When we first meet Shaelynn Estrada, she’s lying on the floor of a studio at the National Ballet of Canada. Daylight streams through the floor-to-ceiling windows, and we settle in to chat about the thing she loves most.
Shaelynn is a featured dancer in Swan Song, a new CBC Gem docu-series directed by Chelsea McMullan, telling the story of the National Ballet’s 2022 production of Swan Lake, led by the iconic Canadian dancer Karen Kain. Shaelynn is a member of the “corps de ballet”, the core group of dancers on stage whose coordinated movements are a breathtaking force, and a huge part of the spectacle and awe-factor of the ballet.
“I love ballet because I am a freak and a sadomasochist. I think that helps,” Shaelynn tells us. “It’s overwhelming even thinking about how much I love it. Even standing in the back of the corps with sweat running down my face, as I get a glimpse of light on me, I’m like: oh fuck yeah.”
Shaelynn’s presence in the series is magnetic—often providing moments of comic relief or relatability. In an early scene, she shows off her handmade bracelets: “They say socialist, marxist, libertarian, slut. That’s me.” Her love for ballet is a palpable, driving force. She describes it as a need, something that’s in her blood. This fuels an unwavering determination that made her the dancer she is today, and is one of the reasons we were thrilled to have her as SheDoesTheCity’s November Artist of the Month.
View this post on Instagram
This tenacity and dedication to her craft was present even in 4-year-old Shaelynn. Her earliest memory of dance was performing at her first recital with a broken arm, in a sling matching her costume. “It was a tap dance and it had hand motions…so I was doing everything with one hand.”
Shaelynn was born in Nacogdoches, Texas, and grew up in Florida. “Not Miami,” she says. “We were inland, a bit of a meth-y part of Florida, but still sunny.” Her mother was a receptionist at the ballet school she attended, and Shaelynn and her brother cleaned the studios to help pay for their classes. “I was there until I was 14 years old, just a really small, rinky dink ballet studio. But I had really great teachers who helped me push myself.”
Shaelynn and her brother received a scholarship to a dance school in Philadelphia, where they lived with their mother in a tiny one-bedroom apartment. From there, she spent a year training in New York, followed by two seasons at the Houston Ballet. She received her offer for the National Ballet of Canada on April 1—so there was a brief moment where she thought that her acceptance to one of her dream companies was an April Fool’s joke. “Karen Kain, Heather, Greta, Jurgita, and Svetlana, so many of the people I’ve admired for so long, they dance here.”
In Swan Song, we see how much she strives to get better and better, to one day reach the level of the dancers she admires and become a principal ballerina. But as strong as her passion for dance is, she’s not immune to the pressure that comes with it. In Swan Song, Shaelynn opens up about her struggles with mental illness, including a depressive episode that caused her to self-harm, sending her to the hospital to get 75 stitches on her legs.
She shares in an honest, vulnerable, and very real way about her mental health—something that is very much needed in traditional spaces, like the ballet world. “When we were filming I was really nervous. A lot of stuff I talked about, I think people have this idea that you just grow out of it. Which is not real. So that was really hard,” she says. “Now that people have seen it and had such a good response, it kind of feels like a weight is lifted.”
Swan Song also doesn’t shy away from the physical pain endured by the dancers. The intense physicality of ballet is on full display—hours and hours of practice, workouts, dripping sweat, exhaustion, more practice, physiotherapy, and tallies of how many Advils each dancer has taken.
Tene Ward, another dancer in the corps de ballet with Shaelynn, wore an Apple Watch during a rehearsal. Everyone was shocked that the dancers had run 5 kilometres during a single act of Swan Lake. Shaelynn tells us the training she’d already done for the week, and it’s rigorous. 2.5 hours of personal training on Sunday. On Monday, 2 hours at the gym followed by an hour of practice. Tuesday started with an hour of private class, and more personal training. Even so, she tells us she still considers herself more of an artist than an athlete.
“It’s a really bizarre balance. We’re artists, but in order to be the artists that we are, we have to be so athletic. And also the art is literally our bodies, so it makes everything really personal to you.”
As one can imagine, this next-level physical exertion combined with the centuries-old beauty standards of ballet can quickly veer into unhealthy territory. When we ask Shaelynn what she would change about ballet culture, this was at the top of her list.
“I would really like if it were less about promoting and idolizing eating disorders and looking like a bag of bones. People have different bodies. You can still do [ballet] and not have to look like this super white Eurocentric high-class idea of a ballerina. People don’t realize how much it affects your overall health, your mental health and wellbeing.”
Looking back on Swan Song brings up mixed emotions for Shaelynn. “Everything we were doing was so intense, but so rewarding,” she says. “It’s always hard for dancers to see ourselves because we’re so critical. The first time I watched it, I got a charley horse in my neck because I was trying to fix my dancing while I was sitting in the chair.”
In Swan Song, Shaelynn describes ballet as “my angel, but also my fucking demon.” She is quick to find and fixate on her own flaws, sometimes to the detriment of her own wellbeing, but always in service of her love for ballet, and her want, and need, to be better. She thinks this passion exuding from her and the other dancers in the docu-series will make Swan Song resonate with anyone who watches it. “Even though all of our stories are so different, it is all about loving something and wanting to do so well, and fighting every day for it.”
As we walk out of the studio, Shaelynn heads towards an hour of personal training and a run, ready to fight another day.
For more information and resources on self-injury, visit Self Injury Outreach & Support at sioutreach.org.