Whether on stage or in life, it’s hard to miss a ballet dancer’s entrance: the lithe movements, the squared carriage, the turned out feet. One gets the sense that they inhabit not only every inch of their bodies, but also the space just beyond their bodies, lighting up the air around them with near-electric potential energy. That was exactly the impression I got as Josh and Elizabeth Deininger entered The Fellowship at Bend for their interview a few weeks ago.
The newly married professional ballet couple moved to Bend in November of 2016 (a return home for Elizabeth) to take a position as Artists in Residence at Central Oregon School of Ballet. There they teach, coach, help with rehearsals, set variations and solos, and perform, and are currently preparing students for a performance of The Sleeping Beauty on July 22nd, in which Josh and Elizabeth will play the Prince and Aurora, respectively (call 541-389-9360 for tickets). They are also able to take freelance contracts, and are already booking jobs for Nutcrackers later this year.
In the midst of all their obligations, they took some time to chat with me about their journeys as artists and the intersections their art has had with their faith.
For Elizabeth, the enchantment of ballet took hold early when her parents brought her to the Nutcracker at age four. “Honestly, the first reason I started ballet was because I thought the Sugar Plum Fairy was stunning,” she says with a smile. “I also wanted to be Clara because she got to keep all the presents at the end.” Elizabeth trained at Central Oregon School of Ballet, spending summers studying at places like Boston Ballet and Kirov Academy of Ballet.
Josh, on the other hand, discovered ballet later. Although the Washington native, who was raised in Helena, Montana, grew up social dancing, he didn’t begin formal training until age 15. “I was dancing with my sister at a school dance and some people from a local studio saw me and threw down a challenge. They basically said, ‘Well, you’re good at that, but I bet you can’t do real dance,’” says Josh. He took up the gauntlet and attended a jazz class. “I came to class that day. And the next week. And I guess I just never stopped coming back.” He started taking summer intensives at Ballet Chicago, and his experience there solidified his goal of becoming a professional.
Both Josh and Elizabeth decided to pursue Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees, and nearly ended up at the same school. Elizabeth decided on Cornish College of the Arts, Josh’s second choice. “If I’d gone there, we would have been Freshman the same year,” he says. But it was Southern Methodist University that won the toss for him, and he would go on to complete his BFA in dance performance there. Oddly, the couple also barely missed meeting each other at Ballet Chicago: Josh would have wrapped up his summer training just two weeks before Elizabeth started there on a full-ride scholarship after leaving Cornish to join a company.
The couple finally collided in Seattle, Washington. Both had begun yearning for the Northwest again, and, as Elizabeth explains, “Generally, if you want to be a professional, you have to go to a bigger city where you have those opportunities.” After a detour into the world of modern dance (more on that in a moment), Elizabeth auditioned for a contemporary ballet company on a whim, not expecting to get in. She did, and that’s where the two met in 2012.
“At that time we didn’t want to ruin out dance relationship, so we waited until we were done dancing in that company and that’s when we started dating in 2014,” says Josh. “One year later I proposed, and five months later we got married in Bend. That’s when I really fell in love with the area.”
Since both Josh and Elizabeth were raised in Christian homes, I was curious about how their faith had impacted their art. Each faced unique challenges.
“I ask God before every performance that
the audience would see Him in my
ability and the gift He gave me.”
As a male ballet dancer, Josh’s obstacles dealt with society’s pressures. Perhaps surprisingly to those on the outside, behind the curtain the dance world is rife with sexual immorality. “There are stereotypes surrounding male ballet dancers being homosexual. But I’m a Christian, I’m straight, and choosing dance doesn’t mean I’ve chosen that lifestyle,” Josh explains. “But really, there’s some pressure to swing that way.” His first struggle was standing up for his identity, understanding he wasn’t gay, and understanding how sexual identity is first tied to our identity in Christ.
But that didn’t end the struggle. “Once they know you’re not gay, then the flip side is the ‘ladies’ man’ stereotype,” he says. And in this case, pressures from religious people were just as prevalent as those from the dance world. “I actually had a minister tell me I had to quit dancing because every time I went on stage I was fornicating in front of the audience.”
A lot of it comes down to knowing your own beliefs and boundaries. “At the company where we met, we were there just after the state legalized gay marriage. The director wanted to do a piece about how beautiful homosexual relationships are,” says Josh. They had private conversations with the director to address their concerns. “You just have to watch what roles you accept, what content you want to dance.”
