Picture this scenario: a beautiful, young, talented ballet dancer joins an ultra-elite company from its feeder school, and she is mesmerizing to observe. She starts at the lowest rank, like countless others before her, but it quickly becomes clear there’s something extraordinary about this dancer. Something luminous, eye-catching, that whispers “lead roles” and “put her in the limelight.” The big roles come for this dancer, almost immediately, and she excels. Critics take note. Accolades follow. As do bigger roles, increasing challenges, that this dancer rises to meet each time. Hers is a major talent, career potential without limits.
Until one season her body stops cooperating. A nameless fatigue dogs her. Sluggishness. Even—how could this be possible?—weight gain, in spite of all the punishing hours of rehearsals, performing, daily class she endures.
The talent is still there, in droves. So is the will to take this ballet career to the top.
Try harder. Work harder.
For those of you who’ve read my recently released novel, Outside the Limelight, you wouldn’t be off the mark to think I’m referring to Dena, one of the story’s two main characters. A rising-star soloist whose career is knocked off its access by a debilitating medical condition that sidelines her, Dena fights to regain her health, her energy, her sense of the dancer she’d once been. Only this isn’t Dena; it’s Kathryn Morgan, former soloist of the New York City Ballet.
Kathryn shared her story with me over the phone one day several weeks ago. “All of it happened after I’d been promoted to soloist,” she said. “In March of 2010, I started putting on weight for no reason, my hair started falling out and I was also absolutely exhausted all of the time. I thought I was tired because I was working so hard. But the weight didn’t make any sense.”
Her hair grew so thin she was afraid she was going to lose it, and she had trouble staying awake for class and rehearsals. And the weight gain continued. Finally a doctor’s visit and blood tests gave her answers. No, not mononucleosis, as she’d thought, but hypothyroidism. But even with diagnosis and medication, she didn’t return to her old self.
Severe hypothyroidism can be slow to remedy, because it involves slowly upping a medication dosage and then waiting six weeks to see if it was what the body needed. And until that dosage is correct, the body doesn’t respond. Weight stays on. Forty pounds on a small frame is a tremendous weight, both physically and psychologically. For a ballet dancer, the agony is tenfold. (Kathryn would later come to find that treatment was complicated by the fact that she had Hashimoto’s thyroiditis—inflammation of the thyroid gland—an autoimmune condition where immune cells mistakenly attack healthy thyroid tissue and the muscles.)
“It was a terrible time,” she told me. “I hung on for two years and finally left the New York City Ballet to go back home. There, it got even worse. When I was no longer dancing, the weight really came on, and my hair was falling out, too.”
Here’s another scenario: a sidelined soloist, facing longer recuperation time than she’d ever expected, feeling discouraged, depressed, fearful of how long she’d be kept away from her dance, finds a solution through a surprising avenue: social media. And what an avenue it is–a dozen ways to share ballet with the world, through words, photos, networking, videos. All those people out there, eager to learn about this cloistered place, this ivory tower, the professional ballet world. And here she was, a sidelined dancer, all the time in the world to share it with people.
Dena’s story, or Kathryn Morgan’s?
Trick question. It’s both.
Although with one key difference here. Dena’s challenge in Outside the Limelight included dealing with one-sided facial paralysis, an un-pretty condition. Katie Morgan—she invites her friends to call her Katie, and the moment you meet her she feels like your friend—is, on the other hand, still as beautiful as a model. She has the kind of creamy, unblemished complexion, movie star eyes and expressive brows that compel you to stare at her, mesmerized, as she speaks. But what makes her better than a model or actress is the difficult journey you know she’s taken to be where she is now. She’s honest about it all: the thyroid and health-related challenges; the slow recovery; the desire to finally return to where she’d been at the NYCB, only to find out there was no longer a place held for her. Her earlier dance years. The surprising challenges of being a soloist, a professional ballet dancer. You don’t magically arrive at the finish line and stay there, on a pink, buoyant cloud. It’s work. It’s a tremendous struggle, this dream career of being a professional ballet dancer.
