At 19, Kaeli Ware has done pretty much everything a young dancer could dream of doing.
She’s been on Dance Moms and So You Think You Can Dance. She appeared on the second season of World of Dance. She’s placed at Youth America Grand Prix (the most prestigious student ballet competition in the world) and toured with Debbie Allen. She is a trainee with Complexions Contemporary Ballet, which is based in New Rochelle, N.Y., and tours globally.
“Kaeli has it all,” said Bo Spassoff, director of Philadelphia’s Rock School for Dance Education, where Ware has been studying the last three years. She’s blessed with “long legs, terrific feet, extreme flexibility. She can jump, and turns really well. Besides all this, she is beautiful and a truly dynamic performer.”
Outside of dance, Ware was a Wilhelmina model at 16 and she has more than 100,000 followers on Instagram.
Then, just as she was on the brink of graduating from the Rock School and auditioning for ballet companies, the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States. The Rock, on South Broad Street, counts among its alumni such international superstars as Isaac Hernandez (and his brother Esteban, who is a principal dancer at San Francisco Ballet), Christine Shevchenko, a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre, and New York City Ballet principal dancers Taylor Stanley and Russell Janzen.
Ware hopes to follow in their footsteps. For now, with the school closed temporarily, she and her boyfriend are at hunkered down at her home in Northern Virginia.
“I was supposed to be at an audition the day after everything got shut down,” Ware said. “So that obviously didn’t happen. But now a lot of companies aren’t even hiring because they can’t afford to. I think a lot of dancers, especially my age, are struggling a lot with that.”
Instead, it’s back to the barre, for both learning and teaching.
“I’m just taking every ballet class I can that I can find online,” including ones the Rock School is offering, she said. “There’s a lot of good resources now. The dance community is really coming together and putting a lot of stuff out there for the people that need it.”
To make up for the lack of studio setting, they got a wooden platform to cover her home’s carpeted floors. Ware’s boyfriend, César Ramirez (one of the Cuban triplet ballet dancers the Inquirer interviewed in 2018), was able to get marley vinyl dance flooring to top the wood. And her mom brought a ballet barre home from her work as a ballet teacher.
Ware is also teaching an online ballet class once a week to kids ages 9 to 13 via the school where her mom teaches, Studio Bleu in Ashburn, Va. (Sound familiar? It was one of the rival schools on Dance Moms. Ware is still friends with the other dancers from that show, and her mother often went to the movies with the show’s famous teacher, Abby Lee Miller, before social isolation.)
Ware and Ramirez also took over Inside Dance magazine’s Instagram account to show their quarantine routine one day last month. The magazine called them “our favorite couple.”
Ware, Ramirez, and Ware’s mother, Gloria Hampton, have also signed up for free online courses through Harvard University.
“It’s really fun,” Ware said. “I’m taking Spanish, because my boyfriend is from Cuba. I’m taking a nutrition and sports class, and a music class that’s about ballet and music and orchestras and stuff like that.”
As the daughter of a dancer teacher — her father is a former musician who now sells computers — Ware took her first dance class at 18 months old. Even her name refers to dance, as a relative realized after she was born: Kaeli, like the Gaelic ceili, a gathering for dance and music.
She was a competition dancer before she got serious about ballet, and she continued competing during her first two years at the Rock School.
“So I was here [at the Rock], but I would still like, go home ... probably like, twice a month and go rehearse. And then I’d do the competitions. So this is my first year that I’m not doing that at all. But I would say like when I came to the Rock, that’s when I started focusing just on ballet."
At 5 feet, 10 inches, Ware is tall for a dancer. From ages 9 to 11, she studied at American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, and more was considered for ABT’s Studio Company — until the directors found out how tall she’d grown.
“I kind of had all my eggs in that basket,” Ware said. “I learned a lesson from that because you can’t ever have everything in one basket, you always have to be open to other things.”
“For some companies, her height might be an issue," Spassoff said, "but some companies like tall dancers and Kaeli is an exceptional dancer. Kaeli is a wonderful contemporary dancer as well as ballet dancer. We have found that taller dancers have done very well, particularly in Europe.”
Race may also be a factor, and perhaps in her favor. Ware is African American, and companies are aiming to hire dancers of color to make up for centuries focused on lines of white swans, snowflakes, and sylphs.
At this point, Ware said she will probably come back to Philadelphia for another year of training. The time at home has allowed a sprained ankle to heal and has given her some perspective.
“I’m actually OK with [another year at school], because this is only my first year not even doing other types of competition dancing. So I do think that I can benefit from doing another year of training.”
Spassoff agrees. “Kaeli has been given a talent and has received considerable acknowledgment of that talent from a wide range of people. She needs to trust that there will be the just right time and place for her to share the beauty that she expresses when she dances.”
Meanwhile, Ware said, she’s making the best of things.
"It’s definitely taken some getting used to. I miss my friends a lot, but we FaceTime all the time. It’s really hard because essentially, at the Rock, we all live together. We do school together, we do everything together, which is different from most dance studios.
“But I am happy because I get to be with my mom, who I don’t get to see all the time.”