In the end, Josh sees his art form as an opportunity to glorify God. “Prayer is a big part of my pre-performance,” says Josh. “You’re not always dancing a Bible story, so the message isn’t always direct. But I ask God before every performance that the audience would see Him in my ability and the gift He gave me.”
“I wasn’t allowing God to fill those places
where I was finding my identity in dance.
I realized through a sermon series that…
I could dance to His glory by not
tossing away the talent He gave me.”
Elizabeth’s experience of dance and faith is tied to the idea of stewardship. “I think a lot about good stewardship of time and talents,” she says. But this realization didn’t come to her until mid-career. Elizabeth’s stint at Ballet Chicago, while amazing as far as experience gained, was anything but easy. “Ballet is competitive. It’s really hard not to constantly compare yourself to other people in a negative way,” she says. For her, the joy of ballet was slowly stripped away by these negative comparisons, to the point that she was dancing with pneumonia, and eventually had to be forced to take time off for her health.
“I only took three weeks off. I felt like I became a dancing robot. I had nothing in my life except ballet,” she says. “My identity was in dance, and being forced to take time off was a real identity crisis.” It was while at Ballet Chicago that Elizabeth decided to quit dance entirely. “That was a freeing thing. When I didn’t have to dance anymore, suddenly I improved.” She took time away, but soon realized she was more miserable without dance than with it. So, she moved to Seattle and joined a modern dance company.
“That’s when I started realizing that I had a lot of things in my life that were screwed up because I wasn’t allowing God to fill those places where I was finding my identity in dance.” She chose modern dance initially because she thought ballet was the problem, but ended up realizing that the issue all along was in her heart. “I realized through a sermon series that I was not stewarding the talents that God had given me well. Particularly, I noticed that I could dance to His glory by not tossing away the talent He gave me.” For Elizabeth that stewardship plays out in every single movement, from warmups to general attitude. “I think about what it means to be a Christian in the dance world: not complaining, being kind, being competitive, but not nasty.”
“There’s a fair amount of nastiness in the dance world,” puts in Josh with a laugh. “So when you’re just there, ready to work, on time, it not only makes people want to rehire you, which is great, but also represents God.”
Now that the two teach, they are seeing the ways God can use them in that capacity too. “We want to be teachers that build confidence in our students,” says Josh. “Just like the way God accepts us, we accept our students where they are and encourage them to do well because we care about them, rather than making them feel that they need to make themselves better before we will care about them and help them in the pursuit of ballet.” They are hopeful that this confidence will aid their students no matter what career path they eventually choose.
And the two continue to pursue their art here in Bend, Oregon. For Josh, artistic inspiration recently has been coming from the beautiful partnership with his wife. His choreographic strength is pas de deux, or partner dancing. “It’s been a huge blessing in my life to work with my wife on that, doing that within God’s design of marriage.” In any piece he choreographs, his goal is connection with the audience, which is made easier by the true love-connection he shares with Elizabeth that jumps from the stage.
“We trust each other,” adds Elizabeth. “And you need a lot of trust for the things we do!”
Elizabeth’s approach to classical ballet has been impacted by her experience in a modern company. Now, her focus has shifted from portraying a literal story to really considering the intent of the movement. “With modern dance you have to find a different way to interpret the movement because there isn’t always a story. I like to think: why am I trying to get the audience to focus on my hand or my feet? How is this connecting us?”
So what does God’s plan for the future hold for these two? Only time will tell. But they do have some visionary ideas about dance in Bend. Says Josh, “We feel that Bend has the best of everything: mountains, people, beer. But there’s just a hole when it comes to ballet.” The couple suspects that there is a market for professional dance in the people who have migrated to Bend from major metro areas, and eventually hope to fill that need.
Both Josh and Elizabeth have faced unique challenges in pursuing their art form. But a common theme is that they seek to exercise their talents to honor and steward God’s gifting, and to glorify Him through realizing their potential. And though the mythical and magical world of ballet may seem removed from the average person, their lessons hold true in anyone’s lives: find the gift God has given you and exercise it to His glory, relying on Him for doors to open and the strength to persevere in the face of obstacles.
Let them praise his name with dancing…Psalm 149:3