No surprise, Katie’s a big hit with the social media public. How could you not adore someone who’s beautiful, caring, engaged, an ultra-elite ballerina from the highest echelons of ballerina-dom, who’s suffered like you have, who’s had to live with staggering setbacks and frustrations like you have, who is sharing these fantastic, amazing tidbits and secrets about ballet, that just lift you out of your own mundane world, and make you feel a part of hers, if only for the length of the video. All of this, free. All of this, she keeps giving and giving and producing.
She has 24,000 Instagram followers and 62,129 YouTube subscribers. There’s Twitter and Facebook. She’s an advice columnist for Dance Spirit. She visits Facebook groups and offers advice, support, sometimes just a friendly “hello.” She has fully regained her health and now also performs, teaches, and speaks around the country. (And this past year, she got engaged – congrats, Katie!) She’s been featured in Dance Magazine, Dance Spirit Magazine and Teen Vogue. New in 2016 is The Kathryn Morgan Show, a podcast and part of the Premier Dancers Network.
My personal favorite is her YouTube channel. There are scores of interesting YouTube episodes to watch; here are examples of the popularity of just a few of them:
- Thyroid Illness – 40,700 views
- Stretching and Flexibility Routine – 163,000 views
- Classic Ballet Barre – 65,800 views
- Turns/Pirouettes – 100,000 views
- Fouettés – 180,000 views
- Pointe Shoe Tips/Tricks – 164,000 views
- Diet for Dancers – 85,00 views
You can find tutorials for hair, stage makeup; daily ballet workouts; monthly Q&A from readers sending in their questions; what it’s like to be a professional. Her engagement story. A fun section called “hacks” – for ballet, for hair and makeup. Also a “favorites” section, where she shares her favorite gift, ballet and lifestyle items/ideas.
Here’s one that’s perfect for this time of the year, also known as Nutcracker season. It’s Arabian Dance, with the Mobile Ballet, when Katie was only fifteen years old, but clearly bound for great things. Warning: it’s so beautiful, it’ll make you cry.
I asked Katie how the idea of a YouTube channel first came about.
“There are vlogs out there [vlog = video blog] that cover lifestyle and wellness, but none of them incorporating ballet. And when I was young, looking for help or advice on ballet issues, I couldn’t find it. With my first pair of pointe shoes, there was no one to show me even how to tie the ribbons right. I like that I can be here for young dancers, that they can get answers here, and send me their questions. I love doing this. I love helping people.”
She’s currently dancing again in a freelance capacity. I asked her if she missed being part of a company. “Yes, sometimes,” she admitted. “But if I were to join a new company now, that would mean restrictions on what I can or can’t say via social media. It’s another reason you don’t see more ballet dancers doing this. When you’re under contract to a dance company, there are strict policies on what you can and can’t say, or share. It’s been really liberating for me, to create what I want and say what I want.”
As Kathryn Morgan, New York City Ballet soloist, she served an elite, localized crowd. But as Katie Morgan, ballet’s social media icon, her reach is enormous: an audience whose size and demographic diversity are staggering. Not thousands, then, but hundreds of thousands. Millions. Young women and old. Guys. Little girls. With fans and subscribers growing daily. Having followed her progress since my earliest days of writing ballet novels (circa 2008) and having addressed the issues of infirmity in the ballet world in Outside the Limelight, it both warms my heart and thrills me to see her succeed so brilliantly here. There exists no better example of rising from the ashes of an insurmountable challenge and pursuing what is artful, beautiful and important inside you, and extending it out to the world.
Thank you, Katie, for all that you do. You rock.
PS: the above was taking from “The Red Shoes,” a 2015 dance film based on the fairy tale, choreographed by Donald Garverick and performed at Kennedy Center in March 2016, for “An Evening With Kathryn Morgan.” Fortunately, for those of us who couldn’t be there, we can watch it on YouTube HERE. (Be sure and keep watching for the eerie way the shoes start to take control, around 4m20. Music is Franz Lizst’s “Dante Symphony”. All great stuff.)
PPS: check out my related guest post at fellow dance blogger Grier Cooper’s site, called “When Life Calls for a Plan B.” This one’s not just about Katie, but also about former NYCB dancers Zippora and Romy Karz. You can read it HERE.