Ballet dancer

New York Ballet dancer streams lessons and practices at home

The two-car garage in Winter Park, Florida is a 16-hour drive from Lincoln Center Dance Studios, where the New York City Ballet trains and performs. The distance seemed even greater when Emilie Gerrity sat down next to a wooden chair that served as a ballet bar.

Instead of floor-to-ceiling mirrors, she faced a pegboard wall covered in gardening tools. The door was open and a fan was swinging in front of it, but the air was warm, humid even.

“I’m lucky,” the 29-year-old soloist insisted as she placed a laptop on a nearby filing cabinet to join a Zoom class with a few dozen members of one of America’s leading ballet companies, forced to s lead in isolation by the coronavirus pandemic.

Even when jumping and flipping, Gerrity is too tough to complain when others are sick or dying. It wasn’t until she caught her breath after an hour-long routine that she could be pressured to talk about what she’s lost during the pandemic and, worse, what may never come back.

New York City Ballet’s Emilie Gerrity won’t let coronavirus stop lifelong dream

Emilie Gerrity, a 29-year-old soloist with New York City Ballet, trains in a Florida garage while self-isolating during the coronavirus pandemic.

Derek Catron, USA TODAY

Gerrity’s dream began as it does for millions of little girls in tutus. Growing up in upstate New York, she began ballet at age 5; in college, she did her homework in the car on the way to class, had dinner on the way home.

At 15, she left home to attend the School of American Ballet, the official school of New York City Ballet. She cried leaving friends behind, but she never wanted to dance for anyone but the NYCB.

Pursuing your dream is like an obstacle course – always another hurdle to overcome. After graduating, she served a year-long apprenticeship, then was hired to join the corps de ballet in 2010. It took seven years — “a very long time,” she says — before she become a soloist.

About two years ago, she started dating Andrew Pilchick, who works in commercial real estate lending and had never seen ballet. Gerrity introduced her to dance while helping her bring balance to her life that she sought in ballet.

She found an important lesson there. “I love this pursuit of perfection,” she said of the ballet, “even though I know it’s not really attainable.”

His younger self didn’t always recognize him. It wasn’t enough to have perfect lines in her steps, she felt she needed the right amount of sleep, a flawless diet and workout routine.

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Her newfound balance in life has left her happy, healthy — and better prepared to pursue a position as a principal dancer for the company, ballet’s highest. “I had some really big opportunities coming up that I was really excited about,” she said of the spring season. “I think I was going to be cast in a few lead roles, big things that I’ve never done before.”

Before the start of the season in April, she traveled to Europe for a lucrative side gig. She was in Budapest, Hungary, the night in March President Donald Trump announced that the United States was closing its borders. “It was panic,” she recalls. “I was so scared that I couldn’t go home.”

She returned home and quarantined for two weeks in the one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment she shares with Pilchick.

It was late March, the city was shutting down, and Florida — where Pilchick’s parents live — was beckoning. There they found a space to work comfortably from home. While he stayed logged in to the office, she did her dance workouts and took on more work as a teacher giving virtual lessons.

While the season was closed, the NYCB offered online programming including full ballets and excerpts from more than 20 works. Gerrity’s fanbase grew; one of her new students, Robin, is a 4-year-old Swiss boy who saw her online. The first time she held a Zoom class with him, they danced her favorite: “Flower Waltz” from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker.”

The moment – and similar ones with other students – helped her recover from the angst of watching old performances instead of doing new ones. She broke down one night and said to Pilchick, “It’s so hard to see me there and know that’s what I would do now.”

For a moment, she wondered if the years of sacrifice and self-discipline were worth it.

Emilie Gerrity began taking ballet lessons at the age of 5, progressing through New York City Ballet’s School of American Ballet before joining the prestigious company. “I like this search for perfection,” she says of the ballet, “even though I know it’s not really attainable.”
Derek Catron, USA TODAY

“It’s definitely been a year filled with wonderful opportunities that I feel like I’m missing out on right now,” she said. “It’s tough. I’m really nervous about what it will look like when it comes back. Or when. Or how. Because a dancer’s life is so short.

The surge of self-pity didn’t last, not when others were fighting for their lives or struggling to feed their children. Renewing the determination that had brought her this far, she found her dedication strengthened by the thoughts of students like Robin.

She read about European dance companies resuming in-person classes under strict conditions. Her own company has talked about performing again next spring, but no one can even say for sure that dance or other live performances will return in the form she enjoyed three months ago.

When she thinks of her students, Gerrity thinks she has to. She figures that if life is to regain a sense of normality, arts that remind people of the beauty and grace of the world will play a part. It’s enough to keep pushing her towards a dream that could be jeopardized by the virus.

“It’s scary to think that this art form won’t survive,” she said. “I have to inspire this generation of people to make sure they don’t die.”