Devoted to Dance

Isis Schwellenbach shares her love of ballet

Isis Schwellenbach. Photo courtesy of Marshall Baxter

For the seven young women in Portland Ballet’s CORPS Program, the commitment to dance has to be strong.

The dancers in the pre-professional program, designed to develop classically trained ballet dancers, take classes three hours a day every weekday after school, not including rehearsals, performances, daily stretching and—of course—homework.

“You basically give up your entire social life and any school activities, so you have to love it,” says Isis Schwellenbach, a 17-year-old from Westbrook. “But those girls are my best friends. We love each other like family.”

Schwellenbach has danced in “Swan Lake,” “Giselle,” “Firebird,” “Sleeping Beauty” and in six years of “Nutcracker” performances, cast as everything from an Arabian dancer to Rose Bud. She’s also attended intensive summer programs at the Bates Dance Festival in Lewiston, Point Rock University in Pittsburgh and Jose Mateo Ballet Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, all of which require auditions.

Isis Schwellenbach of Westbrook has been dancing since she was 5 years old. Photo courtesy of Marshall Baxter

Schwellenbach’s love for dance is something she shares with her mother, Jamie Schwellenbach, who teaches at Drouin Dance Center. That’s where she first put on tap and ballet shoes for a combo class at age 5. She added jazz, hip hop, lyrical, contemporary and modern to her repertoire, joined the competition team and, by the time she was 11, was assistant teaching. The following year, she committed to ballet, enrolling in Portland Ballet’s syllabus program. When she was 14, she was accepted into CORPS, a pre-professional program intended to develop classically trained ballet dancers.

Three years ago, Portland Ballet asked Schwellenbach’s mother, who has a master’s degree in dance movement therapy, if she’d lead a small class for children with disabilities. Schwellenbach has been assistant teaching the class since the beginning and sometimes gets friends from CORPS to pitch in as well.

“It’s ballet, but it’s also just fun dancing, letting them move their bodies,” Schwellenbach says. “At the end of class, they rarely want to leave.”

These young dancers typically struggle with autism, Down syndrome or neurocognitive disorders, and many are nonverbal. But dance has a language of its own.

“When it’s dance, they’re connecting with others because it’s fun,” Schwellenbach says. “We play ‘Frozen’ and all their favorite songs and have props, scarves and flowers. Most of them have their movements they go to naturally, and we incorporate that as well.”

Schwellenbach is a rising senior at Maine Girls Academy in Portland. After graduation, she plans to major in dance at the University of Hartford, Hartt School. This summer she’ll be taking classes at Portland Ballet and Drouin to keep in shape and working at Carter’s—just the idea of cute baby clothes makes her smile—to save money for college.

Amy Paradysz is a writer, editor and photographer who lives in Scarborough.

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