Feeling 'as light as air'
Lake Oswego High School sophomore Helia Megowan, who stars as the Snow Queen this month in a 'Nutcracker' adaptation, dreams of a career as a professional dancer
It's a rare moment when Helia Megowan isn't dancing, but it's easy to see why the Lake Oswego High School sophomore is so committed to ballet.
"The moment I step on stage, I feel as if I'm as light as air," Helia says. "I also love the wonder in the faces in the audience when I first step onstage, and the thought that I might be inspiring someone or making someone feel joy (or any other emotion) through my dancing."
This weekend, she'll get to feel that exhilaration again when she takes the stage in Northwest Dance Theatre's production of "A Nutcracker Tea," a family-friendly adaptation of the Tchaikovsky classic that follows Clara and her Nutcracker Prince on a heartwarming journey through the Snow Kingdom and Land of Sweets.
All seven performances at the PCC Sylvania Performing Arts Center are already sold out.
"I've been an angel, a soldier, a rat, a doll, an Arabian, a snowflake, a flower and a mirliton," Helia says. "This year, I'll be the Snow Queen!"
It's a role that every young ballerina dreams of performing, a chance to enchant not only Clara and her prince but also the entire audience. It's also a long way from Helia's first "Nutcracker" role six years ago, which her mom remembers all too well.
"The first year of her being an angel in the Oregon Ballet Theatre 'Nutcracker,' at the Christmas Eve performance, her hoop skirt was just a little too long," Bettina Megowan recalls. "As she crossed the front of the stage, she tripped over the hoop and fell flat on her face! Every one of the 2,000 people watching gasped. Luckily, everyone was very sweet to her and it did not stop her from dreaming of being on stage!"
It didn't stop Helia from wanting to be a professional ballet dancer, either. She has continued to take classes at the June Taylor School of Dance in Tualatin — she started when she was just 5 years old — and has spent the past few summers studying across the country.
"Two summers ago, I danced in San Francisco for three weeks at the School of San Francisco Ballet Summer Intensive. During spring break of my freshman year, I danced at Houston Ballet Academy. Last summer, I danced in New York for five weeks at the School of American Ballet (the school of the New York City Ballet)," says Helia, who is now 15. "These are three of the best schools in America, so I've been very lucky to have these opportunities."
In January, she'll audition for a spot next summer with the Houston Ballet Academy, San Francisco Ballet School, School of American Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet School and The Royal Ballet School.
"I hope that someday in the future, I'll be able to train at one of these schools more permanently," she says. "My goal in life is to become a professional dancer. My dream is to dance with the San Francisco Ballet. Ideally, in 20 years, I will be a soloist or principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet. However, I'll have to work EXTREMELY hard to achieve these goals, as San Francisco Ballet is one of the best companies in the world."
Ballet is a demanding art, requiring a high level of devotion to small movements and exacting technique. Helia says that's where her tendency to be a perfectionist serves her well.
"I rarely leave the studio before I've achieved the best I can," she says. "I'm very motivated, focused, and I rarely procrastinate. My personality has definitely helped me get to the level that I'm at now."
The hardest part about ballet, Helia says, is actually remembering that it's not only about getting the steps right and making everything technically perfect.
"It's also conveying emotion and making everything look easy," she says. "I often get hung up on making everything perfect, and it's been hard to accept that I won't get everything right on the first try."
She certainly has the support of her parents, Noah and Bettina.
"We support Helia by being willing chauffeurs," Noah jokes. "But then again, every parent these days knows what that is like."
Being a "ballet parent" is a little different, though.
"What is actually a little challenging in ballet is that New York, Houston and San Francisco are all very different stylistically," Noah explains, "and Helia needs to figure out which philosophy and which aesthetic is the best fit for her. That means we have to plan for extended stays in each of those places. So while there is travel in many sports these days (for tournaments and camps), Helia is always looking at longer trips that we have to organize for her."
One of Helia's regular trips is to Germany, where her mother was born. It's not only a chance to dance in Bettina's hometown of Lahr, but also to see where some of Helia's athletic ability comes from.
"I was on the German national team for Rhythmic Gymnastics from 1981 through 1987, and then went to the World Championships in Spain in 1985," Bettina says. "Ballet was part of my training. After retiring from the sport, I stayed involved dancing in college, coaching Rhythmic Gymnastics, teaching dance and doing choreography for groups and individuals."
She says she knew Helia had potential as a dancer early on.
"Initially, dance and music was always part of her life, and I knew she had the physical abilities to be a dancer," Bettina says. "When it became apparent that Helia was very serious about ballet, we made sure that not only her physical needs were met, such as staying healthy and going to physical therapy, but also to make her strong mentally. To become a successful dancer, you have to be mentally very strong in order to withstand the harsh criticisms and disappointments that all dancers eventually face."
Noah Megowan agrees.
"The most important part of supporting a kid who has serious athletic or artistic aspirations is to be there for them emotionally," he says. "So much of dance (and all the arts) is subjective, so supporting your child when things don't go their way is really vital. Ups and downs are part of the deal, but we always try to be there for Helia and hopefully it makes it easier on her. The most important thing is that we are there for each other."
That's been true from the beginning, of course, when the Magowans named their first daughter after Helios, the Greek personification of the sun. Even then, it seems, they knew young Helia was destined to shine.