Health & Body

Meet The Pacific Northwest Ballet Soloist Who Spends Her Spare Time Climbing Mountains

Merchant showing off her lines in the mountains. Photo courtesy Merchant

Like any dancer, Leah Merchant expects a lot from her body. "We're so trained to push, push, push," says the Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist. But one of her favorite hobbies—hiking—has shifted her mind-set.

On the trail, she's learned that harsh weather or tough terrain sometimes means you need to be patient with yourself. "It's trained me to not feel like I failed just because I need to rest a minute," she says. "Sometimes you have to let that be enough for now, and try again next time. It's more about continuing to make progress than it is about being perfect."


For her, it's not just about getting cardio exercise. "Hiking is a way to be physical without also being critical," she says. "There are no mirrors. It's not about what I look like. It's retrained my mind to just be present instead of always trying to be pretty."

How She Got Into Hiking

Merchant hikes any weekend that the weather is nice enough. Photo courtesy Merchant

Merchant has been outdoorsy all her life. Growing up in Alabama and North Carolina, she built forts in the woods, played in the backyard creek and biked neighborhood trails. But her passion for hiking took off once she moved to Seattle to dance with PNB. Today, she hikes every weekend when the weather is nice enough, and loves to take advantage of empty trails during her summer layoff.

Balancing Work & Adventure

Performing in Alejandro Cerrudo's Memory Glow. Photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB

But she's careful never to push her body past its limits. If she's planning a hike longer than eight miles, she'll take two days and camp overnight. "My job clearly takes priority—I can't make myself so sore I can't work," she says. "It's a complex math problem of, What do I have to do, how far do I think I can go and how much elevation do I want to get?" Throughout the week, she researches trails, checking up on recent conditions. "If I haven't solved the math problem by the weekend, I don't go out."

If It's Snowing

Merchant admits she always plans to snowshoe more often than she actually does. Photo via Thinkstock

Another option in the winter is snowshoeing. But Merchant admits that the wide stance can be challenging for dancers. "Every winter I have ambitious goals of where I'm going to snowshoe," she says, "but I've only broken out my pair four or five times."

Must-Haves on the Trail

• A map. "I've ended up giving my maps to a lot of lost people!"

• GPS tracker. "It's a great tool—you can always see where you've been and where the trail is. And if I'm out by myself, my husband can track me."

• Water & PB&J sandwiches or trail mix

• High-ankle hiking boots. "As a dancer, I'm very, very picky about ankle protection."

• Her dog, Scout. "He's a trail dog. He never wants to turn around."

• Pocket Survive Outdoors Longer kit. "Just in case I get stuck out there."


Broadway

We knew that Ivo van Hove and Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker's production of West Side Story would challenge our preconceived notions about the show.

But a recent Vogue story gives us a taste of just how nontraditional the Broadway revival will be. Most notably, van Hove is cutting "I Feel Pretty" and the "Somewhere" ballet, condensing the show into one act to better reflect the urgency of the 48-hour plot. (The choice has been approved by the West Side Story estate, including Sondheim, who has "long been uncomfortable" with some of the "I Feel Pretty" lyrics.)

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Sponsored by NYCDA
Ailey II artistic director Troy Powell teaching an Ailey Workshop at NYCDA. Courtesy NYCDA

Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.

"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."

Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.

Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:

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Cover Story
Jayme Thornton

It's a much-repeated part of Francesca Hayward's origin story that she discovered ballet at age 3, when her grandparents bought a video of The Nutcracker to keep her occupied and she immediately started dancing around the room. What's less well-known is that there was another video lined up next to The Nutcracker that Hayward liked to dance along to: Cats. "I really just did the White Cat bit and fast-forwarded the rest," she remembers. "I'd make my friends who came around be the other cats."

Twenty-four years later, she's not only become a Royal Ballet principal, but has been cast as Victoria the White Cat in Tom Hooper's new movie adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, out in theaters on December 20. "I remember the director telling me I'd got the part: 'Just to let you know you're the lead in a Hollywood film,' he said." Hayward laughs. "This is crazy!"

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Sponsored by Harlequin Floors
Left: Hurricane Harvey damage in Houston Ballet's Dance Lab; Courtesy Harlequin. Right: The Dance Lab pre-Harvey; Nic Lehoux, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.

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