For those of you who don’t know who Kirsten Kemp is, I am so sorry. She is an incredible human being who offers so much wisdom and light to the world, especially the ballet world. She is now a mindset coach for dancers but was once a professional dancer herself. Though dedicating her life to ballet from a young age, she found herself needing to give up of what she loved most only a year after beginning her career. But to her surprise, she found so much more the moment she let go of what she thought was hers. Kirsten’s story embodies redemption and serves as an incredible inspiration to many. I feel so privileged to have had the opportunity to interview her. Without further a due, Kirsten Kemp.
Kirsten Kemp grew up in Corpus Christi Texas and started ballet at the age of six at a small private school in town. But alongside ballet, she also was engaged in many other activities such as piano, swimming, and other sports.
“I started ballet at six when I was getting into a bunch of different activities. I feel fortunate because my parents, just let us try everything! They wanted us to be exposed to a lot of different activities.”
Ballet first sparked Kirsten’s interest when she saw it on TV as a kid. But the fairytale that the Barbie movies painted wasn’t the reality that met Kirsten.
“I remember seeing some cartoon character do a sutenu with their arms up. I tried to mimic it and when my mom saw me doing that in the kitchen, she said, ‘Oh, that’s ballet.’ And I was like, ‘What’s ballet?’ She signed me up. And I actually didn’t like it that much. Why I stuck with it, I do not know. I liked the recital dances. Otherwise, I would literally try to pay my mom to not take me into ballet. But it would be like $2 of my chores, money. And it definitely cost more than that to take me to a ballet class. But then it was like something switched in me when I had a different teacher. Ballet starting to become more athletic. And I think I resonated with that because I liked swimming a lot better. I thought, Yes, I can do this. And then I thought, wow, okay, I’m not very good. Other girls are way better than me. So that motivation kicked in. I want to be good. That’s when it got really exciting for me.”
Though the principal of Kirsten’s Dance academy was a former Principal from Sadler Wells, Kirsten had never thought about ballet being a career until she started attending summer schools.
“Yeah, so it was through them (summer schools) that I learned, wow, people do this professionally. Like, I was just trying to be good for here. So then, yeah, the path just kind of opened to me.”
Kirsten attended the ABT Alabama, Houston Ballet, and San Francisco Ballet summer programs before landing a full-time spot at the Houston Ballet School. She stayed at the Houston Ballet School for a total of two years. During her first year at Houston she had a lot of favor with her teachers and was excelling in her class. However in her second year, she experienced a few traumatic incidences causing her mental state to crumble.
“I just felt like total garbage, like, very humiliated and incompetent. Then I started to act out that belief. I became extremely insecure, extremely anxious, very fearful, very timid, which is not like me. I thought, oh, maybe this is the real me. So the more I shrank, the more I got criticism because I wasn’t doing well. And so it just became this very terrible spiral for me. Yeah. And then my physical health declined immediately with my mental health.”
After Houston, she ended up, through the persuasion of her mom, applying for college instead of jumping straight into company. It was there that she grew to learn just how important a healthy mindset is.
“I was struggling with a knee injury. I just didn’t feel like my ability was 100% there. I was starting to question how sustainable this career would be for me. My mom finally got through to me and she was like, ‘you should apply for college.’ I saw that as such a failure. I was like, ‘No, that’s where losers go, to waste their parents’ money on a dance degree where the training is garbage.’ I was so judgmental about university for dance. And I ended up having a great experience. I audition for only two schools. I applied after the deadline and they still accepted me. I got into both Indiana University and the University of Utah, which gave me a scholarship. I didn’t know that was just what I needed. I needed time to, really find the other parts of me.”
Kirsten eventually got an apprenticeship contract with the Oklahoma City Ballet. She was still thriving mentally and living out her dream until the company made a decision that took an emotional and mental blow.
