There's a surprising twist to Regina Willoughby's last season with Columbia City Ballet: It's also her 18-year-old daughter Melina's first season with the company. Regina, 40, will retire from the stage in March, just as her daughter starts her own career as a trainee. But for this one season, they're sharing the stage together.
On a rainy day in November 2018, Paloma Garcia-Lee got a call from her agent that brought her to her knees outside her New York City apartment: She was going to play Graziella in Steven Spielberg's West Side Story.
The call came after a lengthy audition process with Spielberg in the room, and the role, originated by Wilma Curley on Broadway in 1957 and later portrayed by Gina Trikonis in the 1961 film, was her biggest dream. In fact, it's something Garcia-Lee says she manifested from the day plans for the movie were announced in January 2018. "I wrote in my journal: 'I am playing Graziella in Steven Spielberg's West Side Story.'"
Photo by Jayme Thornton
Garcia-Lee grew up training at her mother's dance studio in Bucks County, PA, The Pennsylvania School of Performing Arts (her mother sold the school earlier this year). On top of her regular training, she would travel multiple hours each day to New York City and New Jersey for classes with Steps on Broadway and the Princeton Ballet School, respectively. Her bedroom walls were lined with cutouts from the pages of Dance Spirit, which served as inspiration for her goals. Her mother, Terri Garcia, was a professional dancer in the 1980s (she even danced Francisca in the West Side Story tour in 1985), and Garcia-Lee was eager to follow in her footsteps. "I would lay in bed until 3 in the morning staring at the ceiling, thinking, 'OK, I'm ready to do it,'" she says.
Garcia-Lee went to high school at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, where she studied first ballet and then drama. As a sophomore, she was cast as Graziella in her school's production of West Side Story. The magic of performing Jerome Robbins' iconic choreography never left her. "The last time I stepped into Graziella's shoes, it changed my life," she says. "She gets those big features in 'Dance at the Gym' and in 'Cool.' [She] is so powerful, strong and such a baddie."
She's been banging on West Side Story's door ever since. After graduating high school, Garcia-Lee set off for New York City, where she made her Broadway debut at 17 years old in The Phantom of the Opera. She would go on to perform in five more Broadway shows: Nice Work If You Can Get It, On the Town, Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and, most recently, Moulin Rouge! All the while, she held out hope that West Side Story would someday come her way.
In 2009, Garcia-Lee was considered for Graziella in the Broadway revival but didn't get the role after countless callbacks. "I was a wreck sobbing to my mother on the phone," she says. "For whatever reason, it was not the right fit for me."
After that, two more productions didn't cast her as Graziella. When West Side Story was being mounted at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ, in 2016, Garcia-Lee was offered the role of Mugsy. For the 2020 Broadway revival, she was only offered the opportunity to audition for the role of Anybodys. She turned down both opportunities in favor of other projects—she would wait for Graziella.
Despite the rejection, she was undeterred. So when Deadline published an article announcing the film remake, Garcia-Lee felt that playing Graziella was meant to be.
Photo by Jayme Thornton
Auditions for Steven Spielberg's West Side Story were held in the fall of 2018—the same time Garcia-Lee was filming for the award-winning FX series "Fosse/Verdon." She had to negotiate with the production team to let her take time off to go. At the audition, the casting room was filled with many of her friends and fellow Broadway darlings, like Eloise Kropp (Cats) and Jonalyn Saxer (Mean Girls). "Paloma has a way of taking all the tension out of an audition room," Saxer, who plays a Jet in the film, says. "You can feel her love of dance emanating off of her, which spreads to everyone else."
According to the film's choreographer, Justin Peck, Garcia-Lee quickly caught the eye of the creative team. "She is one of those artists who is a true triple threat in her talent and ability," he says. "She's really committed to the specificity of movement, and she's determined to get it right. I could sense that from the first audition." He recalls Garcia-Lee took any free minute throughout the rehearsal process to ask for feedback on his style. "That really shows in the final results of the film."
