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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-
"I saw women who were really strong and tall -
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 -
"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-
"I remember thinking, 'Maybe this isn't for me. I'm tall. I'm African-
By the time King gets a hold of a dancer like Henry -
"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-
"I definitely had people tell me, when I was auditioning, that I was too tall," says Meredith Webster, a 5-
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-
King knew what he was doing: trying to alleviate what he calls "the big-
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-
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-