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UCLA student poised in pursuit of ballet, education

September 18, 2015

A mother and her baby stood watching ballet dancers practice behind the closed curtains of a Seattle opera house.

The mother, Lauri-Michelle Houk, was still on leave from her career as a company ballet dancer to take care of her 8-month-old baby, Madeline. Their eyes were trained on Lauri-Michelle’s husband Ben, also a dancer with the company.

As Houk set her child down to let her crawl around backstage, the baby took her first wobbly steps toward her father.

“(Madeline) wanted to perform too,” Houk said. “Even back then, ballet was her world.”

After years of barre routines and wearing out countless pairs of pointe shoes, Madeline Houk, a fourth-year communication studies student, now dances professionally with the Los Angeles Ballet. Houk balances full-time dancing with her studies at UCLA, juggling lectures with rehearsals and midterms with shows.

When Lauri-Michelle and her husband Ben danced professionally, she said they had neither the time nor the resources to drive their children to different activities. Their five children thus grew up in the dance studio, absorbing the fundamentals of ballet technique by watching the dancers practice.

To Madeline Houk, the oldest of the five, attending ballet lessons and school classes was equally important. Even though her parents danced for a living, Houk said they never forced her to follow the same path.

“(My parents) aren’t like those weird stage moms you hear about – they’ve always supported what I want to do,” Houk said. “I definitely chose this profession for myself.”

During her senior year of high school, Houk contemplated pursuing ballet professionally or continuing on with academics. Though she weighed the pros and cons of both paths carefully, she said she still couldn’t make the choice.

However, Houk received an apprenticeship with the Los Angeles Ballet the same year she was accepted by UCLA. She said the lucky coincidence gave her a way to dance professionally while also going to school nearby.

To fit school and about 35 hours of rehearsals into one week, Houk said she typically prefers to enroll in 8 a.m. classes. For six consecutive days before shows, she said she drives to theaters around Los Angeles County in areas such as Northridge, Glendale and Long Beach so the company can optimize its use of space and acclimate to the different stages.

“Sometimes we even go to Royce Hall, which is my favorite place,” Houk said. “I can just walk there from my apartment.”

The Los Angeles Ballet’s dancers are hired on a seasonal basis, Houk said. Each dancer is given a 30-week contract that begins in September and expires in June, resulting in every dancer being laid off during the summer.

Houk said most of the dancers work hard to support themselves with part-time or second jobs during the summer. However, she is grateful for the time off during the summer to catch up on schoolwork.

John Kochian, a lecturer in the communication studies department and one of Houk’s past teachers, said he never would have found out about her love of ballet had she not mentioned it in a class speech about hobbies and interests. Only after he inquired further did he realize she danced professionally.

Because of her positive outlook, Kochian said Houk can serve as a role model to struggling students looking to manage school and work.

“I asked how long she’s studied, how much she practices, if she can stand on her toes, if she can assume the second position,” Kochian said. “She just didn’t bring attention to what she does, which was very humbling.”

Christina Sturgeon, a third-year communication studies student and Houk’s friend, said Houk’s strong work ethic extends beyond the classroom to the stage.

When she attends Houk’s shows to provide moral support, Sturgeon said she sees Houk backstage working on her homework while other dancers help each other with costumes, hair and makeup.

Houk said she isn’t ready to choose between academics and ballet after graduating from UCLA. However, when she eventually retires from dancing, she would like to use her degree to work in public relations for ballet companies or arts organizations.

“When I’m ready to stop dancing later in life, which I’m not sure when that’ll be, I’m going to have my UCLA degree,” Houk said. “But I’ll keep dancing for as long as I can not because of the salary, but because I love it.”

Daily Bruin

by Shreya Aiyar

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