Living out her dream (with photo gallery)
Malta teen Gabby Estep thriving at prestigious School of American Ballet
Fifteen-year-old Gabrielle Estep lives in a quiet Malta neighorhood with broad rolling lawns, country mailboxes and views of green hilltops.
But when the yellow school bus rumbles down her road, shuttling her friends to Shenendehowa High, it doesn’t stop at her house.
Gabby rides the New York City subway to school.
On Wednesday, Gabby started her second year at the School of American Ballet, the illustrious training ground for dancers of the New York City Ballet that was co-founded by George Balanchine. For high school, she attends Professional Children’s School, where stars of stage and screen — among them Milton Berle, Yo-Yo Ma, Macaulay Culkin and a flock of famous ballerinas, including Kyra Nichols, Wendy Whelan, Suzanne Farrell and Darci Kistler — were once students. Both schools are in the throbbing heart of Manhattan, the ballet school in Lincoln Center and PCS on West 60th Street.
While the charming, long-legged teenager misses her family and her dog, New York City is her kind of town.
“I like the shopping, the food, looking at the beautiful tall buildings. There’s always something to do,” she said. “Lincoln Center has a lawn on the roof; you can sit on top of it.”
Last year, Gabby lived in the dorms at SAB with more than 60 boys and girls, ages 14 to 18. This year, she’s in a fourth-floor Manhattan apartment with her roommate, Isabella, a 15-year-old dancer from Long Island.
Isabella’s mom, who works in Queens, is their official “dorm mom,” and every other week Gabby’s mom, Danielle Estep, goes down and stays for a week. Gabby’s dad, an insurance repair specialist who runs the couple’s home-based business, DJ Building & Consulting, and 12-year-old brother, Charlie, make weekend visits.
The only family member who doesn’t like visiting New York is Henri, a lovable Goldendoodle. “He’s not a city dog. He won’t go up stairs,” said Gabby’s mom. “He’s a nervous wreck because of the sounds of the city.”
This year, shuttling to the city is quite normal for the Estep family, but last September was a big turning point, as Gabby graduated from Gowana Middle School and stepped into her new life in Manhattan.
“We missed her. It’s a big thing to have your 14-year-old living away from home,” Danielle said.
For Gabby, her first days at SAB were a whirl of excitement.
“It actually hit me. Whoa! I’m really here,” she remembers.
During a recent interview in her Malta home, Gabby was calm and confident as she chatted about her double life as a teen who loves the Beatles, fashion, Fly92 and hanging out with friends, and the ballet student who dances six days a week and lives with the constant pressure of auditions and competition.
“Every year, you have to be re-accepted. You have to keep working hard,” Danielle said of the School of American Ballet, which admits students by audition only and plucks the best to become members of New York City Ballet.
Gabby goes to dance school from 10:30 to noon and again from 2:30 to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. On Saturday, there’s a two-hour partnering class, where her 11 classmates, all 15-year-old girls, are paired with male dancers.
Most of the SAB teachers are current and former NYCB dancers. Last year, retired principal dancer Darci Kistler was one of her teachers, and she will be instructing Gabby again this year.
“She’s really nice. She shows us how to do her variations and shows you how to do it and look good,” Gabby said.
In her first year at SAB, Gabby had eight ballet teachers, including Kistler, former principal NYCB dancer Jock Soto and Jonathan Stafford, a current principal.
SAB students go to NYCB performances for free and, in the spring, the students perform in the annual fundraising Winter Ball.
“A lot of famous people go to it,” Gabby said. “Al Roker, Paul McCartney and Natalie Portman.”
Not quite like Shen
“Regular school,” as Gabby calls it, is similar to Shenendehowa when it comes to subjects and homework, but the students at PCS, which was founded in 1914 for young people working on the New York stage, are quite different.
“There are dancers, actors, models, musicians, movie stars and athletes,” she said. “You can set up any schedule or even leave school and go on tour. It makes it easy for people who have busy lives.”
