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Challenges facing a tall ballerina

Courtney Henry always hated picture day in elementary school. Growing up in West Palm Beach, Florida, she dreaded the ignoble tradition of making the tallest kid in the class stand in the centre of the back row.

That student was always her.

"I was tall, I was black, and I was skinny," Henry recalls. "I was everything that was really not cool from, like, the third grade."

The daughter of a collegiate basketball player, Henry was an unathletic child whose parents paraded her in and out of several sports. Nothing went well. Then, for her ninth birthday, her mother signed her up for dance classes. She was three years older than most of the girls, and towered over them, but she had talent. The teacher urged Henry's mother to find a better studio. Henry began to dream of becoming a dancer, and that desire only deepened as she grew taller.

"I had to work harder," she said. "That was instilled in me from a pretty young age, because I knew I would be standing out."

At 6 feet tall, Henry is, quite possibly, the tallest professional female ballet dancer in the United States. On Oct. 3, she'll perform at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, with Alonzo King's LINES Ballet, one of the few companies in the country that consistently welcomes tall ballerinas.

Henry first saw the San Francisco-based company when she was a freshman in the Alvin Ailey/Fordham University BFA programme. That performance gave her hope.

"I saw women who were really strong and tall - Drew Jacoby (who is 5-foot-11 and now with Nederlands Dans Theater) was still in the company then - and I just remember being blown away, but it wasn't just the height; they commanded the space, and had this unapologetic way of moving as a woman. It inspired and intrigued me," Henry said. "I knew, from the first time I saw them, I want to dance like that."

That summer, she was accepted into the LINES summer intensive programme.

"A lot of what I thought were boundaries for me, as a taller dancer, all of a sudden were perks," Henry said.

She set her sights on LINES, and went to the company's shows every year at the Joyce Theatre. Then, when King came to town her senior year, he held an audition.

"It was a huge cattle call, with over 200 people. It was ridiculous. (King) was cutting like, 20 people at a time," Henry said. But at the end of a tiring day, she and two other dancers - including Kara Wilkes, who is still in the company - had been picked to join LINES. "He said, 'There's more fire in you that I want to see, but when can you start?' "
"ASAP," she answered. That was four years ago. Henry is now one of the company's veterans. More important, she finally feels comfortable in her own skin and sinewy limbs, in the same body that made her so self-conscious whether she was dancing or just walking down a school hall. She nearly quit many times, especially when she entered ballet competitions as a teenager.

"I remember thinking, 'Maybe this isn't for me. I'm tall. I'm African-American.' And yet I had this ballerina fantasy. You don't see people like me in the ballet world. I never had anyone to look up to. People always expected more of me. For some reason, I kept going. It was like, self-masochism," Henry said. "It's only been in the past few years - and I'm going into my fourth year at LINES - that I've been able to personally embrace my uniqueness."

By the time King gets a hold of a dancer like Henry - as he has so many times in the 32 years he has been running his company - what he has to teach them isn't so much steps as self esteem.

"It takes a lot of work," he said. "Tall women who have heard, 'You are too tall,' they try to shrink, they are trying to fit in. What a mistake. Your gift is your height."

The problem, he says, is that ballet programs train girls to be members of a corps, to be one of a dozen swans who can all take itsy-bitsy steps, or one of many Willis who can evenly bow their heads in "Giselle." The average American woman is 5-foot-4," and the average dancer, shorter. No matter how fit and thin, a taller dancer sticks out, and she knows it.

Facing 'big-girl complex'

"I definitely had people tell me, when I was auditioning, that I was too tall," says Meredith Webster, a 5-foot-10-inch dancer who joined LINES in 2005 and will transition this season into her new role as co-ballet master for the company. "A lot of what you do - when you are starting out [in ballet] - is dance in a line wearing the same costume. And there has to be a guy who is taller than you when you are on pointe to partner you."

Some companies are more tolerant of taller star ballerinas than corps dancers. The question is how to advance beyond the back row. For the past five years, the tallest women in New York City Ballet have been principals Maria Kowroski and Teresa Reichlen. Both are 5-foot-9. They often dance roles originated by Suzanne Farrell, who is two inches shorter, but was a giant by 1960s ballet standards. Webster grew up in Wisconsin and completed her training at Pacific Northwest Ballet because the company was known for hiring taller, stronger dancers. Although Webster danced in several professional productions, she wasn't offered a contract. She ended up going to college, freelancing on the West Coast and eventually joined LINES. She was shocked, however, that when King first selected her for a new ballet, he paired her with one of the few male dancers in the company who could not look her in the eye.

King knew what he was doing: trying to alleviate what he calls "the big-girl complex," wherein a taller dancer becomes so paranoid, she won't trust her partners no matter how tall they are. "They tell themselves, 'I can do this all myself. I really don't need a man.' And ask the guys, 'I'm not too heavy for you, am I?' " King said. "And then you don't have a chemistry in the partnering, because one of the essential things of partnering is a sincere sense of dialogue, of weight shifting and interdependence. True support is a beautiful thing to see."

Although most of King's ballets are performed on pointe, the ballerinas spend much less time tiptoeing around like they would in "Swan Lake." Likewise, his pas de deux have few moments when the ballerinas extend their limbs, balance on one foot and wait for a man to come spin them around. Instead, the dancers are almost always engaged in a cooperative push-pull, curving their bodies around one another and achieving equilibrium in the most unlikely positions. When the dancers do move together as an ensemble, they are often in a circle and spread out across the stage, each with plenty of room to extend. There are no diagonal marches, as you'd find in a Balanchine classic, and no premiums are placed on staying perfectly spaced apart.

Every dancer moves as an individual, as though they are alone and commanding the stage.

"It's so much more than a height thing," Henry says. "It's what you are bring people to the table, and what makes them something special. We have to be larger-than-life beings, no matter what size we are."