Chelsea Hilding is determined to break through the barrier of body image to make ballet more accessible:
“We’re told ballet is for very thin, young girls, and women. Ballet studios are so often decorated with gendered photos of girls in pink tutus. But I believe ballet is personal, and it’s for everyone. Ballet is the love of my life. I was always told I don’t have a body for it. And it got to the point where it was like she’s never going to have a career in this. Find something else. Well, look at me now—I’m still here!”
Hilding’s dance journey began in Vermont when she was just three years old. Her parents put her into a ballet class as an activity, not realizing that they’d enrolled her in what was actually a top-rate studio. It turned out to be exactly the right place for her:
“The studio was run very much like a conservatory. I had incredible training with ballet celebrities coming in for masterclasses. I latched on hard. By the time I was five, I knew I wanted to be a ballet instructor. That was the dream—not to be a dancer, but to be a teacher. I had this VHS tape of Barishnikov, which I studied until it wore out. I wrote dance combinations on the bus on the way to and from the studio.”
Hilding pursued a degree in Dance History in Florida. She left her studies before finishing to dance professionally for fourteen years. When she decided to go back to school her credits were too old to transfer, so she started over on a degree in Art History. As if working and going to school didn’t keep her busy enough, Hilding decided to build a dance studio:
“In my work, I kept meeting people who were saying they really loved ballet as a kid. I noticed there was just no adult studio in the area. So I decided to create one. I found a warehouse space, and I built the sprung floor and put ballet bars on the walls. By the end of it, I had two-thousand dollars in my bank account. I wound up sleeping in the studio for a while because there just wasn’t money for rent.”
She built it and the students came. It turned out to be much more than a studio:
“I called my place ‘Screen Door’ because it had a screen door, and it was a place to gather, have coffee, hang out, and to dance. It was a space that wasn’t for little kids or emerging ballerinas. It was a place where anyone could rediscover ballet as this old friend and know that whatever body they’re coming in with is perfect. It doesn’t matter if you’re heavy or older or have bad knees. We have this commonality, and it doesn’t matter what your skill level is. This is a safe space to express yourself.”
The experience with Screen Door Studio also ended up being first-hand research for what would eventually become Hilding’s Master’s thesis concert at the College of Visual and Performing Arts’ School of Dance, “Ballet Is Women,” which she describes as “lecture-demonstration interrogating the idea of the ideal ballet body, concluding that every body is a ballet body.” Watch “Ballet Is Women” here.
Hilding says she decided on UNC Greensboro long before she was ready to go to grad school. She’d read a paper published by professors BJ Sullivan and Larry Lavender, and felt that wherever they were was where she needed to be. She started tuning into the School of Dance live streams, which solidified her decision:
“What impressed me the most, the thing that really blew me away, was that none of these students looked alike and they were all so committed. That’s really rare. In programs like these what you usually see is that the students all start to move alike, to fit into a certain movement. But these students were really making the dance their own. And it was clear the faculty supported that.”
Before she even stepped on campus, Hilding felt that support:
“On the very first day I moved to Greensboro, I took a walk downtown. Professor Ana Paula Höfling was sitting at a table at a restaurant patio and saw me and started waving hello. Then on my first day of classes, I walked into the building and people knew me. I’d never had that experience in the dance world before. You always had to prove you’re worth being there. But since day one, I’ve felt like I belong here. The faculty really sees you. The director, Janet Lilly, knows every single dancer, and she answers our emails within a half hour! I think that’s my ultimate goal—to share that community experience. I feel like UNCG is setting us all up to go into the world and create communities like this.
Hilding says the program is tough, but the faculty have a way of bringing out the best in dancers:
“BJ Sullivan has completely changed my life. She really sees everyone and honors everyone, and she does it in such a way that allows people to go on their own artistic journey and come to their own conclusions. She guides her students in such a gentle way. All of the faculty are such an inspiration. I’ve learned to give myself grace and to soften some expectations so that I’m open to different ways to grow. I’ve learned to let the logic of the movement help you find your way. It’s completely shifted the way I think about everything, even life.”
Hilding begins a PhD in Dance Studies at Texas Women’s University in June. She says she wants to teach technique, dance studies, and dance history.
“I’m pursuing this PhD because I want to have the highest credentials possible. I want to have the credentials so that when I say ballet is for everyone, people will listen. I see it as gaining armor. I’m in this for the long fight.”
Story by Terri W. Relos
Cover photo: photographer is Darnell Bennett, dancer in photo is Sarah Messenger