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Meet Emily Shenaut

Today we’d like to introduce you to Emily Shenaut.

Emily, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
I’ve always been pulled most towards all pursuits that fall under the umbrella of the humanities: art, literature, dance, romance, humor, humanity, psychology, and cuisine. My older sister, most likely fed up with my sub-par conversational abilities, taught me to read when I was about four, and I was soon devouring book after book, often stumbling upon subject matter a bit sophisticated or dark for my sheltered self, but if that happened, I knew that opening another book with a lighter plot might shake me out of any resulting doldrums. My parents are both academics, so this degree of enthusiasm for book-worming was seen as totally normal.

For me, nothing was as exhilarating as going to my hometown library, perusing the shelves for new treasures, and settling back in at home with brand new stories stacked eight or nine volumes high on my nightstand. Stories of different worlds from prosaic to fantastic, as long as they illustrated unique lives and thought processes, were endlessly fascinating.

When I was about five years old, I saw ballet for the first time: a VHS tape of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “The Nutcracker.” There’s certainly glorious dancing in that version, but it’s also chock full of drama, tension, romance, fear, and the story of a young girl escaping into a fantastic world, transformed into a brave fairy princess. About 15 minutes in, without hesitation, I announced to my parents that I wanted to take ballet classes, and in fact, that I wanted to be a ballerina when I grew up. They discouraged this notion at first, but I convinced them, citing it as a viable future career option (in my family, every new idea needed to be backed up with empirical evidence), and I soon was happily standing at a barre in my polka-dotted roller-skating dress and lace-trimmed socks under my brand new ballet slippers.

I loved everything about ballet and never really looked back. By the age of eight, I was taking two classes a day, morning and night. Striving for a goal both definable and beautiful, requiring that I slip into different characters, was wholly satisfying to me. My classmates and I would play a game: each time we were about to repeat a combination across the floor, we’d discuss in hushed tones which famous ballet heroine we’d “be” as we executed our steps, striving to imbue the simple choreography with the essence of a sassy Señorita or tragic swan princess.

We’ll skip ahead to the end of high school now (the years between held many wonderful and difficult experiences but always maintained a single-minded focus on becoming a professional dancer).

A brief side note that will prove very important later: during high school, I enjoyed taking drama classes and would have loved to perform in our school plays, but my full-time ballet load didn’t allow for any additional extra-curricular activities. Wanting to have the time to focus on auditions for professional ballet companies, I graduated from high school early, with the understanding that I’d take classes at our local community college. I took some really excellent theatre classes during this time at Sacramento City College and knew this was something I could keep in my back pocket and really have fun with if I ever had the time.

Skipping ahead again (and across the country) to Richmond Ballet, in Virginia, where I spent two years as a trainee. This was a transformative and overall extremely positive time in my life, but I became really focused on trying to become the kind of dancer that I thought others would want me to be, and lost a bit of my sense of self. Then, I moved up to Delaware, where I joined First State Ballet Theatre, the company that would become my primary home as a professional dancer.

There, with an artistic director who respected and trusted my artistry and creative vision, I had the opportunity to interpret timelessly dramatic roles with autonomy, the chance to tell an honest story to our audiences through the sometimes superficial seeming vehicle of classical ballet. I was never the strongest technician in my company in terms of number of pirouettes or flashy tricks, but I always set it as my personal goal to never fake anything emotionally in performances. On stage, I wanted to be “in it,” to give everything I could to the moment and the character I was interpreting. A performance that was technically flawless was infinitely less satisfying to me than a performance where I may not have held a balance as long, but someone came up to me after the performance and told me I made them cry, or laugh, or feel in any way. That’s when I felt like my hard work was truly important and worth the sweat and tears.

Through my training and career, I’d always been dealing with some chronic injuries, and after seven seasons with FSBT, they’d gotten to the point where I needed to make the extremely difficult choice to make a career change. I’d gotten a degree in Psychology, but wasn’t ready to give up life as an artist and performer. Not yet.

After many tears and much soul-searching (and avid Googling), I reached into my back pocket and remembered how much I’d enjoyed acting in the past, and I enrolled in several classes at a Philadelphia theatre. Though I love live performance, the subtle honesty of acting for the camera spoke to my ideals of emotional integrity as an artist, and I decided I’d give this career path a fair shot. After officially retiring from First State Ballet, I moved to Las Vegas and attended the now-defunct International Academy of Film and Television, where I was lucky enough to have incredible teachers and acting training. My plan was to get as much experience as I could there and then move to the more intimidating Los Angeles market. A year and a half — and my first low-budget indie feature later — I did.

I’m approaching three years here in LA now, and I’ve had some really cool opportunities. I’ve gotten to be in a handful of great indie films that should all be coming out in the next year or so. The TV/Film industry in LA is an incredibly difficult world to persevere in — virtual hugs to the thousands of others who are doing it right now. It’s so easy to lose sight of the artistic instincts and passions that brought most of us here in the first place—for me, my love for impacting people emotionally — and to begin to flounder in the grind of the business.