Photo by Jayme Thornton
Garcia-Lee found out she booked West Side Story in November 2018. At the same time, she was committed to the Broadway run of Moulin Rouge!, and discovered the two productions were both slated to begin rehearsals around the same time. She spent much of the winter and early spring of 2019 trying to figure out how to do it all. Fortunately, both were based in NYC and Garcia-Lee was already familiar with Moulin Rouge!'s choreography and staging, because she'd been part of the show since its 2017 lab. She asked if she could miss some rehearsals and most preview performances (including the all-important first preview performance) so she could film her scenes in the movie. "That was not a simple negotiation," Garcia-Lee explains. "I am the biggest advocate for 'If you don't ask, it is a no.' You will be surprised how people will rally around you to help your dreams come true, but it takes that risk," Garcia-Lee says.
Working on the West Side Story film was much different from any experience Garcia-Lee had ever had on Broadway. "It wasn't just learning steps," she says. "It's not front presenting—it was really this 360 experience. I'll never forget Steven up on a ladder, then Steven halfway down the ladder, and then Steven on a rolling chair, Steven lying on the floor looking up at [the choreography] this way, Justin tweaking and tweaking."
Rehearsals for the iconic "Dance at the Gym" scene lasted two weeks. Every day started with a ballet class led by Peck, his wife, former Miami City Ballet dancer Patricia Delgado, or former American Ballet Theatre dancer Craig Salstein. Before the work began, Garcia-Lee says, she familiarized herself with Peck's work as much as she could to get a sense of his style. "It's grounded in and sprinkled with Jerome Robbins, but it's also Justin-driven," Garcia-Lee says. "His movement isn't innate for me. However, I loved the challenge of it."
Once rehearsals wrapped, filming for "Dance at the Gym" lasted six days, and according to Garcia-Lee, her feet never hurt so badly in her entire life. But that didn't stop her from soaking up the magic. Especially on the day she and her co-star Mike Faist (Riff) shot their duet. "We were so tired and we were giving each other our all," she says. "All I remember was that we did the impossible. We lost ourselves in the art. We finally got to the end of [the take and] Mike and I fell to the floor. Steven ran over to us, dove on the floor with us and smothered us with love. It was magic."
Photo by Jayme Thornton
After West Side Story wrapped in September 2019, Garcia-Lee continued on her journey with Moulin Rouge! But all those celebratory can-can kicks came to a crashing halt in March 2020 when the pandemic hit, just as she felt she was "stepping into the height of her career." Garcia-Lee was one of many in the company who got sick with COVID-19. Though she thankfully recovered, she was left wondering what the future would hold. Several months later, it was announced that West Side Story's release was going to be pushed back a year.
Garcia-Lee spent her days volunteering at a horse stable in Brooklyn. It was the first time in decades she found the time to get back into the saddle like she did as a kid growing up close to the Bucks County farms. "There was a lot of work to do identifying myself outside of who I am as a performer," she says. She found solace and comfort around the horses. "I believe horseback riding to deeply be like dancing with a partner," she says. "It really offered me a place to be, and something to feel I was growing in and accomplishing."
Then, with the help of her dad, she drove across the country to L.A. for a fresh start. She wanted to focus on acting and find something new to give her purpose. But that doesn't mean she let go of dance. As studios resumed in-person classes, Garcia-Lee returned to the dance floor. "There's just a lot of anxiety coming back into the room—a lot of us are really out of shape," she says. "Coming back has been a journey. The learning curve right now is having a lot of grace with myself."
In L.A., she's been stepping outside her comfort zone of musical theater and into jazz classes with teachers like Will B. Bell. "She's probably one of the most focused dancers that I got to know over the past year during the pandemic," Bell says of Garcia-Lee. "When she comes to class, she comes there with a mission and a goal."
When it comes to professional work, Garcia-Lee's been auditioning for film and TV projects while cultivating the next phase of her career. "This pause has been a blessing in disguise," she admits. "It really took some time to calibrate myself differently." She would love to originate new roles, as well as inhabit classics, like those found in the upcoming Guys & Dolls movie musical directed by Bill Condon. She also dreams of playing Roxie in Chicago on Broadway.
For now, though, Garcia-Lee is eagerly anticipating the West Side Story film release in December. After a yearlong delay, she is physically and mentally ready to celebrate playing Graziella. "I'm actually more ready now," she says. "I think a lot of us feel this way. The timing is exactly right."
