‘It’s the dream’
'The Nutcracker' dancer aspires to professional career
Tanner Blee races BMX bikes. He loves to snowboard. He doesn’t like homework and would eat everything in sight if allowed.
In other words, Blee is a teenage boy.
Where Blee is different from many other 15-year-old boys is that he’s a standout ballet dancer.
In fact, the Grand Junction sophomore is on track to graduate from high school within the year — he’s home-schooled — so he can “get away from this town” and pursue a professional dancing career.
“It’s the dream,” Blee said. “It’s the goal.”
Locals can see Blee dance in the role of the Nutcracker in the Grand Junction Symphony Orchestra’s performances of “The Nutcracker” this month. He also will be the prince in Absolute Dance’s “Cinderella” on Jan. 18–19 at the Montrose Pavilion and Jan. 25–27 at Robinson Theatre in Colorado Mesa University’s Moss Performing Arts Center.
Once Blee finishes those roles, he will prepare for February’s Youth America Grand Prix regionals in Denver where winners earn scholarships to top dance schools.
The teenager’s goal of moving away from Grand Junction is motivated by the opportunities present in cities where the top schools and ballet companies are located and offer the chance to be around other dancers, particularly men, of comparable talent and ambition.
There are few, if any, other boys in this area with the same talent and drive as Blee, said Theresa Kahl, Absolute Dance’s owner and Blee’s mother.
Blee has spent the past few years gaining exposure to city life during intensive summer sessions in Pittsburgh when he was 13 and just this past summer in Boston and New York City, where Blee spent eight weeks working with professionals and alongside other talented dancers.
“I really liked the atmosphere there,” he said. “I’m really a city person.”
Blee’s decision to graduate high school early was only made within the past year when he realized that “I know this is what I’m going to be doing.”
Now that he’s seriously eyeing a professional career in dance, his routine has taken on a more serious tone, even as a 15 year old.
A typical day for Blee begins shortly before 7 a.m. when Kahl wakes her son — again, he is a teenager — to get them out the door and to the Absolute Dance studio by 7:30 a.m.
Once there, Blee eats breakfast, which could be granola, animal crackers or “just a bunch of food,” he said.
Blee takes school courses online until ballet master Anthony Noa arrives at 11 a.m. to work with Blee for an hour until the pair go to Gold’s Gym for 30 minutes of strength training.
Male ballet dancers need to jump high, turn well and have strength to lift women, whereas ballerinas need to be graceful, flexible and have a good toe point.
In less than a year, Blee has grown 4 inches and gained 12 pounds, bringing him to 5-foot-10, 137 pounds.
After weight training and lunch — Kahl and Noa encourage Blee to eat lean proteins, fruits and vegetables against his wishes sometimes — the teenager has a few hours of free time to work on homework, clean the studio, counsel other dancers or take naps until he rehearses and practices from 4:30 until 8:30 p.m. on weekdays.
“Fridays are a bit less,” Blee said.
He dances more on weekends when rehearsing for shows.
There was a time several years ago when the work just became too much and Blee thought about giving up ballet. However, those thoughts lasted “like 35 seconds” and have grown less frequent as he’s gotten older.
Ballet has become both his entertainment and his emotional outlet, he said.
Plus, “he’s also good at it,” Noa interjected. “He turns very well. He jumps very well. He’s flexible.”
Although Blee enjoys other forms of dance, professional male ballet dancers can make upward of six figures a year, said Noa, who danced professionally in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Berlin, Germany.
Noa’s arrival to Absolute Dance in April has helped Blee become more polished, Blee said. In addition, Noa’s coaching and mentoring means “there’s a sense of accountability now,” Kahl said.
Noa said he has been in Blee’s shoes. Growing up in Auburn, Ala., Noa lived in football country, where being a boy interested in ballet wasn’t understood.
Likewise Blee, who enjoys BMX races and snowboarding, likes ballet more but rarely talks about his passion or talent.
“He leaves this studio and doesn’t mention dance to anyone ever,” Kahl said.
It isn’t that Blee is worried about what people think of him, he said. The topic never comes up because he doesn’t know many teenagers who understand or care much about ballet in western Colorado.
Perhaps one day will arrive where young boys such as Blee — or former Grand Junction resident Alex Kramer, now a professional dancer with Ballet San Jose in California, who left Grand Junction at 15 to study in New York City — won’t be such an anomaly.
When Blee started at Absolute Dance as a 3 year old, he was the only boy. Now, the studio has 50 boys in its classes, and 10 are in ballet.
“He has opened up the door in so many ways,” Kahl said. “I praise him all the time.”