by Jessika Anspach McEliece
Sitting on the couch, wearing a flannel shirt and jeans, he picks up the guitar positioned next to him. Leans back. Begins to strum.
“Okay. Well… You can’t be ah… playing. I guess you can play the guitar the whole time if you want to…” I eek out as I place the iPhone down on the coffee table in front of us. Recording his music, and my passive aggression.
“Why not?” he replies.
“… like a bro…” I continue, disregarding his objection.
“Total bro.” He smiles sarcastically.
“For the record my husband is a total bro,” I facetiously and falsely declare.
“Off the record I am not, but you can tell people that…”
I may have married a “bro”, but he married a ballerina.
The life of a dancer seems to be one of mystery and intrigue. I mean how many movies and reality TV shows are out there that try to plumb the depths of this strange world? Because let’s be honest, it’s strange…
And yet how realistic is Center Stage or Flesh and Bone? What’s this life really like? Not the super-stereotyped, ballet-on-steroids version – the honest, every-day truth. Are we really these crazy creatures that Hollywood makes us out to be? Who better to ask than the husband of a dancer – and yes, many do manage to work marriage into the mix. I mean after all, husbands have both the front row and backstage perspective.
To get the real story I interviewed three husbands of Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers: Karel Cruz – a principal dancer married to fellow principal dancer Lindsi Dec; Michael Merchant, married to the newly-promoted soloist Leah Merchant; and of course my dear sweet (non-bro) husband Ryan McEliece.
But how does one meet “The One” when, to be frank, the schedule and demands of this profession seem to hinder the spouse-finding process? From my vantage point when I joined the company most of the dancers at PNB were either very single, or very married. How does one traverse the chasm that separates these two sides? To me the options seemed limited – date a dancer, or well… yeah. Tinder? Match? Miracle?
“How did you meet your wife?”
Another couch. Another coffee table. Different place. Different guy… So totally different…
He rustles through a brown paper shopping bag up in PNB’s company lounge, pulling out his lunch as I pull out my Moleskin notebook and pen. The definition of “tall, dark and handsome,” Karel energetically bites into his sandwich and you’d never guess he got maybe 4 hours of sleep the night before. He and his beautiful wife Lindsi just recently welcomed into this world a beautiful baby boy – Koan Dec Cruz.
“We met here at PNB when I joined the company in 2002. But we didn’t get together until 2003,” he replied in his heart-warming Cuban accent. “I think because of our heights we were put together a lot. And we both have a lot of ambition… We used to go to the back studios during breaks or after class to work on partnering. We’d rehearse ourselves in Don Quixote and one day Patricia [Barker] saw us and actually got us our first gig dancing together.”
And the rest is history. The on-stage romance blossomed into a real-life one. And by real-life I mean real life.
“What’s it like spending almost all of the day together? Do you guys have different routines in the morning or before a show?”
“Sometimes it can be a bit intense, but we’ve always spent our days together – that’s how we met – so it wasn’t something that we really had to get used to. Lindsi loves it.” He proudly smiles. “But our routines… we couldn’t be more opposite,” he exclaims as his eyes get wide with excitement. “I’m slow moving in the morning and need my coffee (he makes his strong Cuban café in one of those stovetop Italian espresso machines), but Lindsi doesn’t need anything to get her going. She’s a firecracker! And before a show I don’t really have or need a routine, but for her it helps to calm her down.”
“And what about in the studio? Do you guys give each other corrections? Does that cause marital conflict or is it helpful?” And I chuckle. I know how he’s going to answer this one… but I also know how I’d answer it too. Let’s just say it’s a good thing I’m not married to a dancer…
“Absolutely! We love to watch each other, and give each other corrections. Lindsi’s very open, and I’ve learned so much from her example. Sometimes we’ll go over them at home during dinner. And we really love to dance together. We get along really well, but it’s because of her. She’s easy. I’m difficult.”
He’s being modest. The truth is they both are the picture of humility and integrity. Watching them every day I’ve personally learned so much from their example: what it looks like to love and respect your partner and what it means to work as a team – something that will serve them so well as they step into the newest role in their repertoire – parenting.
At PNB we have quite a few in-company couples. It’s understandable. You spend the majority of your time, your life around these people. They get it. You don’t have to explain this world of fouettes and saut de chats…
And yet there’s something refreshing when I walk out of the stage door and I see Michael Merchant waiting for his lovely wife Leah.
Michael – Mikey as we all call him – is a solid guy. And I say that in the best and fullest sense of the term. I mean the man used to be a bouncer at a well-known Seattle establishment… Let’s just say you wouldn’t want to get on his bad side – if that were possible. Because truly he’s one of the most genuine, dependable and affable human beings I’ve ever met. He gives bear-hugs. Enough said.