It’s a constant cycle between the fleeting highs of being on set or in an inspiring class or great auditions and rejection, headshots, unfulfilling day jobs, money stressors, the dizzying dullness of slower months, basically feeling like a tiny invisible fish in a Pacific Ocean-sized pond. Recently, I’ve realized that for me to stick out this path and achieve the goals in the industry I’ve set for myself, I need to maintain focus on what has always been important to me; autonomy, humanity, and artistic integrity.

When I switched career paths, I left the ballet world mostly behind, other than taking classes enough to stay in shape. I didn’t know how to stay in that world when it wasn’t my whole life. I’ve realized now that it’s important to share my unique experiences of over 20 years in that art form with others. I recently heard a quote from author Annie Dillard — “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” and instead of spending my days biding my time at passionless day jobs waiting for “ my break,” I need to take control of my time and spend it in meaningful and rewarding pursuits.

So now, in addition to taking classes, auditioning, and working on my “actor package,” I’ve refocused on what I’ve valued since I was a small child; writing, dancing, introspection, and communicating. I wrote a short comedy film that I’m actually making this month (directing, producing, and acting in) — and you know what, I think it’s going to be great! I’m also developing a syllabus for private ballet coaching that emphasizes the joy of dancing as an artistic outlet, along with its countless physical benefits. I want to teach what I know to others — whether they are dancers that want to learn how to perform from a more emotional space or anyone that want to express their emotions physically. I can’t anticipate my future as an actor, but I’m determined to make the very best of this time spent living in Los Angeles as an artist.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
Has it been a smooth road? Well, not completely (it would be a miracle if a person who has pursued ballet and acting, two of the least sensible fields to try and work in, had been lucky enough to experience a totally smooth road!) My track certainly hasn’t been smooth, though it’s never been totally unpaved.

Ballet had constant physical setbacks that included injuries and desired body type. In acting, my setbacks have ranged from overcoming emotional block to simply lacking the credits that many opportunities require.

There have been two commonalities between the fields as far as the struggles I’ve felt: the first is that your success is in large part up to the subjective preferences of another person, whether a choreographer, ballet mistress, casting director, or producer. This leads to inevitable and sometimes seemingly endless rejections (and the self-doubt, disappointment, and frustration that follows). The other common challenge has been an enduring feeling of personal mediocrity (seeing my abilities as good but not great, while always expecting greatness of myself). This is something I’ve learned to survive with, but it’s still very much a constant nemesis, one which must be subdued.

As far as obstacles in the work itself, actors should be vulnerable and have a thin barrier between their emotions and their reactions, but in order to survive as humans, it’s also important to build up defense mechanisms. Finding a balance between those two reflexes has been hugely difficult for me, and I tend to ping-pong between the two extremes of being too guarded or too vulnerable.

We’d love to hear more about your work and what you are currently focused on. What else should we know?
As an actor, I tend to be cast in voice-of-reason roles. I think this is because of my ability to react pretty honestly to what’s going on around my character, whether that’s being abducted in a horror film or seduced in a psychological thriller. Dramatic roles are the most emotionally satisfying when I feel I’ve really nailed them, but comedy is definitely my favorite genre to perform. I think this is in large part because of how much I love word-play. It’s also such a blast playing off of fellow actors, and comedy always feels really alive and exhilarating.

As a ballet coach, I understand that technical perfection (though definitely always something to be kept in mind) isn’t at the root of the art form. Ballet is, after all, just one of many vocabularies in dance, and dance at its most basic interpretation is merely an extremely natural way for humans to express themselves. Babies dance before they can speak, and I think that should be nurtured and encouraged in children and adults alike. Also, when proper placement and training is valued over extreme results, ballet is so physically rewarding. When I first retired, I didn’t take class for about a year, and experimented with other kinds of workouts–my body never felt worse. Ballet is a full-body, deep but gently stretching cardio workout set to music, which is uplifting and the time spent exercising flies by. If given the choice between ballet and the gym, I can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t choose ballet! I understand the intimidation of joining a large open ballet class, and value that everyone needs to work at their own pace, and that people may have different reasons or goals for trying ballet, and I’m able to completely personalize my classes, at any level.

Has luck played a meaningful role in your life and business?
I don’t think I believe in luck, but I do believe in good fortune; I also believe that good behavior begets good fortune. I’ve noticed in my career that when I do my best in any opportunity and put myself out there, another positive opportunity almost always springs from it. When I stay in my comfort zone or shy away from chances that do exist, a joyless rut, or “unlucky” phase will usually descend.

I think the best recipe for good fortune is to do your best at pursuits that matter to you!


  • For a private ballet lesson, 100/hr, including a 15 minute phone or Skype consultation beforehand to discuss your goals

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Image Credit:
Cory Crouser, Tisa Della-Volpe, Kyle Prothe, Haldane Morris

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