Being a Late Bloomer Didn't Stop Pacific Northwest Ballet's Lindsi Dec From Realizing Her Dreams

Photo by Lindsay Thomas, courtesy of PNB

For 16 years, Pacific Northwest Ballet audiences had the unique privilege of watching real-life couple Lindsi Dec and Karel Cruz perform together. At 5'9" and 6'4", the two make a striking pair. They met as corps members, married in 2009 and welcomed their first child, Koan, in January 2016. In June 2018, Cruz took his final bow and transitioned into a new role as coach and mentor to private students. Since then, Dec has continued to dazzle on her own as a PNB principal.

A late bloomer, Dec began her dance training at a competition studio in Clinton, Maryland. "I had to take a general ballet class in order to do everything else, but I hated it," she says. That changed when her mother took her to see Miami City Ballet at age 14. She switched her mind-set and began training at The Washington School of Ballet. "I was always behind because I started late," she says. "Even when I was a Professional Division student at PNB, they were hesitant with me because I was so weak. I had a growth spurt in high school that made me look like Bambi in pointe shoes. But I had a great group of teachers who worked with me and believed in me. It gave me the work ethic I have today."

Dec performs with Pacific Northwest Ballet in The Sleeping Beauty February 1–10, at McCaw Hall in Seattle.

A Don Quixote love story...

"Karel and I got into the corps the same year. We were fourth-cast together in one of the ballets and decided we needed to do something with ourselves rather than just stand in the back of the studio. I had always loved Don Quixote, so we taught ourselves the pas in the back studio. Patricia Barker saw us do it once and set up a guesting for us in the Tri-Cities. In 2015 we were finally cast together in the lead roles in Don Quixote, and it was so neat to have come full circle and do it together. When we were onstage bowing, I thought, 'Nothing will ever get better than this.' When Karel retired, we ended the gala with the same pas. I came out and he sobbed onstage. I'm getting emotional just talking about it."

On company life after Cruz...

"I didn't think it would hit me as hard as it did to come back to rehearsal without him. His presence was so calming. Some people think it's difficult to work with their spouse, but we've just always trusted each other and been kind and respectful. Even not having him here for breaks or lunch has been hard, because that was our routine all these years. We've just felt grateful to share our passion together onstage. It's hard not to have my rock with me anymore. He is here in different ways, but it's been a big empty void for me at work during this adjustment period."

On motherhood and ballet...

"Having a baby felt very freeing for me. As a ballet dancer, I've put a lot of pressure on myself. Then when I had Koan I thought, 'Oh my gosh, I have to keep this baby alive!' It's so much more pressure and responsibility, that now the stage is my chance to be free. I enjoy things so much more. I put my experience as a mom into some of my roles. I feel so grateful that I can do it, and that I can show my son that I fought for something I loved. I want him to do the same thing one day."

Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.

"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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