“After college, I dance with Oklahoma City Ballet. And that was a great place. I was very happy there. I got some good opportunities. I was an apprentice and so I was getting to dance with the corps de ballet. I know that for some apprentices, they feel kind of pushed to the back but I got that box checked for me emotionally, like, I am a part of a company. I went on tour with them. It was such a dream come true. And I was so happy, so happy for six months. Then after Nutcracker, I found out that they were restructuring the company. And basically, they were about to call the apprentice group trainees. That broke my heart and my ego. It felt like the biggest slap in the face. I worked, I’m 23 years old, I gave everything to be here. And I think a lot of dancers probably relate to the professional status as being like, I made it. This is who I am now. This is who I’ve wanted to be. And I’m finally that person. And so to be called a trainee, it just felt so insulting. From that moment, I felt like my dream kind of crumbled. All this old trauma and sadness came up of like, ‘Oh, yeah, this was all fake. Like, what did I think, my dreams were actually gonna come true?’ And then three weeks later, we had winter break, and when we came back my tendon tore. After that, I was still dancing. I finished the whole season. So from January to the end of April, I was dancing. I didn’t stop. And I was also auditioning, but my tendon had like a 30 to 40% tear in the knee. And I refused to admit it was happening.”
Kirsten rested during the summer break hoping it would heal her knee, but as the weeks passed very little, if any, progress took place. Still, she decided to come back in the autumn.
“I tried to come back. Like I literally threw on a leg warmer to conceal the fact that I couldn’t straighten my leg. They cast me in first cast Swan Lake, but then two weeks into the season, I walked into the studio, and I finally snapped out of my denial. I was like, this is not getting better. I’m not okay.”
After finding a doctor, Kirsten was having surgery one week later. And three months after that she was back on stage, still unable to straighten her leg all the way. Struggling to come to grips with the idea of letting go of ballet her family gently helped her see the harmful effect that it was having on her.
“You better believe I was still in denial. But my family had watched me for the entire year, struggling. They watched me holding on to hope thinking, I’m one more treatment away. I’m one more PT regiment away. I just kept trying and popping so many pain pills. They were so supportive of me. But finally, my sister and my mom got through to me. They said ‘just promise us, Kirsten, that as you go on stage, and you’re clearly hurting and it sounds like you’re not okay, promise us that, if you are still in pain, after the shows, you will go get another MRI. You need to be honest about this.’ During a conversation with my mom, I was crying, I finally asked her, I said, ‘Okay, you can be honest. What do you think about me continuing in this path?’ She said, ‘you know, we’ve decided from the beginning that we would support you until the end. And you’ve done so much, and you’ve done well. We’re very proud of you and all these things. I just don’t know about this ballet thing.’
To Kirsten, though those words were painful, they gave her the clarity that she needed to get her knee taken care of. And knowing what her family’s opinion was, as well as knowing she’d have their support no matter what gave her the courage to confront the problem and get another MRI.
The tear that she had hoped had healed somewhat was fully back.
Unfortunately, the doctor, who didn’t know much about the lifelong dedication and emotional ties dancers have to their art form, rather bluntly spelled out the future for Kirsten.
“He’s a super nice guy. But was just kind of like, ‘Yeah, it looks like you can heal and you know, you can do ballet for fun! Like, I take Tango classes, and it’s really fun.’ And at that point, I’m like, you better stop talking right now. But I got the message. He said, ‘you can take two months off and try to start from scratch. Then you can go through more and more rounds of this treatment. But it looks like we’re just going to keep having the same problem, you can keep trying though. And so we made a treatment plan, but I didn’t commit to what I was going to do about my career.”
The Christmas holidays quickly followed to which she recalls were, miraculously, a peaceful time.
