Leap of Faith: Dance Major Trades Toe Shoes for Tracting


    By Rosalie Westenskow

    An olive green leotard clings to Kristina Mitchell”s back, her slim frame gracefully bending as she daintily steps on the tips of her toes then spins across the studio under the critical eyes of her director.

    Many young girls dream of becoming ballerinas, but few ever taste the excitement of dancing onstage with a professional company. Of the small number who do achieve this dream, hardly any would even consider giving up a career for their faith, as Mitchell did.

    In 2003 Mitchell, now a BYU sophomore majoring in dance, left her job, friends, family and, most significantly, her dancing, to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

    “You have to understand that with ballet if you”re a year and a half out, it takes about as long to get back in [shape],” said Jan Dijkwel, artistic director of Ballet Theatre, the BYU ballet company for which Mitchell dances.

    Taking a year and a half off from training to serve a mission in England, Mitchell”s first extended break from daily dance classes for almost a decade, meant taking a great risk for her career as a ballerina.

    “I figured I would probably never dance professionally again if I went on a mission,” Mitchell said, sitting cross-legged outside the studio where earlier she rehearsed her solo for an upcoming performance.

    The prospect of living without dance would no doubt frighten anyone who had, like Mitchell, devoted his or her entire life to the art. As a child growing up in Sedona, Ariz., Mitchell said she always danced to music, loved to dress up and was highly energetic, prompting her mother to enroll her in a dance class when Mitchell was five years old.

    “I decided I wanted to be a professional ballet dancer when I was nine,” Mitchell said.

    She began taking classes six days a week and, at 15, moved two hours away from home to train at the ballet school affiliated with Ballet Arizona, a professional ballet company in Phoenix.

    Dedication to the art remains a theme in Mitchell”s life today, as she trains Ballet Theatre at least 18 hours a week, including a technique class everyday.

    “I don”t think she has missed a class or rehearsal since the fall [when she joined Ballet Theatre],” Mitchell”s director Dijkwel said.

    While training in Phoenix, Mitchell”s hard work paid off and, after a year, the company hired her to dance with them professionally. She spent one year there, then two years with Atlanta Ballet followed by two years with the National Ballet of Canada in Toronto, where she trained and danced, but was not an official member of the company.

    Life as a professional dancer has had its own set of joys and challenges, Mitchell said. The companies she danced with often fostered unity among company members by encouraging the dancers to join in social events-activities Mitchell usually didn”t feel comfortable participating in.

    “In Atlanta, they would rent out a beach house in Florida and would party all weekend and I wouldn”t go,” she said.

    Not participating in the drinking and partying that went on outside of rehearsal sometimes affected Mitchell”s standing in the company, especially with Atlanta Ballet.

    “No one was leaving so they said they couldn”t move me up, but I don”t necessarily agree with that,” Mitchell said.

    The real reason, she said, stemmed from her refusal to go to dinner with her director, an older, married man.

    “Most of the dancers he [the director] kept he had taken out,” Mitchell said. “I just didn”t think it was appropriate so I didn”t do it. But other dancers did and they got jobs.”

    However, being asked out on dates by older men didn”t faze Mitchell.

    “It”s not like it was a surprise, this happens all the time in these places,” she said. “What bothered me was that my reaction wasn”t what they wanted and that affected how they treated me.”

    Despite her reluctance to party with her fellow company members, Mitchell said she loved life as a professional dancer, especially because of the opportunities to perform.

    “You have to make everything look easy and beautiful, but behind that are years and years of training and focus and sacrifice,” she said. “But being able to perform is worth it all.”

    The ability to incorporate spirituality into performance makes Mitchell a valuable addition to BYU”s Ballet Theatre, said Alyssa Smith, a company member.

    “She [Mitchell] said the other day that dancing on stage is supposed to bring her joy and she compared it to the scripture: ”Men are that they might have joy,”” said Smith, a junior majoring in dance. “She said that when we”re dancing on stage, we”re actually dancing to our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ.”

    The enjoyment Mitchell receives from dancing is apparent from the perpetually pleasant expression on her face as she rehearses with her director, despite a steady stream of corrections and comments. Her smile reflects her positive outlook on life-a characteristic of Mitchell”s that fellow company member Leslie Evans said has impacted her life.

    Last semester both Evans and Mitchell had sustained injuries and Evans said she looked forward to seeing Mitchell in the dance training room where they both worked to overcome their injuries.

    “Her attitude was always so positive,” Evans said. “I remember her saying, ”I know this is for a reason and I know I need to be learning something from this.””

    Although Mitchell didn”t consider serving a mission until she was in her twenties, her stories make it evident that missionary work has always been a theme in her life. As the only member of her faith in every company she has danced with, Mitchell said she had many opportunities to share her beliefs with others, many of whom had never met a “Mormon” before.

    “One of my best friends that was gay was really surprised that I would be friends with him,” she said. “I told him that ”I don”t necessarily agree with what you do, but you”re still a child of God.””

    Mitchell”s desire to share the gospel grew until one summer Mitchell said she began receiving promptings to serve a mission, however, she decided to return to Toronto and dancing instead.

    Later that year, an event occurred which caused Mitchell to reevaluate her previous decision.

    “My step dad got baptized and that was an awesome experience,” she said. “I was really touched and decided I needed to make a decision so I fasted and prayed and got a very clear answer.”

    The answer was to leave dancing and become a missionary. Although scared by the prospect of losing her ability to dance, Mitchell decided to submit her papers.

    Although Mitchell”s decision may seem irrational to those in the dance world, her director, Jan Dijwele, said he”s not surprised she made the decision she did.

    “If you feel called to serve there”s nothing more powerful,” said Dijkwele, who also danced professionally before coming to teach at BYU. “You have to take the risk and she took the risk and believed everything in her life would work out.”

    Believing that things would work out became easier, Mitchell said, after her mission president gave her a blessing.

    “[He said] that if I served faithfully, I would have all my dancing abilities restored, and here I am,” she said, smiling as she shrugged her shoulders.

    As for the future, Mitchell said she”s not sure what lies ahead or whether she will ever dance professionally again. However, as always, optimism pervades her comment: “I would never say never.”

    (For comments, e-mail Rosalie Westenskow at )

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