It was at Yakima’s Capitol Theatre, during a performance of Chicago’s Parsons Dance Company, when a 10-year-old girl turned to her mother and said, “That is what I want to do.”
“It was one of the most amazing things I had ever seen and it made me think of dance as fun,” the now 38-year-old Tesee (pronounced “Tessie”) George remembers. That moment led to a remarkable career for the talented woman and to wonderful opportunities for other Yakima area youngsters as well.
A physical impediment was the catalyst for George to begin dancing. After she wore leg casts for a year to help correct severely clubbed feet, a doctor advised her parents to enroll her in dance class around age 4 in order to build ankle strength. George studied with well-known instructor Vera Sinclair until her passing, and then the 12-year-old continued lessons at Yakima School of Ballet under Lisa Price. George performed the annual Nutcracker Ballet and danced at both the Warehouse and Capitol theatres. She traveled the country with major ballet companies including the Alvin Ailey tour company and Joffrey Ballet. She gives a great deal of credit for her success to family.
“From a very early age both of my grandmothers encouraged me and my two older sisters to explore our artist side,” George said. “We would paint and sew and cook.”
While attending West Valley High School, the 1999 graduate painted murals around the campus as well as a ram mascot head on the football field for homecoming festivities. The hours outside school were dedicated to ballet.
“Mom was my dance champion,” George said. Her mother, Debbie Vander Houwen, who still lives in Yakima, drove her around the state to classes, auditions, and camps. Her dad, Tom Rodgers, was a lead design engineer for H.R. Spinners. He worked extra hours and sold his prized apple label collection in order to send George to “intensives,” a weeks-long summer session that immersed her in ballet training.
Intense is an appropriate description for the world of ballet. Besides the practice, travel and discipline required, there are the physical requirements and expectations of a “ballet body.” George was in the final year of her four-year full ride scholarship at Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts when the trajectory of her career changed dramatically.
It took many injuries, such as a knee dislocation while at the Joffrey Ballet School summer intensive, for George to discover she has hypermobile joints, a condition in which just overstretching can pull a joint out of position. George continued to earn awards for her dancing but a neck dislocation forced her to take a week off to recuperate. A week later intense pain landed George in the hospital due to a blood clot from the top of her knee to her ankle. It led doctors to discover she has Factor V Leiden, a genetic disorder that can cause blood clotting.
“At that point, I had to change my focus from being a dancer and instead focus on teaching and choreography,” George said. “I found out that is where my true passion lies.”
Putting her experience as well as her bachelor of fine arts degree to use, George created a choreography company, Dance Contemporary, through which she serves as choreographer for Eastlake High School Dance team in Sammamish. She also offers a summer dance class at Elite Performance Dance in Seattle which brings together Washington state high school dance teams.
Last summer, George moved from being ballet mistress at Renton’s Evergreen City Ballet to school principal. As such, George is in charge of managing the school, setting curriculum, hiring and scheduling. She also somehow finds the time to oversee the large productions as well as designing sets and costumes.
George also teaches at Green River College in Auburn. Luckily, the Federal Way home she and her husband Tom share with their two children is close enough to all her pursuits — she can still spend time with her family. She occasionally still dances. Two years ago she performed in “Kiss Me Cake” at Café Nordo, a Seattle dinner theater.
“Dancing flamenco in the dark, six feet in the air on a five-by-five table while singing the Carmen Operetta ... was amazing,” George said. An added bonus was seeing her dad in the audience.
By taking an administrative position, George explained that she can help the next generations of dancers, especially youngsters who face physical challenges that might interfere with that dream.
“I have compassion when dancers come to me with an injury because you can’t take time off because you lose so much,” George said. “I work with them to determine what is causing the injury, what can you do to get around it. That knowledge comes from my own difficulties.
“Dance is a lot about critiques and it is hard to be told you are not right and not let it affect you spiritually, mentally, and emotionally. I was told endless times that my body type is not right and I should quit. But you find your niche and you keep going.”
That desire to help young dancers inspired George to return to her first dance home — Yakima School of Ballet. With owner Price, George held an audition for the Evergreen City Ballet summer intensive with four local dancers being chosen to attend. This spring George will be holding another audition for dancers age 10 and up and said she would love to eventually teach master classes here.
“Yakima has a pretty big dance community and it is growing,” George said.
Along with retaining a fondness for her roots, family remains the core of her dance world. Her 5-year-old daughter recently performed in her first Nutcracker Ballet, appearing as a mouse and an angel.
“It was so fun to be backstage, I was a proud mom,” George said. “I just know the possibilities are endless in helping young dancers find their area to shine.”