New York City Ballet principal ballerina Tiler Peck zooms with students of Westside School of Ballet

By Christina Campodonico

Peck’s ballet career has spanned from lessons in Santa Monica to turns as Odette/Odile in “Swan Lake”
Photos courtesy of Westside School of Ballet

Having hosted master classes by the likes of ballet legend Suzanne Farrell, Tony nominee Robert Fairchild and Bolshoi Ballet alumna Joy Womack, Santa Monica’s Westside School of Ballet is no stranger to dance stars. But on Saturday, June 6, students of the respected Westside dance academy received an extra special guest and alumna.

During the hour-long video conference call with local dance students and fans of her Instagram account, New York City Ballet principal ballerina Tiler Peck — lauded by the New York Times for her ability “to stop time” with her “silken musicality” — opened up about her time at the Santa Monica ballet school, how she rose through the ranks of NYCB to become a principal dancer and the injury which almost ended her ballet career last year.

The talk was part of Westside School of Ballet’s fundraising effort and online speaker series “Dance Talks,” which is one way the academy is aiming to make up for short falls in its operating budget due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This spring, the school has been hosting online classes and set up a GoFundMe in hopes of raising enough funds to survive the shutdown. As of Tuesday, the school had raised $100,000 of its $150,000 goal.

Peck, who attended Westside on-and-off for about three years before finishing off her pre-professional training at New York City’s School of American Ballet, talked about the influence of the local ballet school’s late co-founder — Yvonne Mounsey, an original Balanchine ballerina — on her as a developing dancer.

“Yvonne just had something so special. The way she carried herself in the room. She was so beautiful. … I just looked up to her so much. And I loved how she taught, how she led the room,” said Peck. “… So much love, but also it was a time to work. And I feel like she really got the most out of her dancers, and I felt very lucky that I had the opportunity to be trained by her. That’s kind of what took me to School of American Ballet.”

From there, Peck, now 31, was tapped to apprentice with New York City Ballet at age 15, entered its corps de ballet a few months later and then became a principal at just 20.

“It happened all very fast,” said Peck. “I don’t even think you can get into the company now unless you’re 18. I think there’s a rule.”

Interestingly, Peck revealed that when she was younger she never expected to be in a professional ballet company. Having originally trained in competitive and commercial dance styles at her mother’s studio in Bakersfield and others, it was not until Peck was 11 that she decided to focus her efforts more intensively on ballet. (Most aspiring ballerinas begin their training between the ages of 3 and 8 years old, with intensive training beginning as early as age 6.)

“I didn’t necessarily want to be like a backup dancer for a musical artist or just continue doing commercials, which are things that I really love doing, but ballet felt like it was a challenge. And I always felt like I looked like a jazz dancer trying to do ballet. … And I think that’s what it was for me, that ballet didn’t come easy,” said Peck Zooming from Bakersfield. “Ballet took the most discipline, and I think it just took me a little bit longer to realize that I really loved it.”

Peck advised students to pick up steps quickly if they wished to become professionals and noticed within a company, but also not to compare themselves to other dancers.

“If I were to look at half the people in my company, I’d probably not want to dance,” Peck confessed. “I don’t have the best turnout and I don’t have the highest extension. … But I have something else. I can really dance. I am a mover. I love dancing to the music. … I think it’s really important to remember that every single person has something different and no one person has it all, not one.”

Peck shared how teaching a free ballet class on Instagram daily, along with the experience of recovering from a painful neck injury last year, has actually helped her to cope with the uncertainty of the pandemic and keep her motivated.

“Some days, I’ll be like, ‘I’m too tired [to teach],’ and then I think of all the people that are counting on me. … As soon as I start the class, I automatically feel better.

“During this time,” she said, “it’s really hard for all of us. There are days where I wake up and I’m just like so over it. I want to be back in a studio, I want to be back dancing. I want to be back performing. … When I get to those moments, especially right now, the one thing I have is, I’m able to dance.”

After Peck woke up one morning with a debilitating stiff neck, doctors told her that she might never dance again — that even getting bumped or shoved while walking down the street could paralyze her. Five doctors recommended surgery to fix the herniated disc pushing on her spinal cord. But a sixth doctor told Peck that the injury might actually heal itself, and so Peck decided to wait it out, turning to physical therapy, natural remedies, an energy healer and a sports psychologist to aid in her recovery.

She made a triumphant return to the stage last November in George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker,” the first ballet she saw as child that made her want to pursue dance.

“I think it’s really important, especially for all of you,” she told students, “to know that nobody knows your body better than you. … You have to be very intuitive and listen… but don’t ever do something out of fear.”

She encouraged everyone watching to continue nurturing their relationship with dance during this time.

“I really do feel like dance is healing, and I think moving around right now and staying connected through dance is really important for all of us,” she said.

To learn more about Westside School of Ballet’s crisis relief campaign ‘1500 Angels’ visit westsideballet.com. To make a donation, visit bit.ly/westsideballet.

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