A Road Less Traveled

W. Earle Smith has spent a lifetime on a path toward the most rewarding part of his career: as artistic director of the Madison Ballet.

As a kid growing up in Kailua, Hawaii, there was one constant in our family — and that was dinner. My mom was adamant about the family sitting down together at the table for supper every night. For me and my two sisters, this was clearly a nuisance since we spent every waking moment on the beach — sailing, body surfing, snorkeling, or just catching rays. But of course, like every family, mom’s rules were law.

To make matters worse for us, my mom would read a piece of literature before every dinner. I remember her saying, “It’s just like eating your peas.You may not like it today, but eventually you will grow to love it.” So, as we suffered through our veggies, we endured the dinner readings. With broccoli, it was “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge; mushrooms usually brought on William Blake’s “The Tiger”; and asparagus was accompanied with the three witches from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. My sisters and I can, to this day, still recite parts of it, ending with the famous line “Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and caldron bubble.”

One of the poems that stuck with me all through my childhood and even into my adulthood was Robert Frost’s “A Road Not Taken”. Little did I know, my life’s journey would be, as Robert Frost said, “the one less traveled by.” And my road has been filled with many turns and bends, ultimately leading me to where I am today.

My childhood was a reflection of my parents. My dad was a career military officer who excelled in sports. He played baseball, golf, and football while at the United States Naval Academy. My path was littered with stints playing football, boxing, and swimming. On the other side, my mom was an English teacher with a passion for art, music, and opera. So I dabbled in theater, opera lessons, and choir, and played an array of musical instruments. In the end, it seemed I was a “jack of all trades and the master of none.”

Ballet Lessons

At some point, I was encouraged to take ballet by my best friend because I was having knee problems from growing too fast. I had never taken a dance class and was weary of it because my concept of dance was the typical male rocking back and forth, step-touch step-touch version. I thought ballet was for sissies — so I opted for modern and jazz dance.

Both my jazz and modern teachers recognized a talent for movement and a physical aptness for technique, so they continued to encourage me to supplement my dance training with a ballet class to help build a strong foundation of technique. After months of protest and procrastination, I finally relented and took my first ballet class. I remember distinctly the love I immediately felt for this form of dance. The discipline of the technique and the beauty of the lines drew me in like nothing I had tried in sports or the performing arts. To the dismay and disappointment of my jazz and modern teachers, I quit everything to focus on ballet. Sissy or not, I was determined to be a ballet dancer.

Dancing Across the Globe

My life as a professional ballet dancer spanned 17 years and took me all over the United States and to some amazing countries around the world. I am fortunate to have danced on some of the most prestigious stages in the world, including the City Center in New York, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and The National Theater in Taipei, Taiwan. As a neo-classically trained ballet dancer, I performed a vast number of works by George Balanchine, one the greatest choreographers of the 20th century. It was an honor to be a part of these important works of art.

A typical ballet season runs from September to June, so in the summer during the off-season, I supplemented my income and need to perform by doing summer-stock theater, modeling and when times were especially tough, odds-and-end jobs like waiting tables, bartending, and even birthday sing-o-grams. But there was always the nagging awareness in the back of head that the average retirement age of a ballet dancer is 27 years old. Like any typical young performing artist, I thought I would be the exception to the rule and that my career would never end. However, my parents convinced me to prepare myself for the inevitable, so I pursued my degree in accounting. Why accounting? I had no idea what I would want to pursue after my career as a dancer, and accounting was the first degree listed in the course catalog.

Choreography

I began choreographing and found it was a new and exciting way for me to express and challenge myself artistically as I got older. I started in my mid-twenties and, in short, was really a neo-classical Balanchine copy cat. Looking back on the work I created, my artistic voice was shallow and limited, but I feel it was a necessary evolution for me. Choreographing allowed me to bring all my skills together in a unique and provocative way. I had long lost the notion that ballet was for sissies, as my body was feeling the rigors of ballet more often than not. I would later undergo a hip replacement, suffer with three compressed disks in my neck and three in my lower back and, to cap it off, a surgery to reattach my Achilles tendon. The sum of these severely limited my abilities in rehearsals and teaching class.

Retirement from Ballet

The inevitable was creeping closer and closer. My decision to retire occurred in New York City, where I had been living. I decided to end my career doing guest performances around the country. As I committed less and less to those guest roles, I dipped my toes into the corporate world. I began as an accounts payable manager and quickly worked my way up to director of special projects for a $23 million organization.