“How did you meet Leah, and what were your initial thoughts about dating a ballerina?”
“The short answer: we met through mutual friends. But the first time I laid eyes on Leah I couldn’t take them off her and almost ten years later I still can’t. As I got to know her more, I quickly discovered that this beautiful, intelligent woman was the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.
And as for dating a ballerina? In all honesty I felt out of my depth. On the one hand I was dating someone in a profession that songs and poems have been written about for the past few hundred years, and even they failed to capture their grace and beauty. And on the other hand, here I was, a hillbilly from Virginia… ‘How the hell did I pull this one off?’ constantly bounced off the walls of my mind.”
“At home do you guys talk a lot about ballet?”
“A little. Typically it’s in the “how was your day?” form of conversation. Mostly our conversations revolve around our dog Scout, the TV show Archer, and what we want to eat for dinner?”
“Ha! Yeah, we have that one a lot. So who does the cooking in your home? Do you guys have separate diets?”
“She does all the cooking, only because she really is so much better at it than me. We eat the same food and love to eat. She makes the best gumbo I have ever had in my life, and her red velvet cake is the bomb.”
And I can attest to the truth of those statements. The girl knows how to make legit southern food! Ryan (my guitar-strumming husband) and I on the other hand are a little less compatible in the diet department. Due to some health challenges, I unfortunately am gluten-free, but he likes to “free the gluten.” Since I do most of the meal planning, he’s generally gluten and dairy deprived, but every now and then he sneaks it in…
He exchanges the guitar for a purple-colored box and the crinkle of the cellophane and plastic tray he pulls out of it are distractingly loud.
“As a non-dancer, how do you see this world that your wife’s immersed in? How has that perspective helped or stretched your relationship?”
Mouth half full of a Samoas cookie, he emphatically declares, “It’s WEIRD! It’s totally bizarre. Not normal.”
I try to hold back my laughter at his honest, unabashed confession.
“I see it as art,” he more calmly continues, “as beautiful, and something my wife has spent her entire life working so hard for – her dream. On the other hand it also seems a bit tragic to me. It’s art, which means someone is creating something for others to admire. So the career of a dancer is in the hands of one person and their opinion of you. Hard work won’t necessarily pay off like it does in the world outside of ballet. I think that that perspective has helped me in our relationship because I get to see how much she puts into everything, how hard she works and understand why she can get discouraged and frustrated at times.”
“What’s the most challenging part about being married to a dancer? What’s the best part?” I nervously ask. This could be brutal… but I did ask him to be honest.
“Challenging? Challenging is seeing her work so hard and press on amidst so many setbacks. Injuries, illness, filling in last minute for parts she wasn’t given the proper time to rehearse. But the best part is seeing her dance on stage. Seeing her heart swell with joy as she gets to do what she was made to do makes my heart smile. It’s beautiful, stunning, heart-warming, and amazing all at once.”
And now my heart is smiling.
“Okay. Last question: What’s the craziest thing about your wife and her job that still blows your mind?
“The craziest thing about my wife and her job? Just her ability to push through things that us mere mortals wouldn’t even dream of. Yeah. Like for example, getting sick… Not really an option when you’re a dancer, apparently. Or maybe it’s just her. I’m not sure. When I get a sniffle I lay in bed all day and call in sick. She has the flu and she’s still trying to go in to work and justify dancing.
And she has this incredible drive, this unstoppable motivation to do what she loves, and pursue it wholeheartedly. She’s passionate about life and pours so much of herself into every part of it. She’s inspiring and amazing and I have no idea how I got so lucky to end up with a girl like her.”
Well I don’t think I deserve such high praise. But I do know I’m not alone in displaying these characteristics of determination, perseverance and passion. They’re quite commonplace in my very uncommon workplace: the traits of a dancer.
So there you have it – straight from the husband’s (not the horse’s) mouth. What it’s really like being married to a ballerina, from the real husbands of Pacific Northwest Ballet. As one of them has so aptly said, “We’re all a little crazy, you just have to find your kind of crazy.”
I think we’ve found it.
Pacific Northwest Ballet presents “Director’s Choice” – from March 18th through March 27, 2016. Tickets are still available.
Contributor Jessika Anspach McEliece is from Bellevue, Washington. She received her training at Pacific Northwest Ballet School, beginning with Creative Movement classes and progressing through to the Professional Division.
In 2002, she joined the Suzanne Farrell Ballet as an apprentice. She joined Pacific Northwest Ballet as an apprentice in 2004 and was promoted to corps de ballet in 2005. Ms. Anspach’s writing on dance has been featured in Dance Magazine. She is also a frequent contributor to Pacific Northwest Ballet’s blog.