This past January, 18-year-old Jayna Ledford did what tons of aspiring dancers do every day: She posted a beautiful dance shot to Instagram. But this photo carried more weight than most. Clad in a black leotard, tights, and pointe shoes, and hitting a stunning arabesque, she was beginning a new journey—as a transgender ballerina. Ledford, then a student at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC, never thought she'd come out on Instagram, let alone experience such an outpouring of support. Here, she talks to Dance Spirit about the experiences she's had over the last 10 months, her hopes for the future, and what she wants the dance world to understand about trans dancers. —Olivia Manno
I started ballet when I was 5 years old. I was the only boy at my studio in Indiana, and all I ever wanted was to wear a leotard. They wouldn't allow it, so my parents un-enrolled me and took me to a studio across town, where I enrolled as a female. After moving to Maryland a few years later, I was enrolled at a new studio, this time as a boy. My teachers noticed my natural ballet talents, and I was cast in many male roles. When I turned 10, I began going to summer intensives at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and the Kirov Academy. I became a full-time student at the latter in the fall of 2017.
From September to December 2017, while at the Kirov, I began truly figuring out who was. It was a difficult period of time because I wasn't sure who I could trust. I cautiously made my way through those few months, and in January, something clicked. I'd been debating whether or not to post something on Instagram. I was so nervous, but my friends were all so supportive. They warned me that once it was out there, it was out there for good, but assured me that I wouldn't be scared to be myself anymore. So I did it—and the response was overwhelmingly positive. All my classmates at the Kirov were unbelievably supportive. Those final months of the school year were the greatest, because I was able to finally be myself—everyone treated me as me, and nothing different.
That Instagram post sparked so many direct messages about how inspirational I was to people, or how my story had helped others come out to their own families. That's crazy. I'm just a normal person who happened to come out on social media. The impact has been much bigger than I could've imagined.
But there are still challenges, especially when it comes to certain opportunities being taken away. A lot of companies and studios where I danced as a male aren't receptive to me as a female. It's interesting to see who is shutting their doors and who is reaching out. It's definitely hard because you want to be accepted everywhere, but unfortunately, it's not like that.
Ledford (third from the left) with fellow Junior Company girls at the Kirov Academy of Ballet (courtesy Ledford)
Classical ballet is very gendered, and people are often scared to come out because they know it'll hurt their careers. But modern and contemporary pieces show that you don't have to subscribe to these historical gender roles. I want the classical ballet world to learn from that, to know that different is okay. Hopefully, ballet will slowly start to open its doors to trans dancers.
Now, I'm so happy with where I am. I'm taking the next year off to train fully as a female and master my pointe technique. I hope to end up in a company, and would absolutely love to dance Giselle, Juliet, Odette/Odile, and Aurora—you know, the roles that every little girl dreams of doing when she grows up and finally becomes a ballerina.
A version of this story appeared in the October 2018 issue of Dance Spirit with the title "A Ballerina Is Born."