Sporting bright pink tutus over their hand-me-down clothes, eight teenage girls wobbled through unfamiliar ballet poses in a massive orphanage just outside of Guatemala City. The girls giggled as they mimicked the moves of their teacher, Claire Kretzschmar, never realizing they were following one of the world’s top ballerinas across a bleak basketball court.
This dilapidated court looked nothing like the halls of Lincoln Center, where Claire usually rehearsed as a member of the New York City Ballet. But watching these girls bond over the beauty and discipline of ballet reinforced her belief that dance can bring people together to experience joy, hope, community, and love. And Claire says the 2018 mission trip to Guatemala led her to “a life-changing” realization about dance.
“I taught the kids ballet and dance whenever I could, with a lot of it happening spontaneously,” Claire said recently. “I was able to introduce them to the joy of movement, and the kids responded so enthusiastically.”
Their response helped Claire see that dancing should be about more than her career success or fan adulation. “I don’t like dancing for myself,” she said. “And that realization has been a big part of my faith journey.”
“I don’t want to glorify me. I want to be about something bigger. About the art, about God, about the people who watch it. When you’re a performer you have the tendency to get self-focused. Now when I dance, I offer it as a prayer for humanity.”
Claire, at 30 years old, has had many opportunities to offer such prayers-in-dance as a member of the corps de ballet of the New York City Ballet, one of the top companies in the world.
She was invited to join the company at the age of 18, after she had funneled most of her adolescent years into the physically demanding training and punishing practices it takes to excel in of one of the world’s most competitive fields. Claire celebrated a decade with the NYC Ballet in the fall of 2021 and is proud of the success she has achieved while performing in a variety of roles and pieces. Through it all, Claire has always celebrated the joy of dance and nurtured a steady faith in her Creator.
Claire began dance lessons as a child, like many little girls do, but unlike most girls, she never stopped training. Born in Glendale, Arizona, in 1992 to parents who both were in the Air Force, Claire and her younger sister and brother moved around a bit before her parents retired from the military and settled in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Claire’s parents introduced their children to classical music at a young age. The way The Nutcracker sent the girls spinning crazily around their living room inspired their parents to enroll them in dance classes at the Academy of Dance Arts. When Claire turned nine, she began taking classes at Wake Forest’s community ballet program, where a revered and renowned teacher, Brantly Schapiro, saw Claire’s potential and encouraged her to take intensive ballet summer programs at both the venerable North Carolina School of the Arts and at the School for American Ballet in New York City.
“She pushed me to grow in my training and get serious about pursuing one style,” Claire said. “Which for me ended up being ballet. After deciding on the style I loved best, she made sure I knew all the options available to me that would propel me forward in the world of ballet.”
In the eighth grade, Claire began attending the North Carolina School of the Arts, one of the top-ranking performing art schools in the country. For several years the school helped Claire hone her skills, but she knew that New York City—the epicenter of the dance world—could offer her more opportunities to gain the attention of its two top ballet companies: the New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre.
“I knew that the School of American Ballet fed into the New York City Ballet. So if I took classes there, the potential would be that I could just segue to that professional company once I graduated. I became more and more convinced that New York was where I should be if I wanted to eventually become a professional dancer.”
So, Claire auditioned for and was accepted at the School of American Ballet, prompting a move to New York at age seventeen. Life in New York City was exciting for the teenager, although she missed her family deeply and was working intensely at school and dance.
Faith was another element that helped Claire survive—and thrive—in those challenging years. Claire’s family is Catholic, and she grew up going to Sunday school and attending Mass regularly, a practice she continued in New York City. But she also became involved in a weekly Bible study with other students and corps de ballet members that was being led by student dancer Silas Farley.
“This was a new form of worshipping and learning about God,” Claire said. “One that I had not experienced before. I began going to Silas’ church, Redeemer Presbyterian, because many other students attended from the School of American Ballet,” she said. “It was such a vibrant community. It took my faith to a deeper level.”
In the fall of 2010, she was taking dance classes on a Saturday with Peter Martins of the New York City Ballet, when he formally asked her to join the company as an apprentice. “I skipped all future auditioning and was just chosen by Peter to join NYC ballet as essentially an intern. I was so happy and relieved. My acceptance was such a gift from God!”
The first show Claire performed with the NYC Ballet was The Nutcracker as the Sugar Plum Fairy, the very ballet that had made her want to dance in the first place. She also performed in ensuing shows as an apprentice, knowing that apprentices are closely observed to see if they would make good members. And on August 27, 2011, nineteen-year-old Claire learned she had been accepted as a member of the corps de ballet.
“All the pressure of wondering if you were measuring up to their standards was over,” recalled Claire. “It was a joy and a release at the same time.”
For the next seven years, Claire danced as a corps member, performing twice more in The Nutcracker as Dewdrop and Coffee. She made her soloist debut in 2018 in George Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto, and featured in ballets by notable choreographers Peter Martins, Justin Peck, Alexei Ratmansky. Claire also traveled around the country performing with NYCB, as well as France, Denmark, Germany, China and Japan.
Then came the 2018 mission trip to Guatemala that gave Claire a new outlook on her dancing, followed by multiple foot and toe injuries that forced her to slow down and prioritize. When the virus rampaged across New York City in 2020, Claire caught the virus early on as the world of live performances shut down around her, including the NYC Ballet.
After recovering, Claire traveled to her parents’ home in North Carolina, where she began to create opportunities to continue dancing. “I turned my parents’ garage into a little studio and created a ‘garage series,’ where I would perform for neighbors and friends. I performed in the garage several times over a year and a half, and it was so joyous.”
Claire’s garage series gave her time to create dances instead of being the dancer, and she had time to pursue that skill, having already choreographed twice for the New York Choreographic Institute. “I know I’ll be pursuing more outlets for that in the future,” she said.
Claire also spent time with young dancers, sharing her experiences with them and their families. She performed The Nutcracker for Dallas Ballet Company during the pandemic and was able to connect with the young dancers there. She is the co-host of The Rosin Box podcast, which discusses all things related to dance, and she teaches classes and private lessons to anyone who asks. “I want to help budding dancers because I know what it’s like to be one at their age, and what they’re facing,” she states.
With the wane of COVID and the return to live performances, Claire has returned to New York City and the NYC Ballet, filled with hopes and plans for the future and ready to perform again.
But she is also making goals that use her skills to offer more faith-filled art opportunities, such as co-founding a collective called “Arthouse2B” that puts on arts events in Harlem, with the goal of providing creative outlets for young artists in the city.
“In everything that I do, I aspire to be genuine, joyful, and attentive to those around me,” She says. “There was a time when my identity was wrapped around being a dancer. But now, through my faith in God, I know it’s so much more than that.”
Christina Ray Stanton is founder of the nonprofit Loving All Nations and an award-winning author.