Among her current schoolmates are Nat and Alex Wolff from “The Naked Brothers Band,” a Nickelodeon TV series, and Nicola Peltz, who played Katara in “Avatar: The Last Air Bender.”
For Gabby, life on the stage kicked off at age 3 with lessons at Ginger’s Dance to Fit in Malta, where for five years she studied tap, jazz and classical ballet.
Gabby didn’t grow up in a dance family. Danielle was a cheerleader at Shaker High School, but as a girl never took dance lessons or went to the ballet. But even as a pre-schooler, Gabby was serious about dance.
‘She has the natural physique’
“She was the type of student who was interested and attentive to the teacher instead of other students. She was always smiling and happy. She lit up when she walked into dance class,” said Ginger Somogie Morris, artistic director of Ginger’s Dance to Fit and the Malta Ballet Company.
Morris, who has taught thousands of students over the past 25 years, said she knew right away that Gabby was gifted. “She had such natural ability, wonderful rhythm and timing, beautiful posture and pull-up.”
From ages 8 to 14, Gabby studied ballet and pointe in Saratoga Springs, at Ballet Regent School, at Saratoga Ballet Academy and at Saratoga City Ballet.
At Saratoga City Ballet, she danced the role of Clara in its “Nutcracker” at Skidmore College. She also has performed at The Egg and Palace Theatre with Capital Ballet Company and the Moscow Ballet. For three summers, she was one of the youngsters selected to appear with NYCB at SPAC.
“Gabby is extremely talented. She has the natural physique that is required of a professional ballet dancer,” said Julie Gedalecia, co-director of Saratoga City Ballet.
Saratoga City Ballet has had four or five students accepted at SAB’s summer program. “It’s extremely competitive. It’s not purely talent that makes a professional ballet dancer, it’s also an enormous amount of hard work,” said Gedalecia.
But this pupil’s success hasn’t gone to her head, she adds.
“Gabby is a very sweet and charming young lady, and she really hasn’t changed. She is so polite. That’s really refreshing. You don’t see that often.”
‘I was shaking’
Gabby’s dream come true, the School of American Ballet, happened two years ago after she auditioned and was accepted for their summer program. On her fourth day of class, she was shocked when she was invited to return for the school year. She was one of only four students who were asked, and she was awarded a full scholarship.
“I was shaking,” said Gabby, recalling how as she picked up her cell phone to call her mom she spied ballerina Wendy Whelan in the hallway.
“We’re very happy to have her training at SAB,” said Kay Mazzo, co-chairwoman of faculty at the SAB. “Gabrielle is a lovely young lady who has a very strong work ethic.”
Gabby’s two-page résumé lists more than 40 teachers, including classes at Chautauqua Institution and American Ballet Theater.
In the summer of 2009, she was the youngest student in a summer workshop with Suzanne Farrell in Washington, D.C., which culminated with a performance at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
While studying with Farrell, Gabby stayed in a hotel for three weeks with other dance students and cooked her own meals.
This summer, she studied at Saratoga Summer Dance Intensive, a four week-program run by former NYCB principal Melinda Roy, then returned to Manhattan for a two-week dance intensive at Ballet Academy East.
While such a schedule could appear dance-obsessed, Gabby refuses to become a “bunhead.” “They only talk about ballet,” she explained.
When she was in eighth grade, she created colorful hairbows and sold them to classmates at Saratoga City Ballet and on the Internet to raise awareness of climate change, a project that led to a story in Teen Vogue magazine.
“I was just fooling around with duct tape,” she said.
When she’s home in Malta, Danielle keeps her daughter’s schedule loose and her chores light, to give her a rest from her hectic dancer’s life.
“I don’t have much free time,” said Gabby, who on the day of her Gazette interview, had just baked some cookies.
The young woman is also quite modest about her dancer’s body — long limbs, long neck and long, size 8 feet, clad in stylish black patent leather flip-flops.
Gabby shrugs off a question about her physical attributes, admitting only to “a good arch” in her feet, and that she’s “5-foot-8.”
And the long brown hair that cascades halfway to her waist?
“I’ll never cut it,” she said.