Astoria Characters: The Undecided Dancer

Rachel Baird is used to taking things in steps. She is, after all, a dancer.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Rachel was born in Ottawa and grew up in Ontario, Canada.

But she’s at a crossroads, and it’s her heart, not her feet, that she’s counting on this time to lead her in the right direction.

Rachel, who is from a town too tiny to mention in Norfolk County in Ontario, Canada, has a career choice to make. And she doesn’t have much time to come to a decision.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Rachel’s rescue, Winnie the Purr.

She’s been living in New York City under an artist visa, and it’s time to renew. Doing so could cost her $5,000 to $6,000, which is quite a lot of money for a dancer whose feet make their living freelancing.

There’s a lot to keep her here – she has steady teaching and performing gigs, a live-in boyfriend she’s devoted to and a pair of 7-month-old rescue cats, Winnie the Purr and Newton, who think she’s the cat’s meow.

“I just got the cats,” she says. “I can’t leave them.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Rachel started dancing when she was 5.

Aside from a seven-month stint when a previous visa expired, she’s been away from home for eight years, and even though Toronto is only a 10-hour flight away, she misses her family.

“Nothing compares with New York, but I’ve never given a Canadian city a chance,” she says as Winnie the Purr and Newton cuddle up to her, creating a cozy family portrait.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
This is how dancing makes Rachel feel.

Rachel, a pixie with a baby-doll voice, a mile-wide smile and an abundance of long, curly hair the same ginger color as the kittens’, started dancing when she was 5. It was her own idea.

“My older sister was taking lessons, and I wanted to do everything she did,” she says.

Dancing swept Rachel off her feet.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
She joined the Joffrey at 17.

“I loved performing on stage,” Rachel says. “I felt like a different person because I was so shy as a kid that I didn’t talk to anyone the first few years of school. Dance was a fun outlet and helped me build confidence.”

So confident was Rachel that by the time she was 10 she was going to National Ballet of Canada summer programs, and by 14 she knew that dance was what she wanted to pursue.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Dancing swept Rachel off her feet.

In her 17th year, she moved to New York City to dance in the Joffrey Ballet School’s summer program. She performed so well that the company invited her to join its year-round program.

“I was living my dream,” she says. “I was dancing all day.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Rachel has to decide whether to renew her visa.

Six days a week, Rachel was on her feet from 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. She stayed up every night until 11 taking online courses to earn a high school degree.

“Just thinking about this schedule makes me tired,” she says.

Rachel stayed with the Joffrey for two years, becoming a member of its touring company.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Graceful, even dancing in a down jacket.

She thought she might go back to school to become a doctor – a university in Canada offered her a scholarship – but chose instead to join the Alonzo King LINES Ballet in San Francisco.

“This was my dream company,” she says. “My family was supportive of my decision to pursue my passion. They reminded me that school would always be there.”

During her two years there, Rachel mastered the art of contemporary ballet. She returned to New York City to join Pushing Progress Contemporary Dance, which sponsored her on an artist visa.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
She must choose: Canada or America.

“Contemporary ballet is my favorite form,” she says. “It combines the structure of classical ballet with the freedom of contemporary dance.”

When her three-year visa ended, Rachel returned to Canada until her one-year extension was granted. She spent most of that time teaching dance.

These days, she dances, choreographs and teaches. Through the nonprofit Dancin Power, she works with hospitalized children.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
She’s living her dream.

“Teaching kids in the hospital allows me to step out of the studio,” she says. “It’s refreshing and gives me perspective on my own problems. I love to see how the children are transformed by their moving bodies.”

Recently, Rachel has taken up acting, which she declares is her new passion. (She was a stand-in for Kristen Bell in the 2018 Netflix movie Like Father.)

That training has paid off: In March, she will play the role of Blanche in a dance/theatre production of A Streetcar Named Desire at a Tennessee Williams festival in New Orleans.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Rachel is studying acting.

Thinking about all the things she’s been fortunate enough to accomplish in such a short time only makes Rachel more confused about her future.

She’s knows, though that whatever path she chooses will lead her to the same place. It’s just a matter of deciding whether her feet are going to dance a direct route or a detour.

Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 22, 2019.

Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhing@gmail.com; @nancyruhling, nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com, astoriacharacters.com.

Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling