Dawnell Dryja: Save the Last Dance

by Kate Branum • Photography by Two Eagles Marcus 

Pirouette, Plié, Arabesque, Sauté.

These are just a few words that have helped compose the anthem of Dawnell Dryja’s life.

Now in her final season of dancing at Grand Rapids Ballet, Dryja reminisces on the past 16 years and feels a surge of gratefulness for the company that helped shape her career.

Dryja’s world has revolved around music-box tutus and satin pointe shoes for as long as she can remember. Her mother, Scotland native and professional dancer Dawn Greene owned and taught at her own dance studio, and began taking Dryja as soon as she could walk. For years, Dryja trained under her experienced mother and attended various summer dance programs to sharpen her developing skills. During her senior year of high school, Dryja got her big break.

“When I was 17, I was given school credit to dance professionally at Metropolitan Ballet Theatre in Detroit,” Dryja shared. “I would go to school for two hours in the morning, then drive to downtown Detroit and dance for the rest of the day.”

From there, she twirled straight into the world of professional dance. After high school, Dryja trained at a number of different companies, including: Dayton Ballet and Cincinnati Ballet in Ohio, Utah Ballet and Tulsa Ballet in Oklahoma.

“Each school brings a different element and sparks your interest in a different way, or gives you a new technique to take home to work on for the rest of the year,” Dryja explained. “I think (the classes) just give you a rejuvenated feel.”

In 2002, Dryja decided to move back to her home state of Michigan to be closer to her family and took a position at the Grand Rapids Ballet. Here, she took on an impressive list of lead roles in both contemporary and classical dance, including Black Swan White Swan by Mario Radacovsky, Red Angels by Ulysses Dove, Where the Wild Things Are by Septime Webre and Cinderella by Gordon Peirce Schmidt, to name a few.

“Whatever I’m working on, I get so sucked into it,” Dryja shared. “Depending on the role, whether it’s character development or technique, they all require something different, like reading the book that goes with the ballet or watching different people (who have performed the role) and their interpretation of it. If it’s more about the technique, then that means more time in the studio. I like to go in the studio by myself after class and work on the technical things with no one else in there looking at me and figure it out.”

When Dryja isn’t training at GR Ballet, you’ll find her at the Academy of Dance Arts, a center that offers professional dance instruction for all ages and skill levels, located in Comstock Park.

“I taught at (Academy of Dance Arts) when I first moved here–I had a connection,” Dryja said. “I taught there for two years, and the owner contacted me and asked if I would be interested in owning it.”

At the time, Dryja realized she had too much on her plate, and knew she wouldn’t be able to devote as much time as she wanted to the Academy of Dance Arts; however, the idea of owning the studio wasn’t completely off of the table.

“(The owner) called me again and said ‘I really would like to give (the studio) to you,’” Dryja said. “I went for it, and it’s great, now that I understand how to run a business.”

Her daughter Tevyn also attends classes at the Academy. Following in the footsteps of the two generations before her, the four-year-old has big dreams of becoming a ballerina.

“She’s always come with me (to classes), even when she was in a carrier; she always wanted to be there. She has her little area where she hangs out (when I’m teaching) and sometimes she dances–she loves it.”

With the help of nine additional instructors, Dryja aims to help her students gain self-esteem and self-efficacy through disciplined dance techniques and a structured environment. To her, becoming a dancer requires much more than picture-perfect turn-outs and flawless Jetés–it’s essential to have a strong sense of character and insatiable motivation.

“It’s all about teaching (students) to be prepared, to be one step ahead or two steps ahead–as much as they can,” Dryja said. “It’s about putting the whole package together for them; it’s not just work in the studio, they have to go home and figure it out, whether it’s character development or how they want to present themselves on stage.”

Though she will be wrapping up her last season as a dancer at GR Ballet this fall, Dryja won’t be leaving the company. In fact, she has taken on the new title of Artistic Coordinator, a role that allows her to remain heavily involved with studio production.

“Overall, it’s been wonderful,” Dryja said about her career at GR Ballet thus far. “From the beginning, I’ve gotten very nice roles, and I’ve been pushed more and been able to grow as an artist. I’m excited to see what happens next with (GR Ballet), and I can’t wait to be a part of it.”

Dryja will be starring in a series of performances in ArtPrize Nine, as well as the production From Russia With Love, which debuts Friday, Oct. 6 at the Peter Martin Wege Theatre at GR Ballet, and a special retirement performance scheduled for mid-October.

The word “retirement” is deceiving; Dryja doesn’t intend to hang up her pointe shoes any time soon. She’ll be jumping from stage to stage as a freelance dancer, leaving her graceful mark on various venues.

“I’ve never been a person that is nervous, and that’s something you work toward. Most of the work is done in the studio; that’s where you get the most growth. It’s fulfilling to present that on stage and share what you’ve been working on. You feel alive when you’re on stage. The minute that curtain opens, (the stage is) yours.”

Kate Branum

Aside from studying journalism at Grand Valley State University and interning at WLM, Kate Branum enjoys writing, reading and all things art. Reach out to her at: kmbranum@gmail.com

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