Like most young ballerinas, Jacqueline Callahan loved The Nutcracker. “I did go to see The Nutcracker at the Pennsylvania Ballet,” Jackie said. “I think that that’s when I wanted to [start dancing].”
Now 23, Jackie has been dancing for two decades and went on to play every single children’s role, except for soldier, in the Pennsylvania Ballet’s (PAB) productions of The Nutcracker. At 10 years old, she even played Marie. “I loved performing, and I had performed in The Nutcracker before, but I loved being alone,” she says of her experience as the lead child dancer. “You start the ballet and it’s just Marie. I just felt that it was the coolest thing ever.”
PAB is housed in a sleek, modern building on Broad Street. Visible through the large front windows, mothers chat in the reception area as girls in ballet slippers run around giggling—the scene is noisy and kinetic.
By contrast, Jackie is calm and thoughtful. She moves with purpose and grace, even in an oversized black sweatshirt and feet halfway inside untied ballet slippers. But still, her eyes light up when she answers questions, her eyebrows quirk in fluid motions, and she cannot stop grinning.
While most students' days are filled with class, GSRs, and club meetings, Jackie spends full days rehearsing at the academy. She starts her day with ballet class at 9:30 a.m. and goes to rehearsal at 11 a.m. She gets a lunch break from 2 p.m.–3 p.m. and then has another rehearsal from 3 p.m.–6 p.m.
On Mondays and Tuesdays, she takes the SEPTA to go to her Penn classes from 6 p.m.–9 p.m. If she doesn’t have class, she’ll either go to physical therapy, pilates, or the gym for cardio or spin class.
During theater week (the week before the performance), rehearsals start at 11 a.m. and go until 10 p.m. This sometimes conflicts with Jackie’s classes, which can make balancing academics and ballet tough. However, people won’t perform on Monday, or “Dark Day,” which is why Jackie often schedules her LPS classes for the beginning of the week.
Growing up, Jackie initially went to public school, but switched to online school when ballet became “a lot more serious.” At age six, she started at The Rock School for Dance Education in downtown Philadelphia, where she spent ten years training. She first went en pointe at age nine, and started participating in ballet competitions at age ten.
Later, she auditioned for the summer program at the School of American Ballet (SAB) in New York City, but was then invited to stay for winter term. While at SAB, Jackie continued her academic education and graduated high school a year early. Since then, Jackie has been in college for five years, completing her first two at Fordham University. After her last year at SAB, she accepted an offer to dance with the Pennsylvania Ballet, where she “really wanted to be” because of the proximity to her family; Jackie grew up in Jenkintown, one of the suburbs of Philadelphia.
After getting the job at PAB, Jackie then applied to Penn’s College of Liberal and Professional Studies program and has been continuing her undergraduate education ever since.
Jackie, laughing, cites her parents as the reason why she continued with her education, but is thankful she did. She said, “So many people here don’t have a second plan, and your career is not that long. You end when you’re like 30, maybe.” So, Jackie is glad to “take advantage” of what the program has to offer.
She chose to study communications mostly because any LPS program can be “hard to finish,” but communications is “really broad” and Jackie can “sort of do anything” after retiring. Her path has changed along the way, and while she was initially interested in marketing, Jackie is now considering working in the non–profit sector one day. Right now, she is taking a class called “Leading Nonprofits” in the Fels Institute.
On the table, Jackie’s tortoise shell glasses, a mechanical pencil, and a tangled pair of Apple earphones sit atop a green textbook titled Comparing Media Systems, a menagerie familiar to any college student.
If everything goes according to plan, Jackie could graduate in the spring of 2020. Regardless of her path, she still carries her love of dance and wants to work with arts organizations “in any way.”
I follow Jackie backstage, where shoes, of course, get their own room. Jackie immediately heads towards one of the boxes on the right side in the middle of the shelf. “I have an entire box,” she says, “custom for my foot.” Pointing to her box: “All me.”
Later, we enter the women’s section. On the right wall, there’s a huge mirror below a row of light bulbs. The whole room is packed with long black lockers, and Jackie’s, #20, is bursting with costumes. On a hanger is the long skirt Jackie uses to practice her role as Rosaline in Romeo and Juliet. Scattered along the room, there are a plethora of tutus in a variety of colors.
The room seems too quiet, like it misses the energetic hum of a dozen girls nervously preparing before a performance. Previously, Jackie mentioned that working with the ballet was an “intimate experience,” as girls shared “close quarters.”
But during a show? "It's like insane," Jackie said. "Everyone's naked."
To Jackie, performances are the best part of her job. “As a kid, I loved the training aspect of it and just taking classes, but it’s totally different the way I love it now because now performing is just the absolute best.”
Jackie started out as a member of PAB’s second company, which is not technically a part of the of company or the union. After two years, Jackie was hired as an apprentice, officially joining the company in the 2016/2017 season. The following season, Jackie was hired as a Corps de Ballet, which requires “a lot of working together, which I really enjoy.” She added, “Everyone is coming together to make something so beautiful.”
Last year, Jackie was selected for her first principal role in a show called TILT by the choreographer, Helen Pickett, who then created routines based on Jackie’s dancing styles and abilities. She described working with Pickett as “intense.”
“I felt like it was a lot of pressure because it was my first. Everyone else that was doing a principal part had done many, and a lot of them were principals themselves...I was the only Corps,” she said. Still, Jackie liked the challenge and felt that Helen did a good job of keeping the choreography “true to us.”
The world premiere of TILT was last November. For the show, dancers were en pointe and danced in a contemporary style, which was “really different” for Jackie, who traditionally dances in a classical ballet style.
Following Jackie down the hallway, I peek into each of the dance studios. As we walk down the hallway, the dancers get progressively younger—it feels like watching their lives rewind. I look ahead at Jackie: like the young girls, she’s still energetic, and sees the world, and her future, full of possibility.