“I had such a peaceful time, I could not believe it, I had like total peace, I was present with my family, I had a good time. And then about six days before I was supposed to go back, I thought, okay, it’s time to think about this. So, I’m a Christian, and my faith is a really big part of my life. When I came back to Oklahoma, I was going to take a maintenance class the day before work started. I fasted and I prayed. I was looking for an answer of some sort, for confirmation, like, what should I do? I didn’t feel like I got one. But what I did sense was ‘go to class tomorrow, your answer is there.’ So I did that. And while I was taking barre, I felt so happy while I was dancing. And my body felt pretty good! I think the old me would have been like, ‘Oh, I’m not hurting that badly. This is a yes!’ But while I was taking the class, I just felt so detached from needing a certain answer. I remember I was standing there while the teacher was showing a combination, I had my hand on the bar, and the sun was coming through the window. I just felt this peace descend from the top of my head to my toes, through my whole body. And I just got this thought in my head that said, ‘Kirsten by saying yes to this, you’re saying no to so much more.’ And I was like, ‘Okay, I’m stopping ballet’. I did the rest of the class and I was just like a ray of sunshine. I was jumping! I was doing everything in class and I was getting so many, ‘good job. Kirsten!’ And fellow dancers were like, ‘that was so good!’ ‘She looks so good!’ Again, that would have been confirmation for me previously, like, stay, stay say! But I just had so much peace about this. So I went up to the ballet mistress, and I asked her, can I get out of my contract? And she said yes. And I said, can I keep dancing with the company class? And she says, yes. And yeah, that was it for me.”
After this huge decision, Kirsten enjoyed a quiet time in life. She healed physically and emotionally and was quite alright with floating through life for a bit. But what followed she never could have imagined. She was invited by her sister to join her at a life coaching conference, which initially didn’t seem all that enticing or interesting, however, it was in that unlikely place that her next door flew open!
“So she (Kirsten’s sister, Kelsey) signed up for this program, and she could bring a guest for free to the first weekend, the training conference weekend. She asked me if I wanted to come? I didn’t really want to go. It just seemed kind of weird. Long story short, I did go. I went not even knowing what coaching was. And then the first day, I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is what I do with my peers, because I love to ask questions and encourage people and help them through things. Oh my gosh, wait, I love this!’ And I felt good at it. So it was just really empowering. I signed up for this program, and I was like, I guess I’m going to be a coach.”
Funny enough ballet mindset coaching was out of the question for Kirsten because she “knew” that ballerinas couldn’t and/or wouldn’t pay for it! However, that turned out to be very much not the case!
“I randomly, for the past 10 years, had still kept my YouTube channel. I was giving ballet advice to dancers, especially aspiring dancers, or young professionals. I mentioned this new career path, and this mom finds my email address somewhere, sends me an email and she’s like, ‘I would like to pay for your consulting services. I’m looking for a life coach for my daughter.’ So I get on a call with this dancer and her mom. And they agreed to work with me. We had six sessions together. And then she wanted more! And I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? Okay, cool.’ So then I decided, I work with dancers now.”
It’s been three years since then and Kirsten has already touched so many lives and offered so much to the world of dance.
“I’m very passionate about helping dancers to adopt a healthy mindset so they can perform better with confidence. And yeah, it’s just grown slowly. There is still, so much further I want to take my work, but even like, where it is now, I couldn’t have imagined it!”
It’s so true, her passion is so evident in everything she does and says. One of the things you can see so clearly in conversation with her, on her social media platforms, and in her sessions is her genuine care for and understanding of ballerinas and their way of life. That paired with her nerdiness of all things brain, produces an incredible wealth of empowering and instructional information!
It’s crazy how quickly life can change, but like Kirsten, we too can always have the hope of redemption. It’s so inspiring to see and to continue to see her life’s journey. If you too want to follow Kirsten’s journey and/or take advantage of her incredible skill set of mindset coaching check out the links below.
For more information on Kirsten, follow her on her IG page: https://instagram.com/twintalksballet?utm_medium=copy_link
For booking her and info on her services check out her website: https://kirstenkemp.com/1-1-coaching
Follow her YouTube channel here: https://youtube.com/c/TwinTalksBallet