Dance of Determination
Chasing a Dream to the NYC Ballet
Former Wilton High School grad Mary Liz Sell is now a dancer with the New York City Ballet.
Photo by Kate Taylor / Quince and Mulberry Studios
Carol Sell adores ballet. Her husband Rick prefers soccer. So when their daughter Mary Liz turned five, the couple encouraged her to try both. For the next three years, the youngster twirled her way through dance classes, and chased soccer balls with friends. When she started showing up for games in pink tights, her parents realized she was trying to tell them something. “Ballet was harder for me than soccer, and I liked that,” Mary Liz recalls. “It allowed me to see the progress I was making.” That simple insight launched the Sells on an odyssey into the intensely competitive world of professional ballet.
By age ten, Mary Liz was attending Manhattan’s prestigious School of American Ballet. Following an academic day in Wilton, the young dancer was headed into New York City for classes at SAB, doing her homework in the car. When not in Manhattan, she attended a ballet school closer to home.
Mary Liz’s mentor and long-time instructor Linda Freyer recognized her protégée’s zeal and determination early on. “Even as a little girl, Mary Liz had an enormous passion for dancing,” says the Freyer Academy of Ballet founder. “Nothing was going to stand in her way—not school, not friends, not the prom.”
Advancing the young dancer’s ambition was a full-family commitment. “I would watch Mary Liz’s youngest brother after school, while Carol drove her to the city for ballet classes day after day,” Freyer says. “Rick worked, took care of their two older sons, and helped with dinner and the household.” It was the unwavering support of Mary Liz’s family and Freyer that fanned the spark ignited by her mother years earlier.
The Sells kept up their rigorous schedule through Mary Liz’s sophomore year of high school. Recognizing the need to immerse herself fully in ballet if she hoped to make a profession of it, the dancer collaborated with Wilton High School administrators to develop an academically acceptable correspondence curriculum that would allow her to earn her diploma.
By autumn, the 16 year old was living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with Feyer’s daughter, Heidi, at the time a student in the Ailey/Fordham University BFA program. “Heidi was like my mom,” Mary Liz says. “I’d go to an open class at Steps on Broadway in the morning, take classes at SAB in the afternoon, then return to the apartment and do my schoolwork. I had to teach myself, and Heidi would help.”
That dedication paid off when Mary Liz was selected to join the internationally renowned New York City Ballet. Dancers begin in the Corps de Ballet and advance either to senior corps members, the position Mary Liz now holds, soloists, or principals. “I don’t necessarily aspire to be a principal dancer,” she says. “Principals typically dance one ballet a night, whereas the corps dances two or three.”
The training is incredibly rigorous, especially during performance season when, in addition to conditioning, Mary Liz dances ten hours a day. Not surprisingly, she’s sustained her share of injuries. Four years into dancing with the NYCB, she began experiencing severe pain in her ankle. “I have this crazy pain tolerance, which isn’t good, because the injury inevitably gets worse. I kept ignoring it, then my other ankle started hurting so much that I forgot about the pain from my first injury.” When the curtain came down on the last performance of the season, she was in the doctor’s office, scheduling surgery.
Despite the sacrifice and commitment required, professional ballet confers an ineffable and transient magic all its own. “Sometimes what you release is very powerful to the audience—and then it’s gone,” Mary Liz explains. “That’s what I love about live performance: You create this work of art at this moment in time, and this particular audience is the only one that will ever see it. The next night, we will dance the same ballet, but it’s always different.”
While performing in Paris this past summer, Mary Liz celebrated her 30th birthday, which means she’ll likely “expire” in five years. Retirement age comes earlier for corps members because they dance so much more than soloists and principals. While the latter may perform into their late 40s, corps dancers typically retire between the ages of 28 and 36.
What’s next for the woman who’s devoted her life to ballet? “I have so many things I want to do. I love writing and will probably write fiction that’s influenced by my experiences. It’s a magical little world, ballet. It allows for so many interesting stories.” Not the least of which is this ballerina’s own.