Ashley Fox doesn’t look that different from the other ballet students waiting for class at Kirkland’s International Ballet Theatre.
Hair pulled back, wearing warmups and big slippers, she laughs and talks with the rest, with a slightly faraway look.
But something is about to set her apart from your average American teenager: The 16-year-old junior from Puyallup is leaving Tuesday to study for a year at the Moscow State Academy of Choreography (formerly Bolshoi Ballet Academy), one of the most prestigious ballet schools in the world.
And she’s going on her own.
“I’m a bit excited and a bit nervous,” Fox said calmly, in Kirkland last week for a final class at the dance school she’s attended for five years. “But I’m ready to jump into my studies and refine my technique.”
I’m ready to jump into my studies and refine my technique. It’s about finding my soul in dance. dancer Ashley Fox
Fox isn’t as nervous as you might expect, though, thanks to six weeks recently spent at the academy’s summer dance intensive workshop.
After doing the Russian school’s three-week course in New York, she was one of 13 students nationwide chosen to attend the Moscow course on a full scholarship from the Russian American Foundation, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
The program, called the National Security Language Initiative for Youth, teaches language and cultural skills, as well as dance, and is intended to deepen understanding between the two countries.
Fox, who is cramming in classes to finish off her junior year at the Puyallup Online Academy, was a good student, learning basic Russian and fitting in well. And so she was invited to join the academy — a training school linked to the famous Bolshoi Ballet — for its full academic year.
That makes Fox one of just 62 foreign students out of 695 total at the school, which was founded in 1773 and offers vocational through graduate-level programs.
“For a girl from Puyallup to go to one of the most prestigious ballet schools in the world, it’s a big thing for any person, a big accomplishment,” said Vera Altunina, the director of the International Ballet Theatre.
Russian-born herself, Altunina studied at Russia’s other prestigious school, the Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg.
“It’s a big honor … and an amazing experience in dance training,” she said.
Ashley is truly an artist. She’s a natural dancer, organic, a pleasure to watch. That’s what Russian teachers truly value. Her soul is dancing — that’s why she was chosen. Vera Altunina, director at International Ballet Theatre, Kirkland
Fox has been dancing since she was a 3-year-old eagerly watching her older sister at ballet class.
First attending Dance Theater Northwest in University Place, she moved to Kirkland’s International Ballet Theatre five years ago. That meant three, then four, then five days a week of commuting for parents Tom, recently retired from the U.S. Air Force, and Gloria, a Puyallup school music teacher.
“We’d get up at 7 a.m. and take her to school, then we’d drive up to Kirkland for dance, then drive home in time for bed, then get up and do it all over again,” said Gloria Fox, who jokes with other dance parents that they should have their names inscribed on the waiting room chairs.
Now, though, both parents are excited and proud of their daughter — and only just a little worried that she’ll be flying halfway across the world by herself and living there for nine months.
“Ashley’s always been mature for her age,” said her mother, an immigrant from the Philippines. “She makes friends easily, so I’m not that worried about her.
“Tom and I are really thrilled because this will help her grow. Not just for her dancing, but as a person — more grounded, able to appreciate other cultures. … We want her to become a person that gives back.”
When she arrives in Moscow this week, Fox will be met by the host family she stayed with during the summer. They’ll take her to the academy, which houses administration, teaching studios and dorm rooms in one building in the Khamovniki district, just across the river from Gorky Park.
Her room, meals and tuition are included in the $2,000 a month her parents are paying.
Gloria Fox will visit during spring break, and her daughter might get to hang out with her Kirkland classmates when Altunina brings them on the school’s biennial trip to St. Petersburg in April.
Fox will spend a few hours each day in language classes, and all her dance classes will be in Russian — but that doesn’t bother her. She already knows many phrases, including her name, age and how to say, “I love to dance.”
“I really enjoyed speaking with people there (over summer),” she said. “They were always very nice and appreciated that I was studying their culture and language.”
After a year at the academy, Fox might get the chance to stay on — other American students have done so, studying the full four-year course and finishing high school.
Even if she doesn’t, the career benefits from having the Bolshoi Ballet Academy on her résumé are huge.
“Dancing has always been what I want to do,” said Fox, who hopes to join a professional company somewhere in the world.
But the biggest benefit, said Fox and Altunina, is not so much getting higher legs or more refined technique.
“It’s about finding my soul in dance, I guess,” the teen said a little shyly.
As she begins the barre warmups in class, Fox inhabits her steps as she does her words — thoughtfully, gracefully, seeming to focus on something beyond her physical body.
“Ashley is truly an artist,” Altunina said. “She’s a natural dancer, organic, a pleasure to watch. That’s what Russian teachers truly value. Her soul is dancing — that’s why she was chosen.”
62 out of 695 students at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy are international.