Lisa Kissel has adjusted her daughter Kyra’s tutu backstage since she was 6 years old. For the first time, Lisa got to watch her 14 year old daughter dance from a seat in the audience at the Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Massachusetts this summer.
“I’m so busy helping backstage during performances, I’m never in the audience,” Lisa says. She’s seen Kyra dance countless times from the side stage, but watching her perform after she completed a five-week intensive ballet program was the best of encores, she said.
Pirouetting on the East Coast may sound pretty, but it took years of practice and battles with ice and slush on mountain passes to make it happen. Hundreds of hopeful ballerinas auditioned — only 60 students were accepted into the program.
Kyra was accepted to four of the seven intensive ballet programs she auditioned for this year, including the prestigious American Ballet Theatre program in New York City. By attending summer programs, aspiring ballerinas like Kyra can learn new techniques, hone their skills and gain a better understanding of the ballet world by twirling with teachers and students from all over the world. After weighing the options, Kyra chose the Walnut Hill program this summer for its friendly atmosphere and smaller class sizes.
The Kissel family traveled to Seattle every weekend in January and February, braving snowy passes so Kyra could audition. The auditions lasted 1 to 2 hours behind closed doors, and then she had to wait up to two weeks to hear back from the judges.
After every audition, Kyra’s ballet teacher Rhiannon Archerelle gives her a phone call to see how it went. She’s been working with Kyra at the Next Step Dance Studio for the past five years.
“She may have gotten more texts from Kyra (while she was in Massachusetts) than we did,” Lisa says.
Kyra was serious about ballet by age 10, while she and her classmates were still losing their baby teeth. She dances five to six days a week for three hours at a time.
But ballet isn’t limited to the studio for Kyra. “She does kicks and spins all the time around the house,” Lisa says. Kyra stretches in the kitchen to improve her flexibility. While the Kissels gather in the living room and watch TV, Kyra completes warm up exercises on the carpet with her mom.
Ballet moved into the Kissels’ lives at an allegro pace by the will of Kyra’s own feet that wear out 3 to 4 pairs of pointe shoes every year.
“No one in our family is a professional dancer,” Lisa says. “It all comes from within her. Sometimes we have to rear her back, like a horse we’ve got to keep the reins on.”
When Kyra cut her foot on a piece of corral at the beach, she covered the wound, pirouetting as if it wasn’t there. The cut got infected, despite Kyra’s efforts to keep it behind closed curtains. The doctor told Kyra she couldn’t dance for a week.
“Her eyes got all wide. When we got in the car, she said ‘there’s no way I can do that.’” Lisa says. Despite the doctor’s request, Kyra only took three days off.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen Kyra come into the studio in a bad mood,” Archerelle said. During a solo performance of Gazelle, Kyra’s pointe shoe fell off partially. After a look of surprise, “she smiled. She just kept dancing.”
Through ballet’s many blisters, Kyra’s family has been supportive, and treated her to the occasional pedicure. Sometimes her parents pass each other on the bridge and wave while taking Kyra to ballet and her brother Kameron to karate and guitar lessons.
“We call it ‘passing ships,’ ” said her father, Justin Kissel.
Since ballet consumes so much of Kyra’s time, she’s had to sacrifice some extracurricular activities. She had to give up her dreams of becoming Apple Blossom Queen, but dance has not deterred her education. Kyra’s earned a 4.0 GPA, while taking honors classes.
“She’s spent many a day on the studio carpet doing homework,” says Rebecca Allen, owner of the Next Step Dance Studio.
Kyra will continue to take advanced classes when she enters 10th grade this fall at Eastmont High School. But after the school bell rings, she can tie her hair into a cinnamon bun in less than five minutes.
“Right now she’s one of the best dancers at the school, and she is so humble despite that,” Archerelle said. “The little girls look up to her so much. She’s helpful to them and non-judgmental.”
Kyra has been chosen to play the Snow Queen in “The Nutcracker,” the first collaboration of the valley’s dance studios, this winter. She’s played a variety of characters over the years, from a duck when she was six to the Black Swan. Ideally, Kyra would like to dance for Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle, but she’s willing to go wherever ballet takes her.