Garritt McCabe: Setting the barre fabulously high

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Garritt McCabe

Things are happening at the Pennsylvania Ballet this year. The biggest change is the sparkling new Christmas tree that’s sure to earn gasps from the audience. The tree received a $100,000 makeover and a modern lighting design. Another new addition is dancer Garritt McCabe, a talented young man with a quick wit and the gift of gab. 

So, where are you from?

[Laughing] Like most things with me, it’s complicated. Born — as in day of birth — in the state of New Jersey, raised in Macungie, Pennsylvania. Then, when I was 15, I went on tour with Artists Simply Human. It was a great growth experience but left me wondering where to go as a dancer. Did I want to pursue hip-hop or contemporary? Tap? Jazz? Or did I want to go full-tilt into ballet, learning the rigorous technique that it requires? I did, so at 16, I moved to Boston and studied at the Boston Ballet. I was there for two years — first in the school division and then as a trainee. That was when they told me that I could have a future in ballet, and I was like, “Wait, is ballet really a thing for me now?” and I really buckled down and started taking it seriously. Unfortunately, I got terribly injured, but luckily it healed enough for me to participate in audition season, and I got a job here at Pennsylvania Ballet. 

How old were you when you first started dancing?

At home, since birth, but I was about five when I first went on stage. Though I wasn’t quite doing tour en l’airs yet. 

Touring what?

Tour en l’air, jeté battu, fouetté? [Laughing] Come on! Where’s your French 101, Suzi? 

I took Spanish! So growing up in Macungie, did you ever get any pushback for being a dancer?

Yes, most definitely. Come on now, boy dancer, not only is he doing ballet, but he looks fabulous. Though for a while, when I was doing hip-hop, it was cool. Getting to dance with a bunch of girls was impressive to all the straight boys at school. But in those middle school years, and in the beginning of high school, there was a lot of bullying. All the terrible names you can think of. 

What was the worst moment?

I’m lucky that all the taunts were just verbal and never got physical. I know people who were assaulted and put in lockers and all of that. I think that I escaped that, in part, because I found my voice very early and had a little sass in me from the start. It didn’t hurt that I was oftentimes best friends with their girlfriends, or that my brothers played on the same hockey teams as them. I could say things like, “Yeah, say all you want about me, but I saw your game last night, so you might want to stop talking.” That being said, I still remember a time when I was sitting in art class, I’d just finished something and was really proud of it, which was rare ’cause I sucked at art. This kid walked by and went, [cough] “faggot” [cough], so everyone could hear. It was seventh grade, and I had a girlfriend at the time, but it obviously didn’t matter. When I eventually came out to my siblings, the first reaction was, “But we fought for you for so long!” And I said, “And yes, you were correct, because I wasn’t yet. I was still dating girls and not trying to figure out who I was.” 

How many kids in the family?

Four — one girl and three boys, we’re very tight-knit now. I’m so lucky to have a family that loves and respects each other. 

What’s “That’s Dancin'”?

Oh gosh, that always comes up, I guess because it’s a silly name. To this day, other dancers will tease me when I do a move and say, “Now that’s dancing.” It’s just the studio where I studied when I first got into dance. It was a small local studio, but I have a tremendous amount of respect for the owner Fran Jones Evers. She made me what I am. Whenever I get a chance, I go back there to teach or choreograph. When I go home, I always stop in to see her; it’s a second mom type deal. I studied there most of my life, and all of my siblings were there at one point or another as well. My brothers dropped out because they wanted to play sports. I was the opposite. I was trying to add extra jazz classes during the time we were supposed to be at Scouts or had a football practice so I wouldn’t have to go. I loved going to her classes; she gave me the confidence to do more than I thought I was capable of right from the start. She saw something in me, and her light shines in everything I do, from the way I spot a pirouette to the way I move across a floor. 

Since you were traveling so much, did you attend regular school?

Preschool and kindergarten, I was in real school, then I was homeschooled until fourth grade. My mom taught all four of us; she was a crazy woman! Then I went to Catholic school until I got in trouble because I broke one of the Ten Commandments. I don’t even remember what it was, something silly, but I was mad because I didn’t violate any school policies, only God’s rule. So sophomore year, I went back to public school and hated it. I was on tour so I could never keep up with the classwork, and it was frustrating. It was too much for Garritt so I decided it would be better to get into an online situation. I was wrong because I was still just as lost, but now I couldn’t stop a teacher in the hall to ask for help.

Let’s jump to your debut in Philly. It was right after your injury correct?

