Ballet dancers

Rocky Mountain Dance Theatre dancers (from left) Taylor Van Deer, Caitlyn Murray, Kaitlyn Loberg and Jessica McNeil were recently accepted into a prestigious ballet school in New York.

Dancing shoes

On the wall above your bedside

Saw it all as we performed our pirouette

Fleshes fused

As the flicker of the candles

Threw upon the wall a single silhouette.

– Dan Fogelberg


Four girls. All dancers. Different personalities. Serious. Shy. Talkative. Jovial. Yet they share a bond only dancers seem to share, and talk in terms only dancers seem to use.

They understand each other and display a passion for this art. And a respect for their instructor.

Jessica McNeil. Taylor Van Deer. Caitlyn Murray. Kaitlyn Loberg. The four of them. United in their goals. In sync.

Rewind to early in the winter and an audition in Billings, Mont., for the prestigious Joffrey Ballet School in New York City.

“I didn’t know anyone there,” McNeil, a senior, recalls. “I didn’t know what they were looking for. But I stopped being nervous after we started. I said, ‘OK, I’ve got this.’”

In fact, all four of the Rocky Mountain School of the Arts dancers got it – accepted into Joffrey as a result of not just their performance during the 90-minute ballet class/audition. Ask any one of them, and they’re quick to give credit where it is squarely due.

“We are where we are because of the technique Liz teaches us,” Van Deer says. “She had prepared us really well. No matter what they tossed at us, we had learned everything. We had worked on these techniques all our lives.”

Grace under pressure – that’s what Elizabeth Fernandez seems to be able to achieve with her dancers. Admittedly “tough” on them, Fernandez says she does so out of her love for dance – and for her dancers.

“They are all really very quick to learn because that’s how we do it here,” Fernandez says. “And my combinations are hard, so it’s not anything they’re not used to.”

Per the audition, Fernandez says it has an inherent challenge.

“You don’t have any idea what they’re going to give you,” she says. “You’re expected to learn as you go along.”

The girls’ reactions sum up the stress level of the audition.

Van Deer: “The teacher gives us the combination once. And then you’re expected to know it.”

Murray: “Once on the left side and once on the right side.”

Loberg: “I was really scared. I thought there would be a lot more people. But there was us four and like four other girls.”

McNeil: “It was the first audition I’d ever done besides here in the studio.”

Dancing shoes

We have loved on distant beaches

Where the winter never reaches there we fell

Dying swan

On the dawn you danced before me

Though your eyes were dark and stormy

I stood still.

During the audition, which included about 75 minutes of work in flat shoes, followed by

about another 30 minutes in

pointe shoes, Fernandez tried to sneak a peek or two but remained out of view to her four dancers. In spite of it however, she, like the four girls, was confident.

“I think there’s a certain level of execution we need as dancers and to get there you need someone to push you,” she says. “It’s really important to me ... when they go, they are prepared. There’s nothing worse than going and not being prepared.

“They also know that outside of that, I really do care and want them to be successful in whatever they choose. I think they all know that. It’s tough, it’s hard and I am tough on them. But it’s a tough love. It’s a good love.”

Adds Loberg: “It prepares us for things other than dance.”

While all four did, in fact, perform at a level good enough to be accepted, only McNeil will be attending Joffrey. She will start with a “summer intensive,” which runs for about a month June-July. Then she’ll be fully engaged in ballet training September-June.

And while McNeil will take her skills and her ballet dream to New York City, Van Deer, Murray and Loberg will remain committed to Rocky Mountain Dance Theatre, committed to each other and clearly, committed to their instructor.

Ask Fernandez, and she’ll be the first to say the goals of the program stretch far beyond the hours of practice and the blood, sweat and tears that come with tightening their pointe shoes and spinning gracefully amid flood lights and awe-struck audiences.

“For them it is an overall experience, it’s not just about dance,” she says. “It’s about their overall lives. This only gets them to where they want to go. And when we walk away from the studio, we are confident. We know what we can accomplish.”

Dancing shoes

Though the distances divide us

There’s a paradise inside us

We can’t lose.

Me and you dance a “pas de deux” forever

And I pray you never

Shed your dancing shoes.

(Vin Cappiello can be reached at

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