Rabab Al-Sharif | Staff Writer
It was in the middle of the 2011 Chautauqua Season when North Carolina Dance Theatre dancer Pete Walker got the call.
NCDT Associate Artistic Director Sasha Janes was standing on the Carnahan-Jackson Dance Studios’ porch when he heard Walker talking on the phone.
“I wasn’t eavesdropping or anything,” Janes said. “I could just tell from the look of elation on his face.”
The call was exactly what Janes thought it was. Walker had just heard from the Princess Grace Foundation — he had been selected as a 2011 dance fellow.
The award vindicates many years of hard work and going to ballet class instead of spending time with friends, Janes said, but he does not think it will be the highlight of Walker’s career.
“I think he’s really got a lot more to come,” Janes said. “This award is just the beginning for him.”
The Princess Grace Foundation annually awards artists in dance, theater and film who show excellence and promise in their fields. Walker was among 21 recipients in 2011.
Prince Rainier III of Monaco started the organization 25 years ago in honor of his late wife, Princess Grace (Kelly), who was known for anonymously helping emerging artists pursue their goals.
Companies and colleges from all over the country can submit a nomination for the award each year, Walker said, but he never imagined he would be chosen.
“This isn’t just a little award,” he said. “This sets the standard for other dancers in our country.”
He accepted his award at a Nov. 1 gala in New York City. Gore Verbinski, director of the first three “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, presented it to him.
At the gala, he met stars such as Julie Andrews, Anne Hathaway, Ice-T and Natalie Cole, he said.
Though they did not know Walker, he said, they all congratulated him on his award.
“There’s a true value to that,” he said. “You feel so empowered.”
Walker knew he wanted to be a dancer when his mother took him to see Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater perform “Revelations.”
Seeing such emotional, expressive dancers onstage doing what they loved took Walker by surprise. Ailey dancer Jamal Roberts especially moved him.
“Seeing him on stage, he blew me away — seeing the reaction of the audience, and seeing how much of an effect a dancer can have on them,” he said.
But it was hip-hop, not ballet or modern, where Walker got his start.
His mother, who danced with hip-hop crews, helped foster his love for the style. He saw her ticking, popping and locking and wanted to learn.
She taught him some, and it wasn’t long before he was taking classes and traveling around the country for conventions.
In Walker’s mid-teens, Ashley Cunningham, his break dancing teacher, needed him to do some partnering. She told him that to improve his hip-hop and partnering skills, he should take ballet classes.
At 15, Walker started his pre-professional ballet training at The Nutmeg Conservatory for the Arts in Connecticut on scholarship.
But he said he never thought he would end up where he is today. When Walker started at Nutmeg, he didn’t know what a male variation was. And the school put him through a variety of difficult pieces.
“It was a little bit overwhelming,” Walker said.
At one point when he was 16, the intensity of the ballet immersion led him to question whether he should pursue a career as a dancer.
“You really have to dedicate yourself to it, and it can take a lot out of you if you’re still learning how to handle high-pressure situations,” he said. “At first, I didn’t know how to handle the intensity of it, but once you get going you can’t really stop.”
And Walker doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon.
“To this day, even when I’m on stage, I get so excited to know that this is my career,” he said. “That’s something I never imagined.”