Promising dancer bows out of Washington Ballet to study at Towson

Rebecca Houseknecht, at her family's Odenton home, with some of the awards and prizes from her ballet career.
Rebecca Houseknecht, at her family's Odenton home, with some of the awards and prizes from her ballet career. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun)

Rebecca Houseknecht was destined to be a star.

Everyone said so: her ballet teachers, the judges at international competitions, the director who chose the Odenton teen from among hundreds of aspiring ballerinas to feature in "First Position," a documentary currently at the Charles Theatre.

And just when it was all within reach — a glamorous life, applauding audiences, international travel — the serene-looking teen flashed a radiant smile, performed a perfect pirouette and walked off the stage.

One year ago, Houseknecht, now 19, quit the Washington Ballet and enrolled in Towson University, where she's studying speech pathology. In place of a tutu and tiara, she'll wear a white lab coat.

"I don't want to dance as my career," Houseknecht said.

"I did it once, and I didn't like it. There's no job security. Some new dancer could come in one day and kick you out of your position.

"A woman in my company had foot surgery multiple times. I thought, 'What if that's me?' She's about 32, she doesn't have a college degree, and she's a yoga instructor. It's a really scary world, when you think about it."

It's not unheard of for a jaded 40-year-old to drop out of the rat race and opt for life as an organic farmer. But it's far more unusual when a 19-year-old on the brink of success hangs up her toe shoes. And Houseknecht isn't just making a life choice; she's also bucking a trend.

"First Position" is among several movies and television shows broadcast in the past six months that glorify dancers' lives. The craze began with "Black Swan," a movie starring Natalie Portman that was released in December 2010.

"Breaking Pointe," a reality TV show set at Salt Lake City's Ballet West, debuted last week on the CW network, while "Bunheads," which stars Sutton Foster teaching in a fictitious dance academy, premieres June 11 on ABC's Family channel.

As Houseknecht puts it: "I guess a dancer's life is interesting to people who don't live it every day."

"First Position" focuses on the sacrifices made by six aspiring dancers ages 11 to 17 competing in the 2009 Youth America Grand Prix, the world's largest student ballet scholarship competition.

All the dancers have talent to burn, and some have experienced great hardship in their young lives. But it's the willowy Houseknecht, a brown-eyed blonde who graduated from Arundel High School and who studied with the Maryland Youth Ballet in Silver Spring, who most closely resembles the stereotype of the ballerina as an ethereal dream girl.

Septime Webre, the Washington Ballet's artistic director, was judging the Grand Prix the first time he saw the 17-year-old Maryland girl with ideal legs and feet perform.

"I really loved Rebecca's dancing," Webre said.

"She has very strong technique, a beautiful facility that's appropriate for both classical and modern dance, and she's lovely. She has that X factor, and she just lit up the stage. She brings a kind of electricity to her performances that connects with audiences."

Houseknecht is an only child, and her home is filled with humorous references to her supposedly royal status.

A sign on her bedroom door reads, "Princess parking. All others will be toad."

In place of a headboard, a giant crown is painted above her bed. Tiaras that Houseknecht wore in dance competitions now adorn her teddy bears.

People who excel at an activity usually develop a passion for it, and from the time Houseknecht was 4 years old, her teachers were telling David and Wendy Houseknecht that their daughter was exceptionally talented.

They saw in their little girl's performances the same jubilation that Webre described. So they were understandably confused when Houseknecht decided to quit.

"It was difficult, because I saw this potential that she had," Wendy Houseknecht said. "A lot of people were saying, 'She should do this.'"

The family moved to Odenton from Baltimore County in 2005 to be closer to dance opportunities in Washington.

After the Grand Prix, Houseknecht received offers to join dance companies in Texas and North Carolina. But the Washington Ballet, her mother said, "seemed like a match made in heaven."

The studio was close enough so that Houseknecht, a homebody, could commute. She could keep dating Brooks Miller, her boyfriend of more than three years. Webre was clearly placing her on the fast track, and her career seemed assured.

In her first season, Houseknecht performed solo roles. In the spring, Webre offered her a promotion from the apprentice company to the main troupe.

"And for her first six months in the Washington Ballet, she loved it," her mother said. "When she told us she wanted to leave, I was afraid she'd make a decision at age 18 she'd regret later.

"But a year into it, I don't think she did. Dance is still part of her life, but in a different form, and she's loving it."

In retrospect, she said, her daughter had been having second thoughts about a ballet career for years. When Houseknecht was 15, she came close to quitting when a former teacher pushed her to dance on a fractured foot.

"I'd come out of class crying, and she'd tell me that I was faking it," Houseknecht said.

Though Houseknecht no longer performs "Coppelia" or "Swan Lake," she has returned to her first love, jazz dance. She's on Towson University's competitive dance team, which recently picked up its 14th consecutive national title.

And even in "First Position," which was made when Houseknecht seemed at her most determined to become a professional ballerina, the girl expresses the wish to be "normal," to go sledding with her boyfriend and eat Sunday dinner with her family.

For Houseknecht, it seems, a life of ordinary joy trumps one of extraordinary success.

Any lingering doubts she may have had were dispelled in December, when she attended a Washington Ballet performance of "The Nutcracker."

"I was sitting in the audience, watching my friends kill themselves on their pointe shoes, these little pink death traps," Houseknecht said.

"And I was grinning from ear to ear. I was so happy that I didn't have to do that anymore."