At the age of 15, Sam Merkle moved from Richmond to New York to attend the prestigious School of American Ballet.
Today, he’s one of the main dancers in Disney+’s new documentary series “On Pointe,” produced by Ron Howard.
“On Pointe” follows young people who pursue their dream of becoming ballet dancers. The series shows younger students as they rehearse and perform in “The Nutcracker” and older students like Sam as they train rigorously for a professional ballet career, ideally at New York City Ballet. But there are only a few slots and the competition is fierce.
“I always thought of myself as an athletic person, but I didn’t like contact sports,” said Sam, now 17, from his home in Forest Hill. “I felt like dancing was the perfect combination of athletics and artistry which I really loved. It was something that really touched me. I love the idea of pushing yourself every day, constantly having to improve their form and technique.
Sam grew up in Richmond, attended John B. Cary Elementary School, and began dancing in fourth grade with a school musical theater program. Then he started dancing seriously with Richmond Ballet’s Minds in Motion, a program that offers dance lessons to schools across the state.
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“It’s really amazing to go to schools and see the raw potential of students who would never have considered dance part of their being. Sam was one of those kids that you knew had the ability to develop latent talent,” Cathleen Studdard, former director of Minds in Motion, said via email.
A naturally bright and talented child, Sam stood out from everyone even at a young age.
Tim Cook, a Richmond Public Schools volunteer, was asked by Sam’s third-grade teacher to work with him, not because Sam needed extra help, but because he was so brilliant. His teacher was worried that he would get bored in class. Cook started doing algebra with Sam in third grade and introduced books well above his level.
“He was as bright a kid as any I’ve ever worked with,” said Cook, who has volunteered at RPS for more than 25 years. “He was extremely smart – very bright and very likeable. He seemed to have that even at this young age.
Sam then studied in the International Baccalaureate program at Lucille M. Brown Middle School and completed a semester at Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School. During the summer, he took two programs at the School of American Ballet in New York and was asked to stay.
At 15, Sam packed up and moved to New York City to live in the dorms and attend classes at SAB, considered by most to be the leading ballet school in the United States.
“My parents were supportive of what I wanted to do,” Sam said. “It was very self-guided. I did all the research and really pushed to get what I wanted. My parents were there to support me. It was a self-motivated trip.
Living in New York “was obviously a huge change from living in Richmond and living with my family. But I loved it,” Sam said. “I knew what I was doing was necessary to pursue the goals and dreams I had. It was something I really loved doing. being in New York and going through all these things. It was a really good time for me.”
“On Pointe” began filming in 2019 and aimed to follow SAB students for a full calendar year, although production was halted in early 2020 when COVID hit and the school had to close.
“The documentary series follows us as we train, rehearse and treat injuries,” Sam said. He broke his foot early in filming and spent much of the series working on recovery. The series also followed him home to Richmond to film with his family.
In March last year, SAB closed and Sam was forced to return home, where he attended school and lessons via Zoom. In November it reopened for a few weeks before closing again.
Now Sam is still in Richmond, attending his SAB classes via Zoom, and awaiting the time when he can return to New York and hopefully complete his training in person.
“I’m grateful for the documentary,” he said. “He did a great job of explaining in a nice way what my training is like, and this is an update for anyone who may have wondered what happened to me after I moved to New York. “
As for watching himself on TV, he said, “All the kids want to be at Disney. It was just awesome to have this opportunity and look at the experiences I had before COVID. It brought back a lot of memories. This world was so different from the world we live in now. The documentary series became that moment when things were so different.