Dancing sisters chase ballet dreams


By Ali Pechman

 
It was the fifth time Katherine Zee ’06 had danced in the Youth America Grand Prix Dance Semifinals in Huntington Beach, and she had yet to even make the top 12; but this time, a weight had been lifted.  By early 2007, Zee had spent half a year training and competing, deferring her acceptance from Columbia University to devote herself full-time to dance.   

It paid off.

She won the Grand Prix for her age division and was sent to New York City for the finals in spring.  One judge gave her 100 points out of 100 on her evaluation.  At the bottom of the page he wrote “Real Ballerina.”

“For a normal person, ‘ballerina’ doesn’t mean much, but in ballet world ‘ballerina’ is the highest compliment,” Zee said.

On the opposite side of the globe, her sister Mia Zee trained at the exclusive Heinz Bosl School of Dance in Munich. Mia was part of the class of 2008 but left after ninth grade to devote more time to dance.  She got her G.E.D. in 2006, the same year that she won third place in classical dance, and placed in the top 12 for contemporary dance for the very same competition her sister won the following year.

Both sisters attend elite dance academies, now that Katherine will defer another year and start as an apprentice this fall at the Kirov Ballet Academy in Washington D.C., a satellite of the Kirov Ballet in St. Petersberg, Russia. 

They both attended the Marat Daukayev School of Dance in Los Angeles simultaneously with their studies at Harvard-Westlake. Mia, in fact, first began dancing when she was 11 because of watching her sister do it since she was little. 

They have both put off a formal education to dance full-time and would like to get jobs in professional companies after they finish their training.  For Mia, that time will come in two years when she is nineteen.  Katherine intends to audition for companies as early as January of next year.

Some things set them apart: Mia said she has given up a “more normal life,” while Katherine still intends to go to Columbia.  They also do not share having a high school experience. 

“It was very easy for me to decide what to do,” Mia said.  “It was harder for my parents.”

At her school, Mia is one of 43 dancers who train five to six days a week for five to eight hours, depending on whether a performance is coming up. 

The Heinz Bosl also sponsors a company that performs at the National Opera House, and students are often selected to perform as extras.  Mia performed in the company’s production of “Romeo and Juliet” in January.  She gets ten weeks a year off from school, five of which are for summer vacation. 

“I miss having more of a more normal typical life,” Mia said. “Everything is different than what you thought it would be when you are younger.”

While her sister faced the stresses of juggling her high school studies with dance, Mia faces the stresses of the life of a dancer: living on her own in a foreign country where she is still learning the language, the pressure to always look the part and an uncertain spot in the program.

“If you’re lazy you’re asked to leave, or if you put on excessive amounts of weight,” Mia said. There are also pass/fail final exams that determine whether a dancer may stay in the program.

One teacher typically tells her and her classmates, with the threat of being thrown out of class if they do not comply, “Ballet is not just about your body.  You have to use your head.” 

Katherine still intends to use her head at Columbia at some point.

“It’s very unstable to be a dancer because overnight you can find yourself without a means of support,” she said. “My academics are very important to me.  I’m not sure whether [college] will be in one year or five years. But I know that my body isn’t going to last forever, so I’m going to stick with it.”

Katherine would like to dance for “whoever will hire me,” and mentioned companies in San Francisco, Montreal, and Europe as options.  She compares searching for the right ballet company to finding the right college.

“You have to think about what you want out of it,” she said. “You can’t just say ‘Oh, it’s an Ivy League, so its really good.’”

Mia, however, has fallen in love with Europe. 

“There’s so many more companies and the appreciation is much higher for dance here than in America,” she said.

Though two roads certainly diverged for the two girls in reaching their similar goal, one traveling to America and the other remaining in Europe, they are closer now that they have found their own paths.

“It’s very competitive with anyone who is your sister,” Katherine said.  “Getting some distance has helped me appreciate her more as a dancer.”

 Katherine visited Mia in Munich earlier this year and watched her classes, noting that though she sees her sister dance less, she can see her progress more clearly.

“There aren’t that many people who understand what it’s like in the dance world,” Katherine said.  “Because we’re both dancers, we can share the experience.”

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