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Young Dancer Twirling Through Difficult Life with Amazing Grace

By Fred Dickey

Originally published November 12, 2012

You don’t have to know a pas de deux from a pirouette to recognize the grace of ballet, and you don’t have to know much about the art form itself to recognize the graceful spirit of a young dancer.

Jessica Kelley is a 17-year-old high school senior in love with dancing. She’s a petite girl with a pixie face and long auburn hair that flows down her back except when she’s dancing, and then she turns it into a tight double bun that I know I’ve seen on Dame Margot Fonteyn (maybe Jessica saw the same picture). She’s as slim as you would expect of an athlete — which she certainly is — who trains constantly. She doesn’t dance with power but with the fluidity that we call elegance.

As challenging as dancing is to Jessica, it is where she finds respite from the struggles of coping on her mother’s disability check. That meager amount is a thin gruel on which to nourish a life in expensive San Diego.

She doesn’t have a computer, an iPhone, a car, expensive clothes or even a father. However, she does have a steely will not apparent behind a gentle personality.

Apart from a goal intensity obviously higher than most teens, she’s a regular girl. I ask if she has a boyfriend, and she says no. I ask if she’d like one, and Jessica says she’s open to it, but adds, “I’m pretty picky.”

Jessica is a senior at the San Diego School for Creative and Performing Arts, which exists to educate youths with talent or potential. She carries an A- average in the demanding subjects that try the souls of high schoolers. However, her passion is reserved for dancing of all kinds, but most especially ballet.

“I started in kindergarten with tap dancing. In grammar school, my teachers, like, told me you have to do ballet to become a good dancer. Actually, I took their advice and fell in love with it.”

Nancy Jordan, a retired faculty member at the prestigious Juilliard School and one of Jessica’s mentors, says: “She’s a young dancer in training, not fully developed yet. Ballet is her forte. She has definite potential for a professional (ballet) company … she’s a sweet, lovely person who does everything she should to become better.”

Jessica is on the verge of achieving a long-held goal, having been chosen to dance the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in “The Nutcracker” for the San Diego Civic Youth Ballet. It’s the lead dancing role, and Jessica’s eyes light up in describing it. “It’s, like, everyone’s dream role, you know.”

“The Nutcracker” is the annual December production that tends to draw big crowds wherever it’s staged; in terms of popular interest, it’s sort of a playoff game for ballet.”

Jessica’s only concern for the show is a leg injury that would be a nuisance to you or me, but for a high-impact dancer, it has to be watched. She took a couple of months off, then returned to dancing recently with only minor discomfort.

Her practice commitment would make a team of football players grateful they’re not dancers. At a minimum, she’s in dance class or practice 20 hours per week. If rehearsing for a show, the hours climb.

Danika Pramik-Holdaway, artistic director of the youth ballet, says: “I’ve taught Jessica for five years. She’s wonderfully talented and works incredibly hard. She definitely has potential for a professional career.”


Jessica and her mother live in a small apartment in San Diego’s Normal Heights neighborhood. They don’t have Internet or cable TV. The channels they get are courtesy of “rabbit ears” from ancient history that have to be twisted to search for good reception.

Jessica’s mother, Kat (Katherine), was a research fellow on the path to a Ph.D. when she fell victim to an autoimmune disease with symptoms somewhat like lupus. I noticed that when Jessica preceded her mother down a flight of stairs and Kat faltered, Jessica almost instinctively reached back to steady her. It was a glimpse of their bond.

“We’ll get in a huge fight and go in our rooms really angry with each other,” Jessica says, “and 10 minutes later we’ll make each other dinner and be happy like nothing happened.” (A mother and teenage daughter bickering? Can you imagine that!)

They talk frankly about the inevitable parting of the ways that all mothers know and dread as the empty-nest syndrome. It’s something that’s on both their minds, and Jessica says, “We tear up thinking about it.”

Jessica’s father apparently thought that his job ended with a sperm donation. Kat says when she became pregnant, “He just shut down. I couldn’t believe it. It broke my heart.”

Jessica has never spoken to her father, has never seen him and barely knows his name. She says, with a nervous laugh, that “I can’t imagine life with a dad. I don’t know, actually. My life seems completely normal. It never bugs me.”

As gently as I can, I say: “Jessica, I was raised without my absent father, and no one cannot care about that — not be hurt by that.”

She stares at me for a moment, then her face crinkles and tears flow down her cheeks. She brushes them away and lowers her eyes. “I never talk about it. Honestly, I don’t let it bother me. But, there’s someone out there who doesn’t know me, but may care about me. …”

Jessica has a medical issue that bothers her but seems to lack resolution. She has pressure on her teeth caused by a jaw problem that can be painful. Thus far, Denti-Cal has not approved treatment for it.

Jessica’s dream is to get a full-ride scholarship to an arts college with a strong dance program. Such a scholarship is not just an attractive option to her, but a necessity. It’s that or community college, which she would do without grumbling. If dancing doesn’t work out, she would aim for a career in psychology, especially in movement therapy.

She has a fond hope of attending the elite, but expensive, Idyllwild Arts Academy for a year between high school and college so she could get intensive, professional dance instruction. Again, she’s at the mercy of obtaining a full scholarship.

Jessica’s mother somberly recites the problems of a life on disability. “This year is the first time we felt we didn’t have enough. Jessie gets enough to eat, for sure, but I don’t always. I can’t drive a lot of places because there’s no money for gas. Her point [dancing] shoes are $70 to $80 a pair. They don’t offer discounts on those. She’s had to borrow them, and they don’t fit well.”

Sure, Jessica sees the kids with the new cars, the designer clothes, the wallet or purse that seems always open and always full. Don’t you think she’d like to go to Macy’s with one of daddy’s credit cards? Because she handles all this well doesn’t mean she handles it effortlessly.

Jessica and her mother are in deprivation for reasons not of their doing. But this teenager is determined to control what she makes of it. Instead of resentment, she has chosen to sort out what is important, and she has observed that what many people want is not always what they need.

As the curve of her life takes her onto new ground, Jessica will see her challenges change — grow more complex in some ways and simpler in others. But she’s got a good start that comes from solid values, worthwhile dreams, and an eye firmly fixed on the beauty of her art.

If you don’t pull for this kid to make it, then you wouldn’t be happy for Cinderella.

Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at

© Copyright 2012 The San Diego Union-Tribune, LLC. An MLIM LLC Company. All rights reserved.

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