When you think of ballet, you probably think of a major company like the Bolshoi Ballet or the New York City Ballet Company — but one dancer from King City in Monterey County is proving you can start in a small town if you have the dedication.
Ashley Madrid-Olekna, who started at the Monterey County Dance Theatre (MCDT), was recently invited to dance at the prestigious Kirov Academy in Washington D.C.
Janette Harkness is a teacher and artistic director of the MCDT in King City. From the moment Harkness met Madrid-Olekna, she knew she was exceptional.
“I was introduced to the young lady when she was 3 ½ years of age. She came in speaking a little bit of Russian and a little bit of Spanish," Harkness said. "Her mom said that she wanted her to dance, and Ashley was ecstatic to dance. She wasn’t quite sure what the dance involved but she knew she wanted to do it. So in she comes and, low and behold, as soon as this little girl put on her ballet slippers, I knew immediately that she was something special.”
But it’s not just raw talent. Harkness said it takes lots of work to get to Madrid-Olekna’s skill level.
“These students have to give more than people recognize to spend all those hours and hours and hours to get to the top level,” Harkness said.
Harkness said her student had a very full schedule during the pandemic, including virtual sessions with the Kirov Academy.
“When she transferred over to independent study, she was able to take the Kirov program that began our time around 6 a.m. and would go until 1:00 in the afternoon, then do her independent study, and then come in to take regular dance classes with us,” Harkness said. “So her day was way spent with dance, and the Kirov recognized her talent and her dedication and immediately outreached out to her and said, ‘we want you to come study here.’”
Madrid-Olekna said support from Harkness enabled her to grow and reach for her goals.
“When I thought no one believed in me — I’m going to be honest with you, people might say they believed in me — but when I thought no one did, she was probably one of the only people that actually believed,” Madrid-Olekna said. “She knew I was capable and she pushed me. And probably — without her I probably wouldn't have gotten this far.”
Harkness said being invited to dance at the Kirov is an honor, but it’s not an easy task.
“That atmosphere is intense, but you’re surrounded and engulfed inside of this world where the dance is at the highest level, and that’s where it becomes a challenge — that highest level to reach for. To be given that opportunity to join the pre-professional program, to be invited to the company — that is a huge honor and it is rare.”
At age 15, Madrid-Olekna sees the world of dance clearly, and pushes herself. She recently finished a three-week, dance-intensive program in Sacramento during which she had two injuries in her achilles tendon.
“I would just dance through the pain, like, no matter how horrible it felt — you gotta dance through it," Madrid-Olekna said. "Yeah, I understand my teacher was like, ‘don't push it as much because you’re just agitating your achilles.’ But in a sense, you know, even if it was painful, you know, you have to keep dancing because someone might take your spot."
Madrid-Olekna said one of the misconceptions of ballet is that it’s a delicate sport. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“Dance is hard. It really is. Some people don't understand. They think it's just pink tutus and prancing and doing skipping and playing with unicorns. But trust me, that's not what dance is,” Madrid-Olekna said. “Dance exerts the energy out of you. I think why dancers love this art form so much is because you just feel so much connection through dancing. You can relate a lot of things through dancing, and dance relates to you in a sense. I feel like I can relate to how dancing makes me feel.”
Harkness, who has known Madrid-Olekna throughout her dance career, said she couldn’t be more proud to see her student’s continued success.
“I think for any teacher you could possibly ask, the most important thing is for the child to excel — and to excel at that level is a shared blessing,” Harkness said. “You are awestruck and humbled that you have worked with someone who has that kind of a talent.”
For Madrid-Olekna, it’s her love and passion for dance that keeps her going despite the challenges.
“When I struggle a lot with my mental health, I mean, I don’t really know how to cope with it. But when I dance it lets me be very expressive and I feel so passionate when I dance,” Madrid-Olekna said. “It's not just doing it for fun. I'm just so devoted to dance. I've invested myself all these years just to dance, and it would be such a shame for me to just to quit and give up on something I put so much hard work into, and I love.”
Harkness said it's Madrid-Olekna’s hard work and determination that has led her to where she is today.
“She doesn’t know the word ‘no.’ She just knows that she can achieve it if she tries. That's been her mantra and she has gone and done that,” Harkness said.
And Madrid-Olekna said her ability to achieve was inspired by Harkness and the Monterey County Dance Theatre, where she learned to dance in King City.
"She believed in me so much she would put me with the upper level kids, and they were so good and I was barely on my box," Madrid-Olekna said. "But yeah, she just put me in that class and in a way, as I said, I was a competitor — so no matter how ugly I looked, no matter how bad I was, she pushed me. And I learned that [mindset] being in those upper classes, the way she put me up there. Maybe I didn't get the lead role, but I learned from those dancers and that’s how I got to where I am right now.”
Madrid-Olekna’s next goal is to dance every day to stay in shape. She is planning to attend the Kirov Academy in the fall. Harkness is helping organize fundraisers to raise money for her education.
Madrid-Olekna also started a GoFundMe to help raise money to pay her tuition for the Kirov Academy.