Sixteen-year-old ballerina Kate Thomas has danced in Texas, Florida, Chicago, Salt Lake City, Denver, and at the prestigious Lincoln Center in New York. For the moment, pandemic travel restrictions limit her to dancing in her hometown of San Antonio, but once those lift and life returns to some semblance of normal, she will dance at The Royal Ballet School in London.
Thomas, who will dance the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Children’s Ballet of San Antonio (CBSA) production of The Childrens’ Nutcracker, learned in October that she’d been accepted to the prestigious London dance school. With that prized position won, she applied for the 2021 Prix de Lausanne international dance competition in Switzerland, and was chosen as one of 83 dancers out of 400 applicants to move on to the finals.
Because of the pandemic, rather than travel she will submit a video and await the results. Whether she wins or not is less important than simply being selected to compete with dancers from all over the world, Thomas said.
“Winning is not my number one priority,” she said. “Just to be accepted in this competition is a dream come true.”
Thomas said the young dancers all will be seen by representatives from many important dance schools that have produced some of the finest ballerinas in the world.
“Just to be seen by the schools, and the networking that this competition provides for dancers is already such an amazing opportunity that winning does not even bother me in the slightest,” she said.
Thomas has already gained valuable experience, having successfully danced in competitions since the age of 10. Making it to the final round of the Youth American Grand Prix the past two years sent her to New York to dance on the Lincoln Center stage, in front of professional dancers from around the world including Isabella Boylston, principal dancer for the American Ballet Theater.
“It was insane to think that they were watching us,” Thomas said. The first year she competed, “I was very, very nervous, because it was such a new opportunity. It was all happening so fast, and … all the other dancers from the competition were watching us.”
“That was my best performance I’ve ever done,” Thomas said.
Vanessa Bessler, CBSA founder and Thomas’s teacher and mentor, said such poise and professionalism are among the qualities that set Thomas apart, along with raw talent and an eagerness to learn.
“Kate is a very special case, and it’s an honor for me to work with her,” Bessler said.
“I immediately saw the talent,” she said, but “it’s not just the physical talent that is required to become a ballerina, but also the character, personality, and strength in the person. She’s extremely smart, and you could see how she catches on to instructions very fast.”
Not only is Thomas capable of properly executing the steps of ballet, a notoriously precise art form, but “the moment you play the music, she is singing the music with her body,” Bessler said.
Bessler became a professional at a young age, rising quickly to become prima ballerina with the National Ballet of Panama. Through her work at CBSA, she has trained many young dancers, including students with special needs and students with talent and drive similar to Thomas, whom she started teaching at age 7.
“And almost 10 years later,” Bessler said, “you have this amazing dancer that is not just a beautiful artist with strong technique, but is also an amazing human being.” One of Thomas’s best qualities is that she frequently can be found helping younger students in the studio learn their technique, Bessler said. Thomas said that CBSA dancers that came before her did the same for her, and she wanted to pass the kindness forward.
“I never used to think that little girls would look up to me and take inspiration from me,” Thomas said. “But then I realized I did the same thing with dancers who are older than me,” such as her CBSA predecessors Mackenzie Kirsch and Lucy Hassmann, who Bessler said have also gone on to find success pursuing professional careers.
Their help taught Thomas “to set a good example and do the right thing,” she said, noting that one person can make the difference in whether a young student falls in love with dancing and continues. “You don’t realize how much of an impact you have on them until you see them later in their careers,” she said, “and it’s really special.”
Like Kirsch and Hassmann before her, Thomas entered competitions and earned scholarships from her efforts, traveling to summer intensives put on by the Bolshoi Ballet, Ballet West, the Houston Ballet, and the Colorado Ballet Academy. Once the pandemic subsides enough for her to travel, she will head to London to begin studying at The Royal Ballet School.
That trip was supposed to happen in early March, but as news of the coronavirus sunk in with her parents Melanie and Robert Thomas, both medical professionals, they decided to all stay home. The pause was actually a blessing, Thomas said, since she felt her dad wasn’t quite ready for her to leave home. Now, she said, they are both fully on board for her to embark on what could become an international dance career.
In the meantime, Thomas will focus on her studies at Alamo Heights High School, particularly the math and science classes she enjoys most. Math used to be hard for her, she said, but after focusing more and studying with a tutor, “one day it just clicked for me,” and she now enjoys working on complex math problems.
Her approach to ballet is similar, and shows her determination. “I’ve been improving, but it’s hard to see it sometimes,” she said. “Because I’ll get really frustrated in what I’m doing. I just feel like it’s not working out or, like I can’t do something good enough. That’s pretty challenging.”
But, she said, “that makes me want to do it more and to keep going in ballet. It’s never like you’re going to be perfect at it. You never will be, ever. And that’s what’s fun about it, because I think it keeps me going.”
While most 16-year-olds are likely thinking about their high school classes and crushes, with college still a distant thought, Thomas’ accomplishments as a dancer have her firmly on course for a promising international career in ballet.
Should her dance career progress as hoped, her top choices would be to join the company of The Royal Ballet or the American Ballet Theater, which would mean Isabella Boylston might one day have the chance to share a stage with this ambitious, focused young ballerina from San Antonio.
Anyone eager to see Thomas perform will not have to wait until then. She will dance the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in CBSA’s version of The Children’s Nutcracker 2020, presented virtually for the first time Dec. 18-26. Tickets are available for online purchase.