Miami City Ballet (MCB) looks out of place on the corner of Park Ave and 22nd Street, a corner where it isn’t uncommon to see half-clothed tourists, a gaggle of 16-year-olds just getting out of last period at Miami Beach Senior High and the friendly neighborhood hobo all coinciding on its sidewalks at once. And though the establishment itself is overly regal on such a motley street corner, Ella Titus, one of MCB’s youngest corps de ballet dancers, is anything but out of place inside these corridors.
The first thing I see are two rainbow-colored, wool leg warmers shuffling down the long hallway of dance studios. They are warming a tiny pair of calves belonging to an even tinier, fairy-like girl. She seems short for a ballerina. Her light hair is just barely blonde. It is almost the color of her peaches-and-cream skin. And it is, of course, plastered onto the back of her skull in a tidy little bun, left part, not one wisp out of place. She’s wearing pink tights—the ones with the seams down the back, a light purple leotard with a sweetheart neckline and a pair of what looks like soft-soled snow boots hiding underneath those vibrant leg warmers. Her feet are definitely warm. That’s for sure.
Titus was practically raised inside these corridors. MCB has been a part of her vocabulary since she began a vocabulary—at age three, when she first watched MCB’s dancers perform the Waltz of the Flowers in Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.” The 22-year-old has experienced both the pleasure and great task of knowing her calling for the majority of her lifetime. And, most of her lifetime has been dedicated to achieving this calling, or dream, of becoming a professional ballerina. The words “professional ballerina” may not carry as much weight for you, readers, as the words “NBA or NFL player” might. They didn’t, at first, for me either. But be forewarned: they will. Titus makes sure of it.
As clichéd as it is, MCB’s “Nutcracker” tour in her hometown of Clearwater is the reason Titus put on a tutu in the first place. Yes, some people’s lives sometimes do play out like sappy coming-of-age or rom-com movies. And no sooner had she thrown herself into the world of pointe shoes and pirouettes than she auditioned for the children’s chorus in that annual tour. And thus, she began dancing alongside the MCB corps, memorizing the names of the adult dancers and gawking at their perfect form, their seasoned technique and doll-like facials. But, her first introduction to the dance studios at Miami City Ballet, whose floor-to-ceiling mirrors on both long walls give way to floor-to-ceiling windows on the far walls, which saturate the room with the purest form of Miami sunlight, not to mention a view of palm fronds and that gaggle of school children every day at 3 p.m., was at age 11. Her first summer intensive.
The intensives are four or six-week programs where you stay in a dorm and train all day, every day with some of the company’s best teachers. Titus did a few of these before picking up her life—well, as much of a life as a 14-year-old has—and moving to Miami to live alone in a dormitory in South Beach, attend high school and take ballet classes at MCB. Titus says it was as if she had gone to college—she had to cook, clean and do her own laundry—only in the middle of puberty, instead of adolescence.
For an hour and a half each morning, she was a normal public-school kid at Beach High, but for the rest of the day, Titus could be found jeté-ing a couple blocks down in those sun-soaked studios at MCB. Junior and senior year continued the saga of Titus’ very Hannah Montana-esque double life, but this time she was an apprentice with the company, which means she got to learn a few ballets and even step in as an understudy once in a while.
George Balanchine’s “Symphony in Three Movements” is Titus’ favorite ballet. Not because it’s the best ballet out there—objectively, nothing beats the “Nutcracker” or even “Cinderella”—but because she believes it was the reason she got her contract for MCB’s corps de ballet. It all happened shortly after she graduated high school, Titus recalls, smiling. “I was thrown on [stage] because someone got injured, and there was a domino effect,” Titus says, explaining the connection. “So, someone went in, and then I had to go in for them, so I kind of think that may have been how I got my contract, though I’m not entirely sure.”
You can’t tell that Titus is even proud of this accomplishment. She’s humble. She has tiny teeth, which match the rest of her dainty facial features, that spread into a warm, grateful smile when she thinks back to this moment. We’re sitting in the lobby of MCB, on a ledge next to a window. Titus sits with one leg propped up, her waif-like arms and chin resting delicately on her knee. She tugs nervously at a leg warmer, which I have come to find out she knit herself. She actually has a small-hand-knit-leg-warmer-business as a side gig.
Now, little quirks, like her knack for knitting, begin pouring out of Titus and her tightly-bound ballerina bun. For one thing, she considers herself more of a lyrical ballerina, remembering a favorite ballet she has performed—”The Cage” by Jerome Robbins. “We were all completely turned in, doing these crazy movements, like slightly sexual,” she laughs. “It was fun. It was different because we’re basically insects that eat men.”
For another, she says she developed a fluid-filled sac called a bursa on her heel last year, which made it so painful to dance that she tried cutting holes in her pointe shoes to relieve the pressure. Titus shakes her head, explaining the tedium of taking care of her body, her instrument, through show season, noting that something as minor as a bruised toenail can throw off an entire performance. But, what is even more frustrating than her feet maladies, is the lack of acknowledgement from her non-dance friends.
“I feel like a lot of people think it’s just pretty tutus and pointe shoes, and that it’s easy, because on stage, that’s our goal, is to make it look as easy as possible. But I think what a lot of people don’t know is that we get paid to do this, and it is a normal job,” Titus says of her frustration when her friends ignorantly ask her where she works.
“I work at Miami City Ballet!” the 22-year-old exclaims. “I get paid enough to live in Miami Beach and support myself, so it’s definitely a real job.”
Titus asks if I would like to see the dance studios. I nod, vigorously, hoping she’ll show me a few moves. But her feet look pretty off-duty at the moment, all bundled up in those boots and leg warmers. She’s on her only break of the day.
After peering into each studio as we pass them, some filled with 20 or more dancers rehearsing a number, others vacant, the ballet barres pushed up against the windows, I ask Titus what it’s like to stand in a mirror and be critiqued 8 hours a day, 6 days a week. Before she answers, we duck into one of the empty studios.
“I feel like my technique is changing every day,” she says. “Every day I come into work, and I try to think about different things, and it’s just never perfect. I think even the principal dancers would say that. After performances you can review your video, and nobody is ever happy entirely with their performance—there are always things that can be better.”
She pauses, fiddling with a blonde bobby pin in her bun. In this moment, Ella Titus, seems totally comfortable and yet terribly uncertain staring at her miniature body in the big mirrors. “It’s hard to come in every day and know that you have to change things,” she adds. “But that’s our job.”
words_isabella vaccaro photo_sidney sherman