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Omaha Magazine

Liz Alford: Living a Fairytale

Apr 28, 2022 04:47PM ● By Andrea Kszystyniak

Photo by Bill Sitzmann | Design by Derek Joy

Stage lights slowly rise, revealing two dancers performing as bugs. Their movements are sharp, a bit creepy, legs clad in deep purple leggings, hair pulled back in tight buns. Opposite them, a group of women sit, dressed in clothes designed for laying in the sun, long legs crossed at the ankles. 

Their relaxation is brief; these insectoid dancers quickly break up the scene, sliding amongst the seated group to lunge, tease, and attack. An all-too-familiar summer battle between people and the bugs that desire their blood ensues, women versus bugs, all set to a string cover of Coheed and Cambria music. This is ballet quite unlike most. 

Local dancer, choreographer, and teacher Liz Alford has crafted this story on stage, a Balanchine-style ballet number in celebration of International Insect Week. 

Many of Alford’s choreographed pieces play out like this. Stylistic, beautiful, but a little bit different.  A Christmas performance set to Fleet Foxes’ “White Winter Hymnal” features dancers clad in bright red shirts playfully moving across the stage. 

“I always told my students that I get choreography insomnia,” Alford said. She will spend nights up late, steps simply flowing through her mind. She said movement, for her, always begins with music; from there, steps naturally flow. 

Patrick Roddy, the head of Creighton University’s dance department, where Alford also teaches, speaks warmly of some playful modifications that she made to a 2021 Creighton performance of The Nutcracker. COVID-19 made it hard to bring in folks outside of Creighton as dancers; so staff decided to have Creighton dancers play the roles of children. Alford and Roddy collaborated on the rework, giving the dancers choreography that would play with the idea that they were supposed to be much younger. They pulled it off; Roddy said he cracked up laughing every night of the performance. 

“There aren’t that many choreographers that have that skill of finding humor and poignancy and emotion,” Roddy said. “And Liz is one of those people that can really feel all those things and portray them in a dance.”

The classically trained dancer has taught ballet at Omaha Academy of Ballet since 2015. She has also choreographed works for OAB, Omaha Dance Project, Nebraska Opera Project, Creighton, and others.

Her journey as a dancer began many decades ago. As a young child, Alford gave her all to gymnastics; she thought she would be a gymnast. But at age 9, a serious injury sidelined those goals; Alford fractured her back. Doctors advised her to leave the sport she loved. So she did. 

She had always been very flexible and active. Post-recovery, she began to spend more time in a local ballet studio; she discovered she had a natural talent for it. 

Around her, dancers practiced the Balanchine method of ballet. The style is a more extreme expression of classical ballet, originally invented by teacher and choreographer George Balanchine. Dancers move rapidly, take deeper plies, swan their arms more openly, move precisely and deliberately. Dance like this is the focal point of popular performances including New York City Ballet’s annual performance of The Nutcracker, choreographed by Balanchine himself. 

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

Liz’s dance career hits many of the ballerina, fairy-tale high notes. She performed in many productions, traveled to courses across the country, and grew her skill set. Then, at age 16, she moved to New York to attend the School of American Ballet full time.  

“I’ve never been somebody who’s scared of like, stepping out and trying something new,” Alford said.

During her time at SAB, she danced in Columbia Picture’s 1998 dance romp, Center Stage, and danced in a number of New York City Ballet productions.

After a year with New York City Ballet, Alford sat back to reassess. 

“My whole life had been ballet,” she said. 

She ended up leaving New York to study at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts. Post grad, she moved to China to teach English. 

It was during her time in China that Alford returned to the dance world, not in a professional studio, but in a Chinese elementary school. At the time, Alford was teaching kindergarten students and school staff were looking for someone to teach an after-school class. Alford humbly mentioned, “Well, I can dance.”

“When I quit New York City Ballet, I thought that that door was shut,” she said. “But then, you know, I got an opportunity to teach.”

Alford’s skills grew opportunities for her; she missed dancing and decided on a whim to try a hip-hop class. She arrived at the studio and the class was canceled; the instructor, sick. But, a ballet class was going on. So she took it. After class, the owner of the studio came up to her and asked “What are you doing here? You’re a professional dancer.” Alford was immediately offered a job. 

From there, she traveled from studio to studio across the country. Work would take her to do choreography for commercials for major brands such as BMW and to area women's shelters. She would remain in China for just under 10 years. 

In 2014, business would bring Alford and her husband back to his hometown of Omaha. Soon thereafter, Alford started teaching at the Omaha School of Ballet. Then, at Creighton. Now, she also teaches classes in her home. 

Ballet is, at its root, a somewhat scientific practice. And Alford, with her years of experience choreographing and performing, can visualize exactly what minor modifications a dancer may need to make toward positioning to really stick the moves precisely. 

“I think one of my gifts as a teacher is to be able to see really minute details that can help them be successful,” Alford said. 

This article originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.