Flying High: Mary Anna Ball Dancing Her Way Through Life
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A firefighter? An astronaut? A teacher? An athlete?
Some individuals gravitate toward a particular passion or profession based on life experiences. Others go out and develop the skills needed to chase their dreams. And then there are those who are born to do something.
Mary Anna Ball was born to be a dancer.
From the time she was very young and saw her older cousin dance, Ball knew that this was something for her. And she has spent the first two decades of her life chasing after that dream.
“My cousin was a dancer and I was absolutely enthralled after seeing her perform in Coppelia when I was very young,” Ball recalled. “I loved everything about it – the music, the costumes, the story. I loved how everyone on stage could do impossible things like soar and balance on their toes, and I wanted desperately to be able to do the same. I went to every performance until I was old enough to enroll and was fascinated at how each one was different. It looked easy for everyone to change from a comedy like Coppelia to a drama like House of Bernarda Alba. I knew this was something for me.”
Ball is a soloist with the Charleston Ballet in Charleston, West Virginia where she has featured for more than five years. She has performed in multiple roles in such performances as Romeo & Juliet, Swan Lake, Coppelia, and The Nutcracker, and was set to make her debut in her favorite ballet, Giselle, before COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the remainder of the performance schedule earlier this year.
When she is not dancing, Ball also serves as an assistant teacher at the American Academy Ballet, the school of dance at the Charleston Ballet.
“I have been dancing with the American Academy Ballet and Charleston Ballet my entire life,” Ball said. “Starting with creative movement at age four, my first big performance was when I was seven. I was asked to be a bunny guard in our production of The Nutcracker with the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra. I have performed various roles every year since, from a gingersnap to a little girl in a party scene to one of the reed flutes. I joined the company when I was 14 and was promoted to soloist at age 18.
“For both ballet and Classics, I love the work and the challenge that goes into them. I love to work and challenge myself. They are both disciplines one person can never really master; there will always be things that could be better, cleaner, more articulate, more precise. I enjoy knowing that there is no end goal and that it is always moving forward.”
At only 22 years of age, what Ball has already accomplished in her young life has been nothing short of impressive.
Graduating from Marshall University in 2019 with a degree in Latin and Humanities, Ball was selected earlier this year to receive a scholarship with the Fulbright Program, a scholarship and fellowship program for students to study, research or teach in almost any country in the world. Each award is unique based on the individual program and student involved.
After submitting her application back in October, Ball was notified in April that she was one of 1,600 U.S. students selected to receive the grant where she will serve in the Department of Dance at the University of Roehampton in London.
“The University of Roehampton is home to the top dance research program in the U.K. and I’ll be getting a one-year M.A. in Dance Philosophy and History,” Ball said. “Under department head Dr. Alexandra Kolb, I will be studying the evolution of the roles of performer and dancer from classical antiquity to modernity, looking especially at the role of the ballerina in the Romantic era. I want to see how it has changed from a profession of low social status to an elite art.
“Getting this scholarship was a very long and difficult progress. I was one of 10 to apply for my specific award at the University of Roehampton this year, making it the most competitive so far for that specific award. That and the U.K. is one of the most popular countries to apply for for U.S. students. There was a lot of waiting and a lot of anxiety.”
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and worldwide travel restrictions, it is unclear what the future holds for Ball’s trip to the U.K. in the fall. While some grantees in other countries have had their programs and grants outright cancelled, Ball has been encouraged to reapply for next year in the event that there is a change to her grant for 2020.
“I may have to do my first semester online and move over for the second semester, or if travel is not possible by January, complete my entire degree online” Ball said. “The plus to this is at least I know what I’m doing for the application and I am helping fellow Marshall alums and current students with their Fulbright applications for the next year. I hope more Marshall students apply. We are getting a great education at Marshall and we can prove it to the world.”
In addition to her dance prowess, Ball launched onto the national scene in 2019 when she received an Emmy for Best Arts/Entertainment Program at the Ohio Valley Emmy Awards held in Louisville, Kentucky. Ball was the Associate Producer on the documentary Andre Van Damme & the Story of the Charleston Ballet alongside acclaimed director Deb Novak. The documentary tells the story of the ballet which was founded in 1956 and is one of the oldest continuously-running ballet companies in the country, behind only companies like the San Francisco Ballet, New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre.
“It was very cool to be backstage after our project was announced and receive my very own Emmy statuette,” Ball said. “I worked on this project with Deb Novak, another Marshall alumna who directed the Emmy-winning documentary Marshall University: Ashes to Glory. We danced together at the Charleston Ballet and is a dear friend. We came up with the project driving to Charleston for rehearsal for our 60th anniversary season, but it soon became a full project when we discovered the breadth of the history of our little company.
“This was an honor on top of so many others. Winning an Emmy along with being featured and winning in film festivals around the world was a dream come true.”
Today, Ball can be seen all over the state. In addition to her Emmy and ballet performances, Ball is even featured on a life-size poster promoting the West Virginia Dance Festival that is on display at the West Virginia State Capitol Building on Arts Day.
Not bad for a small-town girl from Barboursville, West Virginia.
Growing up in West Virginia to hard-working parents, her mom the choir director at Barboursville Middle School and her dad a Construction Engineer for the DOH, Ball learned the value of hard work from an early age. And through the support of her family, she has been able to chase her dreams from a very early age.
“My father passed away suddenly right before I turned 13 and it has been me, my mom, and my brothers since. I have danced all my life and I have always loved going to school and learning new things,” Ball said. “Both of my parents emphasized how important, fulfilling, and enriching education is, and it is an appreciation that has shaped my life for the better.”
She further honed her skills while obtaining her degree at Marshall University. Continuing to balance school and dance, Ball, a third-generation Marshall student, graduated with honors and credits many of her professors for further pushing her both academically and in her personal life.
“Marshall is a family affair for me. Not only is my mom a Marshall alumna, but so is her sister and both my grandmothers. My mom’s mom was a student when it was still Marshall College. I am very fortunate to not only be a third-generation college student, but a third-generation Marshall student,” Ball said. “I grew so much as a person and student because of my professors, and I truly don’t know where I would be without their guidance. Some of my professors even came to see me in the ballet, so it was more than just stepping into a classroom and leaving when the hour was over.”
Today, Ball continues to hone her skills, both from her home studio and in an adjusted live studio environment, as she navigates a new normal brought on by the Coronavirus pandemic.
“Recently the studios have opened back up, but of course we are all wearing masks while dancing and hands-on corrections and any contact in any choreography has been eliminated,” Ball said. “While dancing in a mask was difficult and uncomfortable at first, we have all gotten used to it now and it is no longer an issue. If anything, my stamina has improved; it’s like high-altitude training without having to travel. And I continue to practice and train at home on the days there is not class in the studio.
“I am very lucky that I have a sprung floor in my house, the traditional flooring situation you would find in a dance studio. It is a small room and my biggest challenge is finding ways to move and travel in my ballet exercises in such a small space. It is very easy to lose technique if you take a break, and I am trying my best to keep in shape during all of this. I love being home with my animals, but sometimes they wander in when I am trying to do my classes and it can be very distracting and hazardous. It just makes me appreciate my regular large studio even more.”
Eventually, things will return to normal and Ball very much looks forward to a return to crowded theaters watching dancers leaping through the air. After all, like her so many years ago, the next generation of dream chasers could be in the audience watching.
“I feel so fortunate to be able to do what I do,” Ball said. “It just proves that you can accomplish anything if you set your mind to it.”