Dancing Through Life: Leila Erbay Shares Experiences from Her Gap Year

Many little girls aspire to be a ballerina at least for one point in their lives, and for Leila Erbay, she lived these girls’ fantasies from a young age. Erbay, who is a U1 Computer Science and Economics major from Boston, spent her gap year as a trainee in the Pittsburgh Ballet Company.

Many disciplines require years of training, and ballet is no exception. According to Erbay, her parents enrolled her in dance classes at age three at the Boston Ballet School because she had a lot of energy. During her time at Boston Latin School, a high school in Boston, Erbay remained intensely dedicated to her craft, attending dance classes three hours each school night and practicing around nine hours each night. Despite the hardships she faced in her ballet career, Erbay’s love for ballet never wavered.

“I was continuously overlooked for roles while my peers who did not seem as dedicated were given the parts,” Erbay said. “That kind of rejection, the feeling that someone has judged you not only by your skills, but more so by your looks and disregarded your work ethic and dedication is painful. Despite all of these rejections, I was one of the few people who stuck to ballet all throughout high school. Most people dropped out of ballet because they couldn’t balance academics and ballet, or wanted more social life. I sacrificed my social life because ballet was that much more fulfilling for me.”

After high school, Erbay decided that she was going to give ballet everything she had and wanted to revive her love for the dance.

“I wanted to audition for companies, experience what it felt like to be in a professional company. So I went to a 7-week Monday-Saturday summer intensive in Pittsburgh,” Erbay said. “After that summer, I decided I would stay in Pittsburgh for a year and continue my studies as a trainee in the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School, the highest level in the school and just below company. This would allow me to progress my ballet technique and evolve my artistry without having to balance the stress of academics; it would give me the closest experience to being a professional ballet dancer, something I had been craving for a long time. This way, I could finally enjoy ballet again.”

Besides her new dance experience, Erbay’s year in Pittsburgh also allowed her to transition into being more independent.

“My parents were supporting me financially with my living expenses and pointe shoes, which are unfortunately way too expensive, but I was on my own,” Erbay said. “This experience prepared me in many ways for being on my own in college. I actually loved getting to know the city. I tried to bike around the city as much as possible. My favorite bike path was the alley from home to ballet where I could blast my music while watching the industrial buildings pass by.”

Erbay was given a chance to shine in her final performance in the Pittsburgh Ballet Company, taking over a routine from a dancer who was injured.

“Knowing that I was fairly good at picking up choreography, I volunteered to learn her spot with less than 3 hours before the show,” Erbay said. “The night of the performance, I was terrified that I would mess everyone and everything up. But to my surprise, the dancing came so easily. Anyone who is interested in ballet, Youtube 'Serenade George Balanchine' and you’ll fall in love.”

Although her gap year helped her grow as a person, Erbay said some aspects of her transition back to being a regular student were difficult.

“A lot of people say that transitioning from high school to college can be a huge adaption, from being alone for the first time to knowing how to take care of yourself,” Erbay said. “Those things I learned during my gap year, but going back to good study habits and remembering calculus was a challenge. Also, during the beginning of the year, I lost one of my best friends, someone who was like a brother to me. All of these culminated in a pretty difficult first semester at university. Taking a gap year and doing ballet for so long did help me put things into perspective. Ballet forced me to schedule and prioritize; it instilled a deep sense of determination in me that I'm so glad I developed.”

At McGill, Erbay has joined McGill Student Street Dancers, which she likes as it pushes her out of her comfort zone. Erbay has found her experience with ballet to be both positive as it became her passion, and negative due to the vast amount of criticism - though this helped her to understand that she needs to put herself first.

“However, I also learned that after a certain point, other people’s judgments should not be the guiding forces in your life," Erbay said. "Do what makes you feel fulfilled, happy, and whatever it is you want out of life. Don’t let others’ superficial opinions prevent you from pursuing something you enjoy.”

Images obtained from interviewee.