Invitation from Joffrey company is great opportunity for Muriel Smith

by: REVIEW, TIDINGS PHOTOS: VERN UYETAKE - Muriel Smith smiles when she thinks about her future as a ballet dancer. She succeeded against stiff competition to win a place at the Joffrey Ballets prestigious summer school.

One day three years ago, Donna Morris, choreographer for the Lakewood Center Theater and well-known dance teacher, received a call from somebody inquiring about taking dance lessons.

The conversation was routine until Morris asked the name of her prospective student. The answer: “Muriel Smith.”

“I said, ‘Oh my god, not THAT Muriel Smith!’” Morris said. “She said, ‘Yes, that’s me.’”

Morris and Smith had parted under frustrating circumstances in 2003. After studying under Morris for four years, the Lake Oswego girl showed immense promise as a ballet dancer, but she wanted to quit dancing, just be a kid and hang out with her friends.

Morris thought this was appalling, because the 12-year-old girl already cut a stunning figure as a dancer and had the qualities that Morris was always looking for in her best students.

“I pleaded with Muriel’s mother not to let her do it,” Morris said. “Muriel had a beautiful line, a great jump, her turns were good, she was just an all-around lovely dancer.”

She had also lost interest in ballet.

“Donna didn’t say it to me, but I know she was disappointed,” Smith said.

But three years ago Smith’s desire to dance ballet returned, stronger than ever. When Morris saw Smith again “she was gorgeous and 6-feet tall.” She had gained remarkable poise and knowledge of how to use her body from her two years as a professional model.

She was also “a noodle.” Smith no longer had the delicate yet powerful muscles of a ballerina.

“Muriel was not strong,” Morris said. “She was so loosey goosey. She knew how to do everything, only she couldn’t do it.”

Yet after only two months of working with Morris, Smith was able to get “en pointe” (the essential ability for a ballet dancer to get on the tips of her toes) and after three years of training she is ready for the first major step of her career. Smith, who just turned 23, has been accepted by the internationally famous Joffrey Ballet to dance at its summer school in San Francisco.

“I chose to return to ballet because I missed the sense of completion it gave my life,” Smith said. “When I dance I’m a happier person, I’m healthier, I sleep better. It gives my mind a chance to slow down. Ballet is one of the most beautiful things in the world, and to physically be able to create that beauty is a feeling I can’t describe.”

“What’s incredible is after being back for three years she has picked up everything she had and more,” Morris said. “When she returned I wasn’t shocked by her height because she was quite tall at 12 years of age. What struck me was her composure and beauty. When she stepped up to the barre for warm-ups I could see her dedication and happiness to be dancing again. That is what teachers love to see.”

Still, the Joffrey Ballet is ballet at its highest level, and Smith was a little hesitant when she was invited to try out for the summer-long training session. Morris was not.

“Donna said, ‘Go try and do your best.’ I did,” Smith said. “It was nerve wracking because there were so many passionate, driven dancers there. The judges walk around you with a clipboard and take notes. After two weeks you receive an email of acceptance or you don’t. I did.”

Since Smith is too modest to blow her own horn, Morris does it for her.

“The judges said they were very impressed with how hard Muriel had worked and how dedicated she was,” Morris said. “She had her pick of different schools to dance at this summer (including Denver, Los Angeles, Miami and Florence, Italy). She chose the coolest one.”

Smith had originally decided to study ballet because her doctor recommended it. (“I was so thin and tall. I grew very quickly.”) Of course, everyone in school noticed her height, especially at Lakeridge High School.

“The coaches were after me,” Smith said.

Still, Smith lived her life according to her own particular calendar, and she now wants to totally embrace a dancing career. She smiles at the prospect of dancing from morning to night every weekday this summer.

“I’m open to the dance world, whether it’s ballet or some other form of dance,” Smith said, “so I’m working as hard as I can.

“I returned to ballet because I wasn’t myself without it, and having been back three years now I don’t see myself stopping any time soon.”

Morris, who was a longtime professional dancer in New York City, noted that nothing is assured when it comes to a dancing career. But she greatly believes in her once prodigal pupil.

“The thing that is amazing is that Muriel has worked so hard at this,” Morris said. “I think she has the possibility of a professional career, and obviously the Joffrey people do, too. She is the type of person who will do it.”

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