Former Joffrey ballerina Jodie Gates floats on pointed toes across a well-worn wooden floor, a dozen or so pairs of little feet pounding in her wake. As part of a free children’s ballet workshop she offers through her annual Laguna Dance Festival, Gates playfully shows her young charges how to move like a butterfly, a horse, a penguin. What’s brought her from the world stage, where she performed the lead in “Nutcracker,” “Sleeping Beauty” and other ballets, to playing a penguin at a church hall in Laguna Beach? A simple desire to continue the dance.
“I know the importance of dance to our culture, and somebody has to carry it forward,” Gates says.
For ballerinas, the leap to successful post-performance careers is not always graceful. Gates, however, has turned the dedication and tenacity that made her a principal ballerina into a mission to preserve ballet – a counterpoint in an era of arts education budget cuts and struggling dance companies.
“I’ve carried my passion for ballet from performing to teaching what I know,” Gates says. “Although I miss the daily life of a dancer, I have a full life and career as a teacher, director and choreographer.”
After moving to Laguna Beach in 2004, she joined UC Irvine as assistant professor of dance and started the nonprofit CaDance.
“My vision was to create an outreach organization dedicated to dance. I needed to put my energy and vigor somewhere,” she says. “I was literally knocking on people’s doors with a picture of myself dancing in the Joffrey saying, ‘Hey, we can make this happen in our community.’”
Through CaDance, she directs the 4-year-old Laguna Dance Festival, bringing an eclectic mix of ballet companies, dancers and choreographers to Laguna Beach venues for performances, classes and talks. She also travels the world, choreographing new works for classical and contemporary companies and staging ballets by internationally renowned choreographer William Forsythe.
“Ballet can be informative and entertaining and appeal to a diverse population of young and old,” Gates says. “It can be outside, in a gallery or on the beach. It can be local or international talent, and it can be UCI students.”
Raised in Sacramento, Gates knew she wanted to be a ballerina by age 10.
“I enjoyed moving my body to the music and was highly focused. I didn’t have the aesthetically classic ballerina’s body, but I had the musicality, imagination and acting ability to bring the audience into the performance.”
In addition to dancing with the Joffrey Ballet of New York City, she was principal ballerina for the Pennsylvania Ballet and danced with the Frankfurt Ballet.
While she doesn’t miss the grueling hours of practice (“it’s like training as an Olympic athlete”), she does miss performing.
“I remember opening night of ‘Romeo & Juliet’ at the State Theater in New York City. It was the balcony scene, and my partner and I performed the pas de deux to Prokofiev,” she says. “It was one of those moments in art where everything comes together. It’s far beyond words. I miss those moments on stage. But we strive to create that by teaching what we know.”
Originally published Vol. 1, Iss. 1 of ZotZine