plan.
That October, Willy Shives was a resident guest artist at WMU’s Department of Dance. As he prepared to head to Kalamazoo to set a ballet on Western’s dance students, he invited Cecily to come along for the trip. She expected to be sitting in on classes, but Willy had a different idea.
“I walk into the dance office and they hand me a number,” Cecily recalls. She was then ushered into the dressing rooms and into the studios where she danced ballet, jazz, modern and improv alongside aspiring college dancers. Cecily’s dad, recognizing that Cecily wasn’t done dancing, had signed her up for a WMU Dance entrance audition. Cecily describes this as her parents’ way of “gently pushing” her back towards the idea of a collegiate dance experience. And as it turns out, it was exactly the push she needed.
“I was sold,” Cecily says. She talked and ate lunch with students who would later become her close friends, she met with faculty members and she saw what her life would look like on Western’s campus. “I had a really great time." Though she was initially hesitant to admit to her parents that they were right, Cecily made the choice to come to WMU and continue her dance training. Looking back at her four years at WMU, Cecily is more grateful than ever for her parents’ “gentle push.”
“The Department of Dance at Western just has a lot of wonderful people. It was a really great environment to be in; one of the healthiest dance environments I’ve been in.” Unlike the “cattiness” and “snarkiness” that Cecily was met with in other competitive dance environments, at Western, she found a community. She found an environment that supported her, encouraged her to be better and prepared her for the professional world.
“I mean, I have two Antony Tudor ballets on my resume coming out of college. I don’t know how many other dancers can say that.”
Last year, WMU’s Department of Dance became the first university dance program granted the honor of performing Antony Tudor’s Lilac Garden. In its 80-year history, the ballet masterpiece had only ever been performed by professional ballet companies. Cecily performed the lead role of Caroline in the Great Works Dance Project 20th Anniversary Gala last February, an opportunity that she calls the “highlight” of her collegiate experience.
“Doing Lilac Garden my senior year was a dream come true,” Cecily says through teary eyes. “It still makes me emotional to think about.”
In addition to resume-building, professional preparation and personal fulfillment, Cecily’s WMU journey also afforded her a much deeper understanding of dance. Through dance theory and history classes, she studied the context that surrounds the ballets she loves, and she became a more informed dancer.
“I appreciate the knowledge I have been given here. I never would’ve had this exposure if I didn’t come to Western and study dance.”
“I’m a professional ballerina. It’s a pretty cool thing to say. And I’ve been waiting for the day when I can say it.”
In the final installment of her story, we’ll follow up with Cecily and hear about her first few months as a professional ballerina with Ballet San Antonio, where she'll be dancing under the direction of her dad.
What has it been like to work with her dad? In what ways has her WMU experience paid off in the professional world? How does it feel to finally be a professional ballerina? Find out soon. In the meantime, reread the first installment of Cecily's story here and subscribe to The Fine Print to be the first to know when Part III of the Cecily Shives story is published: