Melissa Gerstein, co-founder of The MOMS, gave up dance when she realized she'd never be a star. But while helping her daughter navigate life as a ballerina, she's learned to let go of her heartbreak and dance again.

By Melissa Gerstein, as told to Maressa Brown
November 08, 2019
Courtesy of Melissa Gerstein

From the time my mom saw me attempting some kind of pirouette at about 5 or 6, I knew I wanted to be a professional ballerina. My first teacher's feedback: "Melissa needs a more serious class." From there, I began studying with Ludmila Dokoudovsky and Antoni Zalewski, who were part of a school called Alexandra School of Ballet, the top school for ballet in my hometown of St. Louis in the early '80s, which evolved into the St. Louis Ballet Company. I danced with them for many years, as well as in various summer programs.

But the one opportunity that would never fail to feed my soul was dancing in The Nutcracker. I danced as an angel, a party girl, and even Clara, the lead.

Ballet was my first love. It was everything to me. I even got a dance scholarship to college, which was fantastic. But by my early twenties, or maybe even in my late teens, I realized that I was not going to be a prima ballerina. I did not have perfect turnout. I did not have the perfect, beautifully arched feet that are required by so many dance companies. I was not going to be a principle dancer. I was not going to be a soloist. I have the worst singing voice, so Broadway musical theater was not an option either. So, I pivoted into media, and today, I own and operate a media company called The Moms Network.

Courtesy of Melissa Gerstein

But for years afterward, it was very hard to go to the ballet or to take a ballet class. It had been another life—one that I was heartbroken to walk away from, one that was painful to mourn. And so, I shut the door on it. Over the past several years, my now 10-year-old daughter Sydney Rose's ballet experience, training, and performances have allowed me to reconnect with my first love—and see how life can come full circle.

Sydney was about 2-and-a-half when I saw her dancing and jumping around the house. As a former dancer, I saw something in her. She had buoyancy. She was graceful. She started taking lessons at 3 or 4, and when she was 5 years old, she auditioned for the School of American Ballet, which is affiliated with the New York City Ballet, and she got in.

The first year, she was cast as a bunny in The Nutcracker, and as I watched her on stage, I experienced an emotion that I've never had before. I found myself laughing and crying at the same time. It was this uncontrollable emotion of pure joy. Hearing the music again brings back so many emotions, and I remembered myself as a child and that innocence. My memories and love of ballet was brought back to life, because of Sydney and the music, the choreography, everything about it.

Courtesy of Melissa Gerstein

To date, Sydney has danced in five New York City Ballet productions. The second year, she was an angel in The Nutcracker, and this year, she'll dance in the party scene, like I did. This past spring, she was cast as Little Red Riding Hood in Sleeping Beauty, and it was just mind-blowing.

Sydney's career has bolstered our mother-daughter bond in new ways. She wants to know everything. She always wants to know what my Nutcracker looked like, the choreography I used to dance. She always asks me to stretch her. She always asks me to watch her, to support her. She loves that I can do a great bun, and I'm good with hair because I had to do five million buns for myself when I was a kid.

As she gets older and more independent, I want to be very careful and make sure that she's able to embrace ballet as her own thing. I also want her to be able to manage both the highs and the lows. Last year, Sydney auditioned for a role and didn't get it. Her disappointment was intense; she can be emotional when things don't work out. I feel it, and I know it all too well after having had to walk away from my own ballet dreams. But I don't insulate her from disappointment altogether. It is a part of life. I'm actually happy that she has a taste of that, because I believe what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. 

Paul Kolnik

And I'm trying to teach her that, just like I did, you can always pivot. I'm trying to expose her to other types of dance, other types of performing, other stages. I'll say, "Let's go take a lyrical class or a jazz class." I want to expose her to musical theater. The ballet world is a very, very tough world to be in. There are so many dancers, limited roles, limited spots in companies. Even though ballet is her first passion—one I can certainly understand—and I encourage her to reach for the stars, I don't want her to get pigeonholed.

Sure, there's also the occasional drama behind the scenes. There are overprotective, overbearing stage parents, parents who don't know when to back down. But you're going to find competitive parents everywhere; they're in every city, in every activity, whether it's soccer, tennis, the chess team, or ballet. I deal with that aspect of this world by trying to stay in my own lane, focusing on the joy of guiding my daughter through this chapter of her life. I'm celebrating her, I'm supporting her, I'm listening, I'm there for her. I also remind her that every role is a gift, and every year at the School of American Ballet is a gift.

I revel in the magic of seeing my past connect with my daughter's present. Tchaikovsky's music was always with me, but now, to experience it all over again with Sydney feels like a "pinch me" moment, truly. I'll never forget her first opening night of The Nutcracker. When the curtain opened and I heard the overture, I must've squeezed my husband's hand so hard that he had to let go. He saw tears coming down my cheeks. To dance in The Nutcracker, and then to see your own child do it as well, but on a larger scale—at Lincoln Center with the New York City Ballet—is just indescribable.

Courtesy of Melissa Gerstein

Last year, I found myself back at the ballet barre. The pianist played, and I heard the teacher start with the plié combination. My legs were shaking, and I was about to cry when I told myself, "Okay, you cannot cry in ballet class." I just couldn't believe I was finally reconnecting with my first love. Now, whenever I can, I will drop Sydney off at her lesson on a Saturday, then race back uptown to take my own ballet class. To have this rebirth with her has felt like the greatest gift of my life.


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