Photo by Jayme Thornton
Let's face it—dance is HARD, and in order to achieve your goals, you need to be committed to your training. "Still, there's a fine line between being committed and being consumed." Dancers can, and should, have interests outside of the studio.
Not convinced? We talked with dance psychologist Dr. Lucie Clements and two multifaceted dancers, Kristen Harlow (a musical theater dancer pursuing a career in NYC and Kentucky) and Kallie Takahashi (a dancer in her final year at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts), and got the inside scoop on how having hobbies outside of dance can inform your artistry, expand your range and help prevent burnout.
Dance Spirit: Are dancers less committed to dance if they have other passions?
Dr. Lucie Clements: Definitely not, in fact I would always encourage a dancer to have more than one passion. Having multiple hobbies helps you to maintain balance in your life, brings perspective, and will also bring lots of new skills into your life that will likely transfer into dance.
DS: What's the difference between a commitment to dance and an all-consuming obsession with dance?
LC: In psychology we call the distinction between commitment and all-consuming hobbies either harmonious or obsessive passions. A harmonious passion means that dance is in harmony with other activities, is associated with positive emotions, and we know that we would manage if we were injured. Essentially, this is where a person makes an autonomous choice to have dance in their life, and makes time and space for other things, too. An obsessive passion, by contrast, is one where we live and breathe dance, at the cost of other hobbies, possibly even friendships or relationships, and especially our own well-being. This sort of commitment could lead to what's known as a "controlled internalization"—we are dancing because we feel compelled to since we can't imagine life without it, rather than doing it because we love it. Always remember to check in and ask yourself if dance is in harmony with the rest of who you are.
DS: What are the benefits of having other hobbies and interests?
LC: Having lots of interests builds a broader self-concept, which relates to the way we label ourselves ("I am a dancer," "I am a swimmer," "I am a sister"), but also the values we hold most strongly (e.g. to be creative, to be kind, to be powerful). Self-concept is really key to our well-being, it gives rise to our evaluations of our self-worth and self-esteem. When a dancer experiences loss in dance, such as injury, a series of 'no's at an audition, or a long time without work, their self-concept could be wiped out if all they label themselves as is 'A dancer.' If all we have is dance, it can prevent us from coping during times of loss because that rejection or injury is taking away all that we are. Someone who has a variety of hobbies can draw on the other parts of who they are to boost their self-esteem and find purpose.
DS: Are there any risks associated with pursuing other interests that we should be wary of?
LC: Doing too many activities can lead to burnout. To keep burnout at bay, don't forget to make rest and self-care your hobbies too!
Here's What the Dance Pros Are Saying
Photo courtesy of Kristen Harlow
Kristen Harlow on the relationship between dance commitment and hobbies: "I believe dance can still be your favorite hobby, as you allow yourself to explore new creative outlets. That is the beauty of being an artist: We can use our love for art to try new things!"
Kristen Harlow on her own nondance interest: "My passion outside of dance is being a cake artist/baker! During the pandemic, all I wanted to do was spread joy, and because we couldn't be together dancing in NYC, baking became the next best thing for me."
Kristen Harlow on the similarities between baking and dancing: "Ever since I started Kristen's Kreations, I have realized probably thousands of different similarities between the two. Dance for me has always been my source of joy and motivation, and baking quickly became the same."
Photo courtesy of Kristen Harlow
Photo by @mediabyZ
Kallie Takahashi on her own nondance hobbies: "I love to sew and design my own clothes. Sometimes I will just do small alterations on old pieces that I already own, sometimes I'll buy something knowing I want to completely take it apart, or I will even start from scratch by picking out the fabric and dreaming up whatever I can imagine."
Kallie Takahashi on the lesson both dance and sewing have taught her: "Patience is everything. You aren't going to get it right on the first try, but that doesn't mean you won't learn something on the way."
Kallie Takahashi on the benefits of being versatile: "Expanding your horizons allows you to be a more well-rounded individual and gives you more outlets to express yourself. And who knows, the industry is so versatile, maybe that other interest will help you in your dance career in the long run—special skills and all!"
Kallie Takahashi models the pants she made.Photo courtesy of Kallie Takahashi
Ultimately, finding balance with dance and other hobbies might be challenging to navigate at first, but it is well worth the work in order to let your best qualities shine.
