Laraine Denny Burrell has lived an extraordinary life. Her world travels and experiences as a professional dancer were anything but ordinary, as she witnessed a plane bombing in Barbados and was held at gunpoint in Syria.
Laraine Denny Burrell was born in England, and after studying at the Royal Academy in London embarked on a dance career taking her worldwide. Today she is an Intellectual Property lawyer practicing with a large firm in Washington State. Her memoir, OUR GRAND FINALE: A Daughter’s Memoir, made its debut on October 17, 2017. The memoir is available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other retailers.
In an original essay, Laraine reflects on her successful dance career that took her worldwide, and refusing to be governed by what she couldn’t do as a dancer and to instead, focus on what she could do. We suggest you to read this wonderful piece below to get an insight of her extraordinary story.
In reality, I should never have been a professional dancer. I had no flexibility, no turn-out, my Achilles tendons were short (giving me the shallowest plié ever), and my penchés were more of a ‘pen’. My feet lacked a decent ‘pointe’ thanks to my non-existent arches. My lack of core strength meant my développés were barely above waist level, yet somehow, I earned a full three-year scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dance in London, and for decades later, entertainment producers were willing to pay me to be a professional dancer. I asked myself, ‘why would they do that?’
I was faced with this question as I recently evaluated my dance career for a memoir I was writing. I thought about other dancers I had worked with over the years who were more technical than me, yet somehow, it was I who was the principal dancer of the show and taking more money to the bank. I had a serious heart to heart talk with myself which involved me admitting that while I was absolutely hopeless at some things, there were a couple of things that I did have going for me. It was my ability to focus on my positive pointes (no pun intended) and develop my strengths that enabled me to have a professional dancing career lasting more than twenty-years.
Since I was five-years-old I wanted to be a professional dancer. I studied intensely over the years trying to be as good as I could be, developing precision in my movements. My arabesque might not have been the highest but it was always well placed. My technique was sharp, meticulous. I may not have hit myself in the face with my grand battement, but I would earn a ‘well done’ from my dance teacher for keeping my hips still and my posture erect.
But, it was at the dance competitions where I began to flourish. My love of dance showed through my emotions now allowed to run free, breaking through the proverbial ‘fourth wall’ wanting to pull the audience up onto the stage with me, to make them feel what I was feeling in my performance. I was told I had ‘stage presence,’ that there could be multiple dancers on stage but the audience would be drawn to only me. As a young dancer that was my greatest compliment. It was my motivation as I moved toward a professional career.
Being a professional dancer wasn’t all sequins and glamour, as most dancers can attest to. For me, a one-hour show would first require two hours of stretching and warm-ups as I pushed my legs up against walls, split myself across two chairs, badgered fellow performers to hoist my leg up higher and higher—and not to groan so much as they were doing it— all to gain a decent amount of stretch that allowed me to do an adequate high-kick during the show. The effort came with numerous torn ligaments and pulled tendons all to be ignored behind a delightful smile to the audience. Alas, as soon as the show was over, my complaining body would contract back to its preferred inflexible state.
It was purely by accident that I found my forte in the dance world. I was playing around with Stuart, a male dancer, in a friend’s swimming pool pretending to do the impressive and graceful lifts we had seen adagio teams perform when someone said, ‘Hey Laraine, you look really good up there, you should do adagio.’ Of course, I laughed. I didn’t have the flexibility or the gymnastics experience to do all that acrobatic stuff up in the air— who were they kidding? But Stuart took the suggestion seriously. He convinced me that we could make ourselves more valuable as performers if we became an adagio team. So, with the help of a friend who was a Czechoslovakian acrobat we started to train for adagio.
Adagio is when a male dancer gracefully lifts the female dancer off the floor and he holds her in that lift as they dance together. At first, for Stuart and especially me, it was more falling than lifting and resulted with me landing gracelessly in a heap somewhere. This came with a receiving of rainbow of bruising all over my body. I had the most difficult and dangerous role. I had red welts where a harness I wore, attached to the ceiling to supposedly stop me from falling, would rub my skin as I tried a new lift again and again. Of course, dance comes with tons of not so graceful moments and tumbles. One time, I had a bad fall and ended up with a compound fracture in my arm, which required metal plates and screws to heal. Another time I fell breaking the meta-tarsals across both feet, but we were well suited as a team and determined to continue on despite our injuries.
Stuart was extraordinary strong and solid, able to hold me in the air for long periods of time (the kind of thing you want in a dance partner). Strangely enough, what made me a good partner were my meticulous and precise movements, which created a consistency with the lifts. This meant we could do them successfully again and again. We knew each other so well that Stuart knew exactly what to expect from me as I placed my body into his hands— always with the same timing and placement. Once in the air, I was able to hold myself as solid as a rock no matter what movement Stuart was making below me— all thanks to my tight, inflexible body. What initially seemed like a silly idea became a reality as determination and incessant hard work proved to me all that I was capable of doing. Stuart and I went on to become a successful Adagio Team for more than ten years.
My ability to maintain a successful dance career was from understanding my own strengths and weaknesses and recognizing that we cannot all be good at everything (despite how bad we may want to). If I saw another dancer who could extend her leg higher than me, or do more pirouettes than I could, I learned not to begrudge her or her skills, but instead to give myself a pat on the back for the things that I was good at, that I could do better than most. Even today, I look in wonder at the photographs of me as an adagio dancer in my own world high above the stage, and I am still in disbelief at what I was able to accomplish simply by refusing to be governed by what I couldn’t do and to instead focus on what I could. My advice to young dancers is to do the same. Focus on your strengths, be persistent, and chase after your dreams.