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Vt. native on fulfilling dream to become principal dancer with Miami City Ballet

Ballerina Dawn Atkins performs in a rendition of the Nutcracker.
Alexander Iziliaev
Ballerina Dawn Atkins performs a rendition of the Nutcracker.

The art of ballet involves ornate music, stunning body contortions, tutus and pointe shoes, just to name a few essentials. And it requires determination and diligence. It's a rigorous art form that takes years to refine — and few land professional careers.

Most who do make it to the professional stage come from big cities with lots of access to exceptional training and financial support. Few come from states like Vermont, where training is harder to find and funding for ballet is limited.

But Dawn Atkins, a Middletown Springs native, recently fulfilled her dream of becoming a professional principal dancer. It’s with the Miami City Ballet, which begins its fall season today.

Vermont Public’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Atkins ahead of her debut in the new role. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: There are some professional dancers that made their way through Vermont. You know, they practiced here in the state, but they didn't grow up here. Can you tell us about the unique challenges coming from a smaller rural state like Vermont?

A woman smiles for a portrait photo.
Alexander Iziliaev
Dawn Atkins

Dawn Atkins: You know, it's funny. As a little kid, I didn't really realize that these dreams were maybe a little bit harder to obtain, just because of the limited resources that I had. As a kid growing up in Vermont. I was lucky to go to a school called the Sherry Adams School of Dance. We were super lucky to find that studio. They provided me great training as a kid.

What was it like for you dealing with some of the struggles — the financial, the physical — and the sacrifice for some things you had to do to get really good?

Yeah, it's multifaceted. The financial aspect of it is quite difficult for, I think, most parents. It's quite expensive to enroll your children in dance classes. And then as I was getting better and really wanted to pursue it, I needed more and more dance classes, and I needed private lessons. And then the parents are paying for the costumes for the recitals and the different productions. And if they do competitions, that's even more. As a little kid, you don't realize that it's so much. But then as I started to get older, and go to summer intensives, and I ended up going to a performing arts high school, I started getting scholarships — essentially applying for scholarships and helping financially offset some of that strain that was on my parents.

As far as other strains, I did have to give up quite a lot of social gatherings. It was hard, but it wasn't that hard because I wanted to be in ballet class. I'd rather be in ballet class on a Friday night than be at a football game, walking around with my friends.

Ballerinas are some of the most outstanding athletes, I think, on the planet because of what your body goes through. Because of what you have to do with just the pointe shoes. Describe a little bit about what pointe shoes are for people who may not be too familiar, and what that can feel like the first time you put those on.

Yeah, pointe shoes. That's a whole chapter in and of itself. Pointe shoes are very similar to ballet shoes. Only they are hard around your toes, basically. So the ball of your foot to the tip of your toes — that part of your shoe is hard. It's almost like paper mache so that you can stand literally on your tiptoes. You of course get calluses, and you do strengthen your feet so that it is less painful. But if you get a blister like if you're in rehearsal, and you can't fix that toe pad or you need to put a Band-Aid on but you don't have a five-minute break for, you know, another half hour or something, and you get a corn or blister or you get an ingrown toenail — like that stuff is when it it can be pretty excruciating.

And you go home that night, and I'm like cutting my toenail to try to like make it less painful the next day. Or I've seen girls that get bad corns and they'll cut a hole in their shoe so that that part of their foot can have a little bit more space. So it can be pretty tough. But in general, you build those calluses; you kind of build that strength and that toughness so that it's manageable.

A ballerina rehearses with another dancer in a studio space.
Dawn Atkins
Dawn Atkins rehearses for a performance.

You are a principal dancer now with the Miami Ballet. That sounds to me what it says — you're the main dancer. Is that about right? I mean, I have to imagine that you're like the headliner in that sense.

Yes, so most ballet companies are ranked, and they can vary a little bit. But in general, it's the corps de ballet, then a soloist rank, a principal soloist, or first soloist rank and then principal. And so each rank generally gets smaller as you go up in tier, so it's almost like a pyramid. So those of us that are principals, there's fewer of us than there are corps de ballet dancers. And the principals will, like you said, do the principal roles. So basically, you get to be generally the star of the show, which was, you know, always a goal of mine as a kid. I wanted to be the Sugar Plum Fairy, or the Swan Queen, or Aurora in Sleeping Beauty.

How did you find out that you had been named the principal ballerina? And what did that feel like when you found out?

I was not entirely familiar with how our artistic director, Lourdes Lopez, does the promotion. So it was after a performance in February. And it's not uncommon after a show for the staff to come back. And sometimes they hug you or they'll say good job, or they'll give you a note for the next day or something. And Lourdes came up to me and hugged me, and I thought that was nice, but didn't really think anything of it like "Oh, thank you. Yes, I think the show went smoothly." Then she like held my hand. And she just said the word principal. And it takes me a minute to register what that means.

I'm smiling even telling the story just because it feels like there's so many moments of doubt when you're in pursuit of a dream. There's a lot of highs, but there's a lot of lows, and there's doubt and you want it so badly. And to finally be told, like "You are a principal and I'm promoting you." It's so meaningful. Because especially for me, I'm able to tell that childhood Dawn, like, "You achieved your dream."

Ballet dancers perform on a stage.
Alexander Iziliaev
Ballerina Dawn Atkins performs a rendition of Prodigal Son.

It is a hard thing. You don't want to give anybody the idea that oh, anybody can do this. It's not like that at all. You've already described how difficult this journey is. But what would you say to someone who's young from Vermont, who thinks ballet is something they want to make a career? What would you say to that person about pursuing that dream?

There's a quote that I'm sure I'll butcher but it's about being fearless in the pursuit of that which sets your soul on fire. So if something is everything to you, and it feels like there is no way that you can't pursue it — pursue it. But also don't neglect yourself. Always be mindful that you're a whole person. Don't lose sight that there's other sides of you and that the more whole person you are, the more you can touch other people. So I often think if I'm a whole person on stage, that's gonna resonate with more people than if I step on stage and I'm solely a ballerina. So if I come to them as a human, I can touch more people.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
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