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By Jenifer Ringer
When she dashes onto the stage as a happy 16-year-old in Peter Martins’ Sleeping Beauty, Jenifer Ringer spreads joy across both sides of the footlights. As the black-clad widow in Balanchine’s Vienna Waltzes, she exudes allure and confidence. In Martins’ lavish partnering ballets, Morgen and Thou Swell, she is the picture of romance and glamour. As Anita in Robbins’ West Side Story Suite, she snaps her head with sass, whips her dress, and sings—yes, sings—with flair. Even while taking class, she has enough Hollywood glamour that she could be mistaken for a young Elizabeth Taylor.
Jenifer Ringer began her dance training at age 10 in Summerville, SC, and enrolled in the Washington School of Ballet two years later. After attending two summer sessions at the School of American Ballet, she enrolled in the school on a full scholarship. She became an apprentice with New York City Ballet in 1989, and rose through the ranks to attain principal status in 2000. But her rise was not without its bumps. She had trouble with her weight, took time off, studied English at Fordham University, and came back to dance. And fell in love—with then NYCB principal dancer James Fayette, who is now her husband and a labor representative for dancers.
My first memory involving dance is a vivid one: I walk through the house to find my mother and tell her that if she needs me, I will be in my room dancing and may not hear her if she calls. I then go into my room and put a record into my Disco Lights Record Player and turn the volume way up so the lights shine their brightest. I close the door as the first of many repetitions of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” begins, and I enter my own world. I danced then because certain songs made me want to move my body and I loved the way it felt.
When I took my first ballet class, I found it boring compared to my own dance sessions. It wasn’t until much later that I experienced the structure and challenge of classical technique and that stimulation interested me enough to continue with my training. At that time, I danced because I needed to conquer the technique; I wanted to excel at the specific movements. But then I had the opportunity to perform on a real stage, the Kennedy Center, with a real company, The Washington Ballet, in a real ballet, Balanchine’s Serenade. I felt something surge within me and radiate outward. I realized that I had to dance for a living. Dancing was a need.
I achieved my dream and became a professional dancer but was quickly overwhelmed by the work aspect of being in a ballet company. What used to surge within me diminished and I became depleted. Dancing became a trap that swallowed up who I was and what I had wanted to be. I danced then because I knew nothing else. I was nothing else, and it was unhealthy. I spent a year away at age 25, not dancing at all. When I heard music that I used to dance to, it only made me sad.
Over time, something began to well up in me again when I heard music. I realized that there was a way to reconcile the pure need to dance with the confines of a ballet company. And I realized too that not only was it a gift to be able to dance at all, but it was also an incredible blessing to be able to share something beautiful with an audience. This world bombards us with words and instructions and flashing media, and it is so wonderful to be able to experience profound emotions simply through music and movement. It is an honor to be someone who interprets choreography with the hope that someone watching will feel blessed. I dance now because I am grateful.
My most recent memories of dance eclipse all the others because they involve my daughter, who began instinctively reacting to music and rhythm from the time she could sit up. Whatever she ends up doing with her life, she dances now at almost two years old because she loves it. She hears the music start (yes, I still play ABBA) and she grins at me in expectation. I swing her into my arms and exclaim, “Let’s chassé!” and we bounce through my apartment, her laughter drowning out everything else. Dancing is best when you do it with someone you love, and when I dance with my daughter, I dance for joy.
Photo of Jenifer Ringer in Balanchine's Union Jack by Paul Kolnik, courtesy NYCB.