DANCER: Back to Where Dance Began : Sugar Plum Fairy Pirouettes Back to Origin of Her Dance

Times Staff Writer

Even as she reaches extraordinary heights as a principal dancer with the Joffrey Ballet, Leslie Carothers keeps coming home to where her career began as a wee winter tree and a tulip.

Her mother and father still live in the San Gabriel home where she grew up, Duarte Parks and Recreation Department is still offering ballet lessons for 4-year-olds, and Carothers still gets excited about dancing the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in “Nutcracker,” as she is again this Christmas season.

“This is always one of the high points of my year,” Carothers said as she headed home once again from New York, where she has lived and studied with Joffrey Ballet since she was 16.


She is starring in Pasadena Dance Theater’s annual “Nutcracker” in its second performance today at 2:30 p.m. in Claremont’s Bridges Auditorium and again Dec. 20, 21, 22 and 23 in the San Gabriel Civic Auditorium.

Family Never Wavered in Support

Now 22 and getting rave reviews, Carothers guesses she is an achiever and an artist because her family never wavered in devotion and support and because of fine dance teachers.

Her family guesses she is an achiever because . . . well, she’s Leslie.

“We all have two left feet,” said Janette Carothers, who teaches English and citizenship at Monrovia Adult School. Her husband, Ted, teaches anthropology at Temple City High School, where their daughter graduated at the age of 16. Their son, Douglas, 24, lives in Altadena.

Despite chauffeuring the budding dancer thousands of miles to lessons and years of providing tutus and dancing shoes and costumes like those when she was the wee winter tree and tulip in the Duarte recreation programs, Janette Carothers said the family never stopped to calculate their investment in their daughter’s training.

“We did not give her ballet lessons to get her into Joffrey. That’s just a very pleasant side effect,” she said. “The idea was not necessarily to be a good dancer. There was so much else, such as body development, music, health, good friends, discipline.

“Maybe if we added up the costs they’d seem staggering, but it’s been a thrill to us that Leslie’s attained what she has. There’s no better way we could have spent that money. We could have blown it all on one car.”

Tedd Welsch, who taught Carothers for several years at the Pasadena Dance Theater, said he recognized her potential when she was 11, the same year she declined a scholarship to study with the New York City Ballet because she was so young.

“With her lovely body, her coordination and with her kind of mental concentration, people can do anything they want to do,” Welsch said.

“Dancing is what I always wanted to do,” Carothers said. But sometimes she kept it secret.

She began with free ballet lessons for tiny tots in Duarte and continued studying with a West Covina teacher, Marilia Walsh, and Pasadena Dance Theater’s Welsch and its founder, Evelyn LeMone. Meanwhile, there was another, “normal” life to be led.

Kept Low Profile

“Temple City High was a rah-rah football school, and I was part of that,” she said. “I felt it looked kind of strange to dance. None of my friends did, so I kept a low profile about it. Dance was something I did after school, and I was embarrassed because I thought it was so odd.”

After graduating ahead of her class at 16, she went to New York with a full scholarship to the Joffrey school.

“My mother still has some gray hair over that,” she said.

“I felt terrified,” her mother said.

The teen-ager stayed with families and in a women’s dormitory and made jewelry and baby-sat to help support herself. She studied and developed her art all day, every day, as she still does.

Now she is self-supporting, sharing a New York apartment with a friend and traveling all over the country for special appearances.

Innovative Troupe

Joffrey, one of the country’s top ballet companies and the Los Angeles Music Center resident company, is noted for innovations in classical dance. Carothers said this suits her style.

“What I like most is ballet that is not strictly classical, but something that I can add feeling to,” she said.

In her repertoire, Carothers has featured roles in Twyla Tharp’s “Deuce Coupe II,” Robert Joffrey’s “Postcards,” Gerald Arpino’s “Light Rain,” “Viva Vivaldi” and “Suite Saint-Saens” and Jiri Kylian’s “Return to the Strange Land.” She performed with Rudolf Nureyev on television in “Green Table” and “Petroushka” and has made guest appearances with the Los Angeles Ballet, the New Jersey Ballet and Indiana Southfold Dance Theater.

Last March, after she took the leading role in Philip Jerry’s “Hexameron,” a New York Times review said: “Carothers has a clear, unaffected classical style that makes her a consistent pleasure to watch.”

‘Classic Purity’

After she danced in Arpino’s “Kettentanz,” the reviewer wrote: “There are Joffrey dancers whose presence and technical skills alone are worth a trip to the City Center. . . . Chief among them is Leslie Carothers, a long-limbed colt of a dancer with a decidedly uncoltish sense of classic purity and elegance. . .a young ballerina who may one day be one of the great ones.”

Carothers said she still depends on her “normal, well-rounded” background for support as she rises in her rigorous profession, which she said she hopes will continue “another five or 10 years.”

That background helped two years ago when she fractured a metatarsal bone that took six months to heal and “was so bad I was looking at alternate careers.” During her long recovery, she said, “I discovered that I had been working on the wrong track. This forced me to go back and strengthen weak points, and as a result my dancing got better. I learned again; it’s up to you to shape your life.

“None of us (at Joffrey) think we’re leading a normal life. But when I come home at night, I extract myself from it and do other things. My boyfriend and I like sports. I write. I took a fiction-writing course.”

The 5-foot-7 ballerina says she “eats healthy” and finds it easy to keep her weight at 115 pounds.

“Fortunately, I don’t have a weight problem,” she said. “That’s something that can make people retire early.

“I think the ones who last are those with a normal, well-rounded background. They’re the ones who knew their options and chose, rather than being pushed.”