The day I officially retired was as vivid as my first ballet class. I was making a guest appearance in Slidell, Louisiana for a production of The Nutcracker. After the approximately six-minute pas de deux, lifting and partnering the Sugar Plum Fairy, I began my variation. My ego was at its height and I had loaded my section with various male bravura ticks — turns and jumps. When I walked off stage after the variation, I could barely catch my breath. In the wing, hunched over, gasping for air, and waiting for my next entrance after my partner danced, I noticed that the sweat had completely soaked through my tunic and was visibly noticeable on the outside. My desire to perform had evolved into “How will I survive this!?” It was at that moment at 35 years old I decided to hang up my tights and ballet shoes. It had seemed that the scale had tipped and the physical realities of ballet hit me square between the eyes. I’d had a wonderful career as a dancer and had danced incredible works of art. I never looked back and never regretted the decision. And neither has my body.

Big Business

My teaching and choreographing took a back seat as I dove headfirst into the business world. The biggest attraction was the money. I was making more money than I had ever known and the days of scraping by and juggling which bills to pay were gone. My new life was challenging me in ways I had not known as a dancer, teacher, or choreographer.

Youth Volunteer

To feed my passion for working with young people, I started volunteering as a youth counselor for The Neutral Zone, an LGBTQ drop-in center for young people ages 13 to 21. As a trained counselor, I had three young males with whom I met with weekly as their mentor to discuss anything they wished. With the 15-year-old Amish kid from Kansas who ran away to New York because he was gay, the goal was to get him off the street as a beggar and send him home on his own volition. With Paul, a 17-year-old Jamaican from Queens, a psychologist and I tried to get him to find a relative or friend he could move in with because his father was physically and verbally abusing him because he was gay. And with Andrew, a young man who had turned to prostitution, I was trying to get him to find another means of supporting himself. With the kids at The Neutral Zone, there were some successes and, unfortunately, a lot of sad endings. The work was emotionally difficult for me and I still wonder what happened to some of them. It was hard to watch these vibrant young people dealing with such tragedy and loss as a result of their sexual orientation.

My typical day in New York City started at the gym at five in the morning. I was at work by six-thirty and leaving around seven in the evening. After work, I would make my way uptown from the Tribeca area, volunteering at The Neutral Zone or stopping in Chelsea for drinks with friends. Then it was dinner with another set of friends in midtown’s Hell’s Kitchen and then a stop at a gay bar called Waterworks for a game of pool and late-night cocktails with yet another set of friends. I would end up in bed around one or two in the morning and start the day over three or four hours later. On Sunday, I would sleep fourteen to sixteen hours, only getting up to answer the door for the Chinese food or the pizza delivery man.

Welcome to Madison

I soon realized I could not keep going at this speed, and it occurred to me that I did not need to be in New York to work in finance. I contemplated a move back to Texas, where I spent most of my dancing career. Instead, I opted to move closer to some of my family — to Madison. I had not lived in the same state as my family for 22 years and it was time slow it down. I began to carve out a new life in the business world with my mom and sisters close by. It was clear that Madison was the place for me. Not as big and bustling as the other cities I had lived in, but still an interesting mix of people with beautiful views. Madison offered a big-city feel with a small-town personality.

I had started working at Group Health Cooperative as a financial and business analyst when I was asked to consult on finding a new artistic director for the ballet company in Madison. I was occasionally teaching ballet around Madison but had no intention of getting back into the performing arts in any capacity. Long story short: a one-year interim position as artistic director led to a full-time job in the performing arts. My detour into the business world was short-lived but proved an important step for my work ahead.

Madison Ballet

It did not take me very long to see that the most rewarding part of my career has been as artistic director of Madison Ballet. I am about to start my 14th season with the organization and realize my career as a dancer, teacher, choreographer, volunteer counselor, and business executive has lead me to this very spot. My prior journeys have prepared me for the role that I love and cherish; the ability to inspire audiences with my choreography and ignite passion in young students through my teaching has become a part of who I am today. Money is no longer an important factor for me. My rewards are many: working with students and passing on my knowledge as an artist to eager young dancers; rehearsing professional dancers in their quest for artistic excellence; and developing programs that make the beauty of dance affordable and accessible. I walk into work every day knowing that I am a part of a vibrant community that I love and that my work is food for the soul.

In the end, there are no riches and little fame. And I do not wish for people to shower me with accolades as a famous choreographer or a great teacher. I only hope that people will say, “He was a good man.” The older I get, I realize, the less I know. I believe my journey further down the road will be filled with wonderment and excitement. The past has taught me to keep my eyes open to new possibilities and my heart filled with passion and love. The roads I have traveled have prepared me to be open to what lies ahead. As poet Robert Frost said best, “And that has made all the difference.”