Former ballerina turned professional cabaret ballroom dancer

November 20, 2020
Belicia Tang

Andrea Harvey is a former professional ballerina. During her seven years with Orlando Ballet Company, she has danced many soloist and principal roles in company productions, including Juliet (Romeo and Juliet), Belle (Beauty and the Beast), The Sugar Plum Fairy (The Nutcracker), and Swanhilda (Coppelia). She has also danced with the ‘Stars of American Ballet’ Gala and performed in the ‘World Ballet Competition’ Gala. In 2017, Andrea retired from ballet and became a professional cabaret ballroom dancer. She now competes and performs all over the world with her dance partner, Craig Smith, and the two have won multiple national and international titles in their three years together.

Andrea started ballet at the age of five. Her mother and aunt were both dancers, and her two sisters also grew up dancing. When asked whether she always had aspirations of going professional, Andrea says, “I got my pointe shoes when I was ten, and that’s when everything clicked and I was like, ‘I really want to do this.’ I was eleven years old when I went to my first ballet summer intensive. For ballet dancers, going to summer intensives is a great way to improve and take the professional path seriously.”

Growing up, Andrea’s parents have always been supportive of her desire to pursue professional dancing. “My mom was very supportive and drove [me and my sisters] to all our auditions. My dad is an orthopedic surgeon, so he’s always battled between wanting us to dance, and worrying whether we could make a reasonable living out of it. He was also worried about the intensity of ballet training, and didn’t agree with some of the teaching methodologies. But he also saw that we loved dance, so he supported us.”

Andrea attended regular public high school alongside dance training. “I was dancing all weekdays from 4:30 to 9pm, and Saturdays from 10am to 6pm. I literally went to one basketball game during my entire high school career and missed my senior prom.”

Before being hired by professional ballet companies, aspiring ballerinas must progress through a series of stages. Dancers begin in the ballet school, where they train for many years and focus on the fundamentals of technique and performance. Upon graduation from the school, dancers will audition to join ballet companies. More often these days, there is another stage of training between the highest level of the school and the actual company, known as the professional or trainee division, where dancers will dance all day and are cast in a lot of productions, but do not get paid a salary. Finally, dancers will be hired by the actual company, where they start at the lowest level as an apprentice, and move up the company’s ranks, which consists of the corps de ballet, soloist, and principal dancer roles.

After completing her junior year of high school, Andrea left her hometown in Pennsylvania and moved to Seattle, where she trained at Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Professional Division Level 1 (PD 1). She completed her senior year of high school online, then stayed one more year at Pacific Northwest to complete PD 2. “It was a really good training experience,” Andrea says. “But I knew I was not going to get hired by PNB, since they like really tall dancers.”

Most ballet dancers starting out in the corps are between 5’4’’ to 5’8’’. Andrea is only 5’1’, which posed as an obstacle when she was first auditioning to join professional companies. Andrea explains, “Principal dancers can be any height, but the difficulty is getting into the lower levels and dancing corps roles when you’re not in the height bracket.” This fixation on being the right height led one teacher to suggest that Andrea– who was age 12 at the time– take injectable growth hormones to grow taller. Andrea, appalled by the very idea, refused to take them.

Upon completing PD 2, Andrea started auditioning to join a professional company. “I auditioned everywhere, but was turned down usually because of height. I would literally walk around the whole audition with my heels off the floor and wear my bun on the top of my head to try to look taller. If I ever didn’t get in somewhere, it was because I was too short, or my neck wasn’t long enough.”

She recounts one particularly selective audition. “It started out with around 200 people, and as each exercise goes on, they will excuse you to leave. At one part towards the beginning of the audition, they said, ‘Anyone under five foot four, please leave.’ But I thought, ‘I’m not leaving. I flew all the way here, and I have no money, I’m not leaving.’ So I stayed and made it the whole way through. Towards the last part of the audition, it was just me and three girls left, and those girls were all super tall. They called my number and asked me how tall I was. I replied, ‘Five four.’ And then they said, ‘We’re going to ask you again, and don’t lie to us. How tall are you?’ I replied, ‘Five one.’ And then they told me to leave.”

