MIAMI – Christina Spigner used to wonder whether her father wanted her to be a boy. The last of three girls, Spigner tried to fill the male void by being somewhat of a tomboy when growing up.
But her true calling turned out to be one of the most graceful activities to watch: ballet dancing. She has combined her athleticism with her love of dance to forge a way in a dance genre that began in the 15th century in Italy as entertainment for the elite.
An apprentice with the Miami City Ballet, Spigner, 19, will join the company in May.
Landing a job with the Miami City Ballet is no small feat for any dancer. For Spigner, the journey started with preschool dance classes, moved to exploring other genres such as jazz, modern and tap, to gymnastics, to leaving her hometown of Paradise Valley, Ariz., at 15, to becoming a ballet student at Miami City Ballet School four years ago.
But her dream nearly came to an abrupt end when she suffered what was deemed a career ending hip injury two years ago.
“After surgery, Christina couldn’t even walk; she was in a wheelchair,” said her mother, Geneva Spigner. “But she made it.”
Through physical therapy, dogged follow-up with doctors and sheer determination, Spigner overcame the odds. She missed out on training and lost her apprenticeship but, a year after surgery, she was back.
“When I look at Christina, I see what I look for in dancers: talent, a good work ethic, lovely stage presence and a desire to learn,” said Miami City Ballet Artist Director Lourdes Lopez. “Christina has all that so I noticed her.”
Isis Snow also noticed Spigner’s dazzling stage presence and technical excellence, first in The Nutcracker last year and again in Program III: The Masters on March 2 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts.
“I was pleasantly surprised to see her then and in this one, as well,” said Snow, 36, a Pompano Beach resident and liturgical and lyrical dance teacher. “I go quite often to the ballet. I love the arts and I had not seen a black ballerina before.”
Spigner is expected to perform in Program IV: Broadway and Ballet, which opens at West Palm Beach’s Kravis Center for the Performing Arts Center April 2-5 and the Broward Center April 26-28, concluding at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami May 5-7.
The final program of the Miami City Ballet’s 2012-2013 season, Program IV features Dances at a Gathering, a ballet that celebrates dance and dancers and George Balanchine’s Slaughter on Tenth Avenue which gives a nod to Broadway-style performances.
Spigner is among a select few who will start their 2014 season as a part of a professional company, especially one as renown as the Miami City Ballet. Her dance genre is so competitive that, of the 5,000 students who graduate ballet school yearly, only four or five make it into professional companies, according to Virginia Johnson, founding member and artistic director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem.
“I commend Lourdes Lopez for finding space for this young dancer,” said Johnson, who strongly believes dancers of color are ready to bring commitment and excellence to professional companies. She has 18 dancers in the Dance Theatre of Harlem training school founded by dancer extraordinaire Arthur Mitchell 44 years ago. The school closed in 2004 but reopened in 2012.
Professional companies want dancers of color, Johnson said, adding that it takes time and there are significant barriers to entry for any aspiring dancer, including not only time but also a big financial outlay. Those with observable talent and evidence of commitment may get scholarships from schools.
Spigner’s family paid for her first year at Miami City Ballet School which costs more than the schools near home, Master Ballet Academy and Ballet Arizona, both of which she attended.
The Spigners didn’t hesitate to allow their daughter to follow her dream. Still, attending Miami City Ballet School didn’t mean any guarantees for a career in ballet.
“It was a hard decision. I had fear of the unknown,” Spigner said. “I was taking a risk and putting myself out there and I definitely wanted to do ballet at a pre-professional ballet school. I was drawn to classical dance. I thought so highly of ballet dancers and how stunning they looked on stage and their refined movement but they still have passion, as well.”
Geneva Spigner, who temporarily relocated to Miami with her daughter, said she was so surprised that a teenager knew exactly what she wanted that she had to support her.
“She was giving up high school, prom, boyfriends, hanging out at the mall,” Geneva Spigner said. “I was so proud that she knew what she wanted so soon. She is such a blessed child because I couldn’t have done the same thing for any of my other children. Being the last child, the others were away at school, so I didn’t have to leave them behind.”
Besides the financial commitment to train to be a ballet dancer – Pointe shoes, for example, cost $80 to $100 and last as little as one week – family support like that shown to Spigner is also needed.
“The family needs to understand the student will spend most of her time in a studio and that being on a constant diet is a requirement,” said Karina Felix Fedele, publisher and editor of Dance Magazine Florida. “Coming from a Caribbean background myself, eating and family times are big deals. They love ‘feeding’ you and they don’t like ‘skin on bones.’ This could be very trying for a dancer.”
And positive role models and self-images are not so prevalent for black ballet dancers. Spigner said Misty Copeland is her inspiration but she is well aware that there are few people who look like her in ballet.
That may be changing.
“I get so many calls looking for black dancers; things are changing for the better,” Johnson said. “We lost a generation of dancers when we closed but soon there will be an outstanding pipeline of dancers. It takes a long time to develop a dancer to a professional level.”
Lopez said giving Spigner a slot had nothing to do with diversifying the corps de ballet or attracting new audience members. But broadening the audience pool, in general, and connecting with the community are short-term goals for her.
Lopez took over the company almost a year ago and since then Miami City Ballet has performed a flash mob at the Wynwood Art Wall and launched an elegant campaign with the Miami Heat’s LeBron James and Dwyane Wade and principal dancers Jeanette and Patricia Delgado. Lopez said more community outreach programs will be added in the coming months to the free performances for schools and “Open Barre: Behind the Curtain” events.
With the new season ahead as a member of the company, Spigner’s father Bruce Spigner is overjoyed at her success and has been practicing his applause skills. He got a chance to shout “Woohoo!” and keep stats when she won at gymnastics, a competitive sport. Now, at the ballet, his is the loudest clap and his very audible “Bravo!” can be heard when Christina graces the stage.