Survive and Conquer: Elizabeth Gaither

July 19, 2007
In the last few moments of The Washington Ballet’s
, Elizabeth Gaither wraps her tinsel-thin arms around her partner and then slowly drifts away. She melts into each detail, every placement of her foot and turn of her head softer than the last. Finally she achieves an all but ethereal state as the music draws to a close—a breath and she might disappear.
While today Gaither is dancing Giselle and other principal roles, she still remembers a time when she feared she would never be able to dance again. Thanks to her talent, steel will, sense of humor, and ability to take responsibility for her future, Gaither is still dancing, perhaps better than ever.
From the very start, Gaither had determination. Her early training came in her mother’s Miami studio. Gloria Gaither studied at Memphis Ballet, but opted for a family over a career as a professional dancer. “Elizabeth watched the older girls’ classes until I could take her home,” remembers Gloria. “One night she said to me, ‘You know that girl in the blue leotard in the such-and-such class? When she does her pas de basque she doesn’t peel her foot off the floor in the back.’ I realized then and there that she was dissecting and absorbing everything.”
At 16, after a year of training at The Harid Conservatory in Florida, Gaither was asked to join Houston Ballet. That same year she was cast as the Snow Queen in Ben Stevenson’s version of
The Nutcracker
. “She could jump, turn, and get her legs up there,” remembers Houston Ballet principal Lauren Anderson. “I remember watching Beth and seeing legs, feet, and braces.”
A teenage sensation, Gaither excelled in Houston, until a medical crisis reshaped her dance career. During a performance of
Daphnis and Chloë
, she leapt into her partner’s arms, but he failed to catch her. She crashed on her knee to the ground (and first thought her knee was injured), then her partner fell on top of her, which began what Gaither calls a “long, unpleasant three years.”
Gaither had incurred a stress fracture in a vertebra in her lower back, but doctors misdiagnosed the injury for a year and a half. They originally thought she had a muscular injury, missing the fracture, so Gaither stopped dancing, focusing instead on strengthening her back muscles through physical therapy. But at the end of the season, still unsure about Gaither’s prognosis, Houston did not offer her another contract. “It opened my eyes to the ballet world,” says Gaither. “Until then, my experience had been sugarcoated.” As the pain in her back grew worse, Gaither feared she might never dance again.
Finally, a sports medicine specialist in Miami discovered what was wrong. “He told me to stop everything,” says Gaither. “Just rest. That’s when I decided I was going to make it back.”
After three years away from ballet, Gaither joined Memphis Concert Ballet (now Ballet Memphis). “It was like a breath of oxygen to me,” she says. Near the end of Memphis’ season, ABT requested Gaither audition after viewing a tape of her dancing. “ABT’s the company you dream of being in,” says Gaither. “I had watched ABT my whole life. I was one of those people who stood at the stage door for hours.” Having never traveled to New York City, Gaither boarded a plane the next day, auditioned, and received a contract.
Gaither quickly became a leader in ABT’s corps, where the women are divided by height: small, medium, and tall. “Elizabeth was almost always in front; every time we do ‘The Kingdom of the Shades’ in
La Bayadère
. I still can almost see her there,” says Susan Jones, ballet mistress for the company’s corps. “To be in front, dancers need to have a sense of the bigger picture behind them. Elizabeth had that knack.”
As the years went by, Gaither moved beyond corps work, dancing soloist roles in
Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1
, Fancy Free, and Giselle. But an official promotion never came. The same attribute that moved Gaither to the front of the corps, her diminutive size, was working against her now. “When you’re a small girl, there are certain roles you can shoot for and certain roles you can’t. To a certain degree, we typecast,” says Jones.
As another season of dancing a swan and a wili came to a close in 2003, Gaither yearned for a change. “I was getting older and I felt a bit stuck,” she says. “I knew what my purpose was at ABT and I always led the corps, which I loved doing. But I felt a little bit caged in.”
Sensing stasis, Gaither took action, asking for a meeting with artistic director Kevin McKenzie. “I wished I had said I was uncomfortable with that partner in Houston before my accident,” says Gaither. “From that experience I learned to speak up. That’s what I did with Kevin, in a way. I told him what I wanted and he said that’s not going to happen here and I said thank you.” With no job lined up, Gaither left ABT at the end of the season.
That’s when The Washington Ballet’s Septime Webre called. “Elizabeth’s got a beautiful body, legs and feet, a great technique, and a wonderful lyrical quality, and she’s a natural actress,” says Webre. “Plus, her personality was effervescent and interesting. She seemed an ideal fit for the two wings of The Washington Ballet’s rep: new contemporary work and the neoclassical and narrative works we’re adding.”
The Washington Ballet’s varied repertory attracted Gaither too. “Septime told me the rep for the next season and the thing that got me was that they were going to be doing
In the Middle
,” she says referring to William Forsythe’s ballet, In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. “Once I heard that, I said ‘Sign me up!’ ” When Weber and Gaither spoke, In the Middle’s lead role, originally created for Sylvie Guillem, remained open. Gaither stepped in. She tackled the ballet with gusto, hitting the choreography’s sharp lines with an intense ferocity, doubly amazing because of the small frame that produced it.
The opportunities are not the only reason the company has proved a fit. Gaither’s work ethic makes an impact in a small company like The Washington Ballet, where on nights when she’s not in a principal role she returns to corps work. In 2004’s
she alternated between Swanilda and corps roles. “It’s like a small family where everyone does the dishes,” says Webre. “She’s a real team player.”
Gaither says that as she’s gotten older—she’s now 31—she has to fight a little harder to maintain her positive attitude. “There are difficult days,” she says. “My body has started to rebel.” Gaither danced
this season with an almost completely torn tendon in one foot. It needed an operation as soon as the run was over. “I have to find ways to get warm or mentally in a good place, but I appreciate dance so much more now,” she says.
Yoga helps her immensely. The breathing exercises let her find a groundedness in her dancing and keep her focused. When she needs a break, she seeks solace in music or with her dogs. Her collection of more than 600 CDs has “just about everything.” Miles Davis is her favorite, hence the names of her two chihuahuas: Miles and Mila.
Gaither’s approach to life and dance bolsters not just her own spirit, but others’ as well. “In the theater, when everyone’s nervous and tired, that’s when Elizabeth’s almost Lucille Ball-ish sense of humor comes out,” says Webre. “Occasionally I’ll have to rehearse a curtain speech, but rather than giving the speech I’ll sing a kitschy old song and she’ll do an impromptu jazz routine.”
While Gaither’s humor masks the physical challenges in this chapter of her career, the increasing artistic rewards bolster her drive. Gaither’s
might be like a disappearing ghost, but count on her to stick around. Her foot surgery was successful and she will return to her dream job—just in time for The Washington Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet April 13–17.

Clare Croft reviews dance for
The Washington Post and The Danceview Times website.