In 2009, Andrea was offered a spot in Orlando Ballet’s Second Company. “Halfway through my first year at Orlando Ballet, Bruce Marks, the director at the time, left. The new director was Robert Hill. When he first came in November he was teaching the first and second company. During a few rehearsals, I needed to fill in for company members who were injured or sick for the day. He saw that I knew exactly what I was doing and took notice of that.”

Because of her strong performance and level headedness under pressure, Hill decided to promote Andrea, along with two other dancers, to the apprentice level for the following season. “When you’re an apprentice, you’re at the bottom of the barrel in the company. But we all started with soloist and principal roles.”

At Orlando Ballet, people called Andrea the “pressure cooker”. In addition to principal roles, Andrea was at times third cast and the reserve dancer, should anyone be unable to perform. “I was always the emergency situation person. If anything happened to anybody, they would replace them with me. I was casted to learn every role; just in case someone couldn’t perform, they knew they had me as a back up. In Swan Lake, for example, I was learning all the parts– the four little swans, the Russian pas de deux and pas de trois, the black swan and white swan.”

Looking back, Andrea reflects on the difficulties that she– and many others dancers– faced in her ballet career. Financially, many ballerinas are paid next to nothing, such that a second job is oftentimes required to make ends meet. In terms of her own financial situation, Andrea says, “In the beginning, I was dancing unpaid for two years in Seattle, and then one year in Orlando. If I didn’t have my parents supporting me during that time, there’s no way I could have done it. A lot of professional ballerinas need a second job. In Orlando, I worked as a waitress. I would dance until 5 or 6pm, and waitress from 9pm to 2am. I had to be in class the next day at 8am. It was hard because I was out so late, and I felt exhausted the next day. If you’re in a high spot in a company that has a lot of money, you might not need a second job. But in most places you would need extra income.”

Ballet companies hire dancers on a contract basis for the duration of the ballet season. During off-season, dancers do not get paid at all. Andrea explains, “At Orlando, our season was very short, about 30 to 35 weeks. When I first started out, I was making $400 a week, and only for that part of the year. All of May to September, we weren’t getting paid at all. So during that time, many dancers teach to make money.” In terms of a ballerina’s annual salary, Andrea says, “I was making $14,000 a year as an apprentice. But depending on the company and your rank, your salary could be within a huge range.”

An even more glaring issue in the ballet world beyond financial instability is the significant emphasis on body image, with dancers facing immense pressure to conform to the “ideal” ballet body type: slender with long, elegant limbs. On the topic of body image, Andrea says, “Body image is such a hard issue in ballet. You look at some ballerinas with long, hyperextended legs and arched feet, and the lines are very obvious. On stage it looks very delicate. So a lot of ballet companies want you to fit that image, which is tall and thin. The main issue is the way the body thing is handled. If you gain weight, they’ll just stop casting you.”

With this craze surrounding weight and fitting the right “look”, it is no surprise that many ballerinas struggle with severe body dysmorphia, eating disorders and low self-esteem, as their very livelihood depends on the way other people perceive their bodies. Describing her personal battle with body image, Andrea says, “The body image issues were a huge part of my upbringing in ballet. It was such a central topic for all of us, and particularly for me, because I was short and also not the thinnest. I think it was the biggest thing that held me back, so it was constantly on my mind.”

As our society shifts towards a culture of body diversity and body positivity, one can only hope that the ballet world will follow in suit. Today, more and more ballet companies are diversifying their aesthetic image to include dancers of varying heights and builds. Andrea is hopeful that with more education surrounding health and fitness, the ballet world’s obsession with thinness will eventually be replaced with a greater focus on health and longevity. “It would be really great for ballerinas to have more nutrition and fitness classes, as well as motivational speaking for young dancers surrounding body image. Teaching dancers how to reframe the idea that having a ‘healthy’ body— which dancers may interpret as being too big— is actually a positive thing.”

It’s been three years since Andrea retired from professional ballet, and she now has a much better relationship with her body than ever before. “Nowadays I feel much healthier in both my mind and body. I eat more, gained more muscle, and feel stronger. I don’t have any body image issues anymore, and that feels great to say.”

