Walking down the sidewalk, Isaac Sanders looks just like any other teenager from North Idaho. Until the moment he leaps into the air and does a Gene Kelly heel-click, then returns to earth with a solid toe turn. That’s when you realize that Isaac is the dancing equivalent to a McDonald’s High School All-American basketball star. Sanders dances, and he dances ballet, good enough to have recently attended one of the top competitions in the world.
Isaac is part of a group of “ballerinos” – male ballet dancers – who are often shuttled into the same category of obscurity as offensive linemen in football – integral but unheralded.
“Ballet would not be complete without us,” Isaac said. “Our job is to make the girls look good.”
Isaac has been dancing since the age of 8, and began training in ballet at the age of 11 at the Brindusa-Moore Ballet Academy in Pocatello, Idaho. His mother, Emily Sanders, says that it was a real test of faith and prayer when they were told by his teachers that Isaac had the potential to be an accomplished dancer.
“We needed to know if this was a gift that Heavenly Father really wanted him to focus on, or if it was more just an after-school activity,” Emily said. “Money and all the traveling were concerns, but even more we needed to know we would not be putting him in an environment that would hurt him or his testimony.”
After many heartfelt prayers, the Sanders family got confirmation that this was a talent that needed to be developed.
It did not get any easier when the family moved to Rathdrum, Idaho and realized that Isaac would need to continue to live in Pocatello to continue training. Luckily, some families from their home ward, Lakeland First, offered to host Isaac in their homes.
“When I watch him dance, I feel so proud and happy,” Emily said. “But when I think of him as my son, I still feel a little robbed, because I had to let him go so early. It’s a different path than we ever thought we’d take and it’s wonderful, but also terribly difficult. But we know it’s the right choice.”
Being a ballerino is not always easy, but it has to look effortless. Beyond the constant stigma of dancing in a genre where the emphasis is on female dancers , their physical training is rigorous. They must be extremely strong, without looking too bulky. They must lift ballerinas without grimacing, all while dancing.
Being on stage is not a problem for Isaac, who feels most comfortable as a solo dancer. His background in many productions led to qualifying for The Young American Grand Prix, the world’s largest student ballet scholarship competition and considered by some to be the Olympics of the ballet world. Isaac placed third in the San Francisco semi-finals, and then went on to attend the finals in New York, which consisted of an intensive week-long schedule of competition and master classes.
It was a great honor for Isaac to dance, but he equally appreciated the chance to learn from other dancers and top instructors. After the Grand Prix, he attended a world ballet competition in Orlando, Fla. where he was awarded two scholarships.
Still, Isaac admits this life – and all the time away from home it entails – can be trying.
“Living away from home is the hardest part,” he said. “My family has done an awful lot. I mean, they all came down to see me in a recital recently, which meant an eight-hour drive with four kids and a newborn baby. Both my parents have been great, and even though my dad still doesn’t know a huge amount about ballet, he’s always been completely supportive. He’s always telling me how amazing it is, and how he would never have the strength to do it.”
Emily also can see that Isaac has grown through the process.
“When he comes home and I watch him thoroughly enjoying time with his sisters and brother, I see the blessings,” she said. “Unlike other teenagers who are giving their parents trouble, Isaac knows what he wants to do and how he’s going to accomplish it, and that gives him a direction and focus.”
This focus requires huge amounts of time. Isaac puts in three to four hours of training every day except Sunday, and even more when there is a performance in the near future. The physical efforts are demanding, but no more so than the mental training.
On stage, Isaac must learn not only the intricacies of dance, but also of acting and working with other dancers as a team. Off stage, Isaac also faces misconceptions about his art. Those who are educated, understand that dancing requires the same level of commitment, practice and athletic ability as any sport – maybe more. The same was said by former pro football players like Herschel Walker, Willie Gault and Lynn Swann who all utilized ballet as a way to train for the rigors of the NFL.
“Some of the best male dancers have a vertical jump nearly six feet high,” Isaac said. “That takes a lot of athletic ability. Ballet is a good foundation for anything, even other forms of dance. It makes you pay attention. You have to be smart and concentrate all the time.”
This summer Isaac attended a six-week Bolshoi Ballet intensive class for which he received a full scholarship. When he is not dancing, he works part-time landscaping, plays video games, holds his new baby brother and serves in his Teachers Quorum. He plans to serve a full-time LDS mission and feels that his experiences with ballet will only make him a better missionary.
“Being away from home, I’m already learning a lot of things that will help on my mission,” he said. “I’m learning how other families live and work, and how to take care of myself. And even after my mission, I’ll be traveling all over the world, meeting lots of different people. Missionary work is really all about being an example, so I try to show other dancers what it’s like to be a member of the Church.”
As he continues working diligently to become the best dancer he can be, Isaac says he is enthused about what the future holds. As he leaps forward, there is also the confidence that family and faith will keep his feet firmly grounded on a sure foundation.