With her nearly limitless facility, well-timed dynamics and incredible control, Christian Burse's future as a dancer was guaranteed to be bright. A student at the renowned Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas, TX, and at Dance Industry Performing Arts Center in Plano, TX, Burse has consistently made waves: She won first runner-up for Teen Outstanding Dancer at New York City Dance Alliance Nationals in 2019, received a grant for summer study at Juilliard from the Texas Young Masters program in 2020, and was named a YoungArts finalist for dance in 2021.
So, it wasn't all that surprising when Burse announced that, at just 17 years old, she would be joining Complexions Contemporary Ballet as an apprentice for the company's 2021–22 season.
Dance Spirit caught up with Burse to hear all about her first season with Complexions ahead of the contemporary ballet company's run at the Joyce Theater in NYC this month.
Dance Spirit: Congratulations on joining Complexions Contemporary Ballet this season! What led to your signing on to one of your dream companies?
Christian Burse: I had been attending their summer intensive since I was 12 years old. So I've built a good relationship with the company and gotten familiar with their repertoire. On the flip side, the company directors have gotten to see me progress and grow as an artist over the years. I didn't know it, but attending their programs all those years really served as my audition for the company, because in August, I got the email saying they would love for me to apprentice this season. I was shocked, and never thought I'd be at the point where I'd be invited to join my dream company, let alone this early in my dance career. But it really showed me that hard work pays off. I still find it surreal that I get to wake up every day and be in a studio with Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson.
DS: What drew you to Complexions to begin with?
Burse: The diversity of the company. I love how we have, for example, both super-tall and super-short dancers—everyone's so different and unique in their own way, and the directors encourage us to all be ourselves and embrace those differences.
DS: And how are you balancing your new role with school?
Burse: That's right, I haven't graduated yet! Luckily my school is very supportive of me doing this, and I've been able to transfer all of my work for senior year online. It's challenging, but you gotta do what you gotta do to stick with your priorities and goals. That's the mindset I always come back to.
DS: What does a typical day look like for you now?
Burse: We generally rehearse from either 9 to 5 or 10 to 6. The first hour and a half we always do a ballet class to warm up. Then we go straight into rehearsals, working really hard to prepare for all of our performances. Then it's mainly just getting home, eating dinner and going straight into homework.
DS: What was your first time performing with the company like?
Burse: I got to make my Complexions debut at our performances in Riga, Latvia, where we traveled this past October. I was practically in tears when we rehearsed onstage, because every dancer dreams of performing with their dream company or role, and to finally be in that moment was so liberating. Every time I perform, I get such an adrenaline rush, and it reignites my passion for dance.
DS: What was it like making the transition from competition kid to company member?
Burse: It wasn't as scary as I thought it would be, because a lot of the values I learned prepared me for where I am now. Things like training in all styles, rehearsing pieces for comp season, preparing my solos—all translate here. In particular, being able to adapt and pick up quickly has served me, because we go super fast in rehearsal and learn new choreography at a rapid pace.
DS: What advice do you have for aspiring company members?
Burse: Auditioning for a company can be nerve-racking, but try to keep the mindset that you're simply sharing your talent, and remember that what you have to offer has value. Everyone is so different, and company directors are looking to see who you really are.
DS: What have you learned from more seasoned members in the company?
Burse: The dancers who have been with Complexions for a while move so differently. It's less of "I have to get this technically correct" or "I have to use the correct arm," and instead they pay attention to the feeling that the repertoire brings. Of course their technique is still there, but they focus on more than just steps, and take big risks with a certain maturity that I want to get to someday.
DS: Is it nice having a few other company apprentices to go through this with?
Burse: Definitely! One of the other apprentices, Emma Branson, joined at the same time as me, and it's been great to have someone to freak out with about how cool this experience is, and process it together.
DS: What do you have in mind for the future?
Burse: I definitely see myself with the company, hopefully, for a little bit longer. But after that, I hope it's with another amazing company that I can also move up through. I love contemporary ballet, and see myself doing that for a long time.
Catch Burse performing from November 16–28 during Complexions Contemporary Ballet's program at the Joyce Theater in NYC!