The studio is familiar. Thirteen years ago, 9-year-old Shelby Elsbree took her first dance class with Mary Elizabeth Mock in the powder-blue studio that then belonged to the Florida Ballet Arts Academy.
Back then, now-owner of the studio, Ariel Serrano, was a principal dancer with Sarasota Ballet under the direction of Robert de Warren. It’s in this same studio, which now houses the Sarasota Cuban Ballet, that a 22-year-old Elsbree, a professional dancer in Boston Ballet, marks the blocking and choreography of the rose adagio from “Sleeping Beauty” with de Warren and Serrano.
Elsbree will be performing the number for Sarasota International Dance Festival and Carreño Dance Festival’s Festival of the Stars Saturday, Aug. 17.
Elsbree’s mother, interior designer Cheryl Elsbree, sits in the corner of a room where she records video footage of her daughter practicing with Serrano to show, Scott Elsbree, Elsbree’s father. She wears a proud smile on her face.
Elsbree keeps humbly saying, “Thank you!” to Serrano, but Serrano says he’s the one who feels honored to have worked with her. It’s as if Elsbree still sees herself as the young dancer she was before pursuing a professional career.
De Warren remembers Elsbree as a 12-year-old who had just joined Sarasota Ballet School. ShirLee Wu trained her for the Youth America Grand Prix competition, and she placed in the top 20.
Soon after, de Warren cast her as Clara in “The Nutcracker.” Elsbree says she was star struck with the professional dancers and thankful that de Warren held her to the same standards. Elsbree was ready to leap (and pirouette) into the professional world, and she landed the opportunity to study at The School of American Ballet a year later in 2004.
Her peers had the usual teenage stress and pre-algebra exams; but 13-year-old Elsbree had the additional worries of leaving Sarasota, her parents and three siblings to move to New York City.
She was supposed to stay there for the summer, but the school invited her to stay the year, and Elsbree ended up staying for the next five. She gladly traded teenage angst and rebellion for strict discipline and professionalism; Elsbree lived with 64 dancers from around the world who were close to her age and shared the same discipline for their study.
“We had our goofy moments,” she says, “But (missing out) is something my siblings still give me a hard time about — I skipped over those periods of being a teenager,” she says.
The strict study put her in hot pursuit of a professional career, and she set her sights overseas. When it came time to audition at age 18, Elsbree and her mother toured five European companies in eight days.
Elsbree landed a position with The Danish Royal Ballet in 2009 and moved to Copenhagen, Denmark.
With this big move came her sister, Amanda’s idea that Elsbree get herself a hobby other than dance.
“She said I didn’t have a hobby or do anything fun and that Pilates didn’t count,” Elsbree says with a laugh.
Elsbree realized she was right, and decided to explore her interest of photography and food. Her blog, “The Offbeat Chronicles of a TuTu with Tea,” was the result. It’s filled with her travels from Turkey to London, the sights she’s seen and the food she’s made and devoured along the way, and, of course, it’s a backstage pass to the life of a professional dancer.
What started as hobby that kept her family and friends close while she was more than 7,000 miles away has led to anywhere from 150 to 800 views daily.
In March, Elsbree moved a little closer to home, or at least in the same time zone, when she joined Boston Ballet. Of course, this is all recorded in her blog.
“It’s been a dream come true,” she says. “It’s a total whirlwind … there’s been no time to feel like a new kid on the block.”
She’s still getting used to adjusting from a European dance style to the drastically different American style with longer hours and different work demands — and it keeps her inspired. Elsbree has danced principal and solo roles, giving her “a delicious taste of what she wants and sees for herself” — she hopes to become a principal dancer. But, for now, she’s taking her career one season at a time.
Elsbree’s new schedule allows her to spend some time in Sarasota. In addition to her guest appearance for Carreño Dance Festival, she’ll teach at Sarasota Ballet’s Summer Intensive. Her family couldn’t be more thrilled that she’s back.
She expects about 20 members of her family to fill the seats at the upcoming Festival of Stars performance. But, there’s something more than family that keeps Sarasota feeling like home.
“I’m so thankful that this city is open to me,“ she says. “They have warm, welcoming arms (for me) to come perform here, and I just hope they enjoy it as much as I do.”
FIVE THINGS THAT INSPIRE SHELBY ELSBREE
Faith — My faith in God is something that has given me strength and courage my entire life. (It has given me) comfort and reassurance in making life-changing decisions, like moving away from home, and conviction that I have what it takes to pursue my goals and to follow dreams that are too big to seek all by myself.
Family — My parents, brothers and sister have always been here for me, loving me stronger every day and supporting me in every effort I’ve made to succeed. It all would have been impossible without them.
Travel — I am the biggest believer in the advantages of travel, of stepping out of your comfort zones to see the world and seeking to know cultures, lifestyles and surroundings different from your own. Travel has allowed me to see, not only other countries with new eyes, but has renewed my appreciation for the country I’m from, as well. There is endless inspiration in travel.
Friendships — My friends motivate and inspire me on a daily basis. Balancing a healthy social life with a heavy work schedule is key to enjoying what you do. The ability for me to step away from the studio or the stage and truly separate myself at times is crucial to appreciating what I do when I’m in the thick of rehearsing or performing seasons.
Blogging — Becoming more and more a part of the “blogosphere” has served as a beautiful perspective-shifting experience for me. Developing a readership and a following of support and interest in what I do has helped me to savor every moment of the day, little or big. I love reading other blogs and becoming inspired by their dedication and various passions. There is so much to be said for sharing happiness, and Tutus and Tea has really helped me to appreciate that. At best, I can inspire others with what I do, and if nothing less, I have a little online journal of my daily joys.
IF YOU GO
Festival of the Stars
See Shelby Elsbree on stage with José Carreño, Julie Kent, Nathan Chanley and Jordan Elizabeth Long.
When: 5 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 17
Where: Sarasota Opera House, 61 N. Pineapple Ave.
Cost: Tickets $20 to $70
Info: Call 328-1300