So I have a chronic break in the ball of my foot, and she hurts sometimes, but I wasn’t going to let it stop me. Boston didn’t want me auditioning with the injury, but I saw people getting to audition who were dancing at the same level as I was even with an injury, and I wasn’t happy about it. I felt I was keeping up with everyone, and yet they were getting chances I wasn’t. So I was like, no, no, no. So I did a little side move and auditioned in Philadelphia instead of Boston. Two days after that, I flew to Texas because they’d seen me dance and invited me to audition. I was given an offer at both places, and when I came back, Boston suddenly decided to offer me a job. So there I was, very blessed with three contracts to choose from. I decided to go with Philadelphia because I just felt a connection here and also that it was a company where I would grow and learn. 

Have you done “The Nutcracker” before?

Yes, it was actually my introduction to ballet. I’d done other styles of dance and had a basic understanding of ballet but had never really done it. I was in the fifth grade, and this girl came up and said, “You dance don’t you?” and I was like, “Yeah I dance, of course, yasss!” and she said, “We need boys for the Nutcracker!” and I was like, “What’s that?” She told me, and I said, “Sure, I’m down.” It was the first time I’d seen a full production of a ballet with the costumes and sets and all. It was a great experience, and the next year I got to be the nutcracker. 

What are some of the difficulties dancers face?

Point blank, what a dancer does every day is we go in and dance from 9:30 in the morning until 6 at night. We spend that whole time staring at ourselves in the mirror. After we’re done staring at ourselves, we have people in front of us staring at us and telling us what to do with our bodies, and some days you have a crown over your head and some days you have a bag over your head; then we get to go in front of hundreds of people and have them look at us. It’s why some dancers have eating disorders … but you just have to take care of yourself, mentally and physically. 

What’s the feeling you get when performing? What allows you to push through the pain?

It’s a little bit of everything — nerves, adrenaline, the feeling of not knowing what could happen. It factors up until the second you go onstage. Each dance is different and may be more or less suited for you, which makes a difference. I did a performance in Boston where I was featured and it was an emotional process. I really had to make sure that the nerves didn’t get the best of me.

How?

Every dancer has a method, a tiny something, or three tiny somethings, that have to be done before they dance. For me, I like to do a silly dance to break the tension, especially if it’s an important role. I often don’t sleep the night before a performance, so I dance it out with some silly bops and shake everything out, so I’m ready to rumble. We often carry things that we’ve acquired over the years. I have a rock keychain that says, “Good Luck G.” I have no idea who gave it to me, but it’s been in my bag when I’ve had the best shows, so I keep it with me, among other things. 

I read that you used to be a lefty but that you had to change for dance?

Yes, I still eat and write with my left hand, but I had to learn to dance as a righty. When I was coming up, the right side was the only side. Your turns had to go to the right; the lifts were right-side dominant, and my teachers were like, “You’ll never work if you can’t go to the right,” so they beat the left out of me. The lefty in me was still hidden there, so I’m somewhat ambidextrous, and now it’s not as much of a big deal. 

How was coming out?

After I was in Boston, I had a crush on this guy, and when I came home, I told my older brother. We come from a Catholic family, and I wanted to get his reaction first. As we were driving, I told him that there was someone I liked. And he asked me a bunch of questions until I finally said, “It’s a little weird, it’s a guy…” and he was like, “Oh Garritt, I’ve been waiting for you to say something. It’s only weird because it’s your first one.” It was also weird for me because I’m the first out person in my family, so I was treading new ground with no role models. But I thought: that went well. But I didn’t say anything to anyone else until I had my first kiss with a guy. I told my sister about it, and she told me that she was bi, and I was like, “Nuh-uh!! Get out of here!” The first time I hooked up and knew for sure that there was no going back, I called my parents and told them I was gay. My mom was a little unsure for a second, but my dad was like, “Hey, you do you.” My younger brother was the last to know. He made some kind of gay joke, and my dad stopped him. I told my dad it was OK but then had to tell my brother that the reason dad stopped him was because I was gay. He had the biggest reaction and needed a minute to take it in. But it never was a problem. I didn’t realize how lucky I was for their support until I came to Philly and met an old friend. I was like, “Last time I saw you, we were both straight!” We laughed and then she told me she told her mother and it was OK, but that her mom said she could never tell her dad — that he’d once said if any of their children were gay, she’d have to choose between him and the child; she would choose the child but would rather not be put in that position. And I had just called my folks and said, “Hey I’m gay! Talk to you later, bye!” not thinking that it could have lead to something drastic. Fortunately, they are incredibly supportive.

Are they coming to the show?

They’ve already been! Now it’s your turn!