By February 2017, Andrea knew it was time to part ways with Orlando Ballet. “My experience at Orlando Ballet took a turn from being great in the beginning, to being very disappointing during my last two seasons. Some situations that happened there were things I didn’t want to be a part of. Every company might have things you disagree with, but as I got older and realized how inappropriately people were treated there, including myself, I just wanted to get out and have nothing to do with the company anymore.”

One weekend in February, Craig Smith, a professional cabaret ballroom dancer, reached out to Andrea on Facebook. “He said he was looking for a partner to compete at Blackpool with. I watched the videos he sent me and was like, ‘This guy is amazing.’ There are a lot of lifts in cabaret, and I’ve always loved doing extreme partnering and difficult lifts in ballet, so there was a little hope inside me that I might be able to do cabaret.”

Cabaret is a subcategory of competitive ballroom dancing. Andrea says, “Think of it like pairs figure skating, on the ballroom floor. There are lifts, tricks and dancing.”

Andrea and Craig had a tryout on February 15, 2017. Though it went well, Andrea hesitated to switch into cabaret. “I didn’t know anything about ballroom! And I was nervous because he wanted to compete at Blackpool Dance Festival [in England] and perform at Dance Legends [in Moscow], and I had never been overseas. I wasn’t able to rehearse until mid-April because of my company schedule, and also because I was recovering from a calf injury. So we rehearsed from April to May, once a week. The preparation for competition was a really quick process. He taught me a bunch of lifts, and anything I could do, we put in the routines.”

On May 3, 2017, Andrea officially left Orlando Ballet. A few weeks later, she and Craig flew to England for Blackpool, which is the biggest and most prestigious ballroom dance competition in the world. The competition marked the debut of their new partnership, and it was Andrea’s first experience competing in cabaret. They ended up making the Grand Final. That same year, Craig and Andrea won the silver medal at US Nationals.

Andrea attributes her success in cabaret to both her partner’s strength, experience and talent, and her own ballet background. However, getting used to a completely different style of dancing posed its challenges. “In ballet, everything is about the female doing clean lines and the man is there to support her, help with turns, and of course perform lifts. With cabaret I had to learn to let Craig be more in control. It’s a totally different style of partnering and it took me a while to let of some old habits from ballet.”

Another thing Andrea had to get used to was competing in a ballroom, versus performing in a theater. “In a theater, you look out there, and you don’t see anybody, but your presence is projecting outwards. There’s a sense of being untouchable. In ballroom, the audience is looking at you from different angles, so instead of projecting emotions to a blank black crowd, you need to be more personal and engaging with [the audience]. I’ve had to learn to perform with more emotion and passion, and let go of some of the technique obsessions that I needed to have with ballet. Also, I’ve never competed before this. It’s a different process than just performing. In a performance setting, it’s easier for me to relax and enjoy being on stage. During a competition, I feel more pressure. Seeing the audience, seeing the judges, and having everyone be a lot closer in proximity than in theater performances, was something I had to get used to.”

Performance anxiety is something that Andrea has dealt with more frequently in cabaret, than in ballet. “I don’t get nervous about the heights or falling from a lift. I get nervous about how I come across to the audience.”

Beyond doing well in competitions, Andrea hopes that, by bringing a more balletic flavor to cabaret, she can open up the community to different styles of dance, beyond that of strictly ballroom.

When asked what she loved most about being a ballerina, Andrea says, “I love ballet and really respect the art form. One of my favorite things I experienced during my ballet schooling and professional experience was the lifelong friendships I made. I loved the feeling of being part of a team. There’s something so exciting about being in a beautiful theater before the curtain goes up, debuting a new or classic ballet, and feeling the positive energy from the other dancers. Everyone striving to show their best and rooting on each other to collectively have a great performance was a great feeling. Dancing in the corps of ‘Giselle’ or ‘Swan Lake’ and feeling the entire group of 24 girls moving at the exact same time in perfect formation, felt super powerful.”

Looking back on her journey, Andrea says, “As difficult as ballet was for me, with all the ups and downs, if I didn’t get as far as I did with ballet, I wouldn’t have been able to get into cabaret the way I did. I see it as part one and part two of my career destiny.”

Andrea has been teaching online dance and fitness classes this past year and will be continuing these classes in 2021. To learn more about Andrea, follow her on Instagram (@theandreaharvey).



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