There’s not much room in the ballet world for a dancer with a red Mohawk, so Rebekah Burke took her unique sense of style and fashion to another platform.
But the skills she learned along the way—from years of ballet and gymnastics classes—helped her earn a title in the recent U.S. Aerial Championships in New York City.
Burke, 21, won women’s lyra, an apparatus that looks like a hula hoop but is steel and hangs from the ceiling. On it, the Fredericksburg woman does aerial acrobatics that seem to defy gravity—and possibility.
Burke spins and does splits, flexes like a contortionist and has such extended lines that her limbs, which are both muscular and graceful at the same time, form perfect angles.
She dangles from the hoop by a wrist, an ankle, the back of her neck, smiling all the while.
Judges praised her “beautiful lines and amazing flexibility” and the way her character came through, from her movement to her red hair, socks and hoop, said Tami Joy Schlichter, founder of U.S. Aerial Inc.
“Judges really appreciated her creative and artistic choices in addition to her audience appeal,” she said.
And that’s exactly what Burke is going for—a dance style that lets her express her individuality.
“I want to give them something interesting to look at, I want to get their attention, I want to say, ‘This is cool, look at me,’” she said.
‘A STRIKING PERFORMER’
Burke is the daughter of Stan and Mary Coffman–Burke of Spotsylvania County and the younger sister of Benjamin Burke, a set designer.
She went to elementary and middle school in Spotsylvania and started taking gymnastics and ballet classes at age 6. Her classical training continued another 11 years.
At 14, she went to the University of North Carolina School of the Arts for ballet training. At 16, she moved to New York City on her own to attend the Ellison Ballet and the Kelsey Kirkland Academy of Ballet.
Her mother said that in addition to being a wonderful dancer and striking performer, Burke is strong-willed and a bit of a rebel.
“Both qualities didn’t mesh well with the strictly defined world of ballet,” her mother said.
Burke tried to rebel against the image of a pretty ballerina by cutting her hair short or dyeing it a different color. Still, she said she still felt like a slave to choreography.
She realized the best way to rebel against ballet “was to not do it at all.”
While in Brooklyn, she answered an ad for ballet dancers to work on a show with an aerialist. It was Burke’s epiphany, her mother said.
“I started climbing around, and I fell in love with it,” Burke said about aerial performing.
That was three years ago. She moved to Los Angeles to get training and started focusing her studies—and performances—on circus arts.
She found the way to bring her art to the air.
PASSION AND PERSONALITY
Burke lives in downtown Fredericksburg and takes the train to perform in New York City or elsewhere. She said it’s cheaper to live in Virginia and travel than to stay up north.
Plus, even though she craves “constant stimulation,” the streets of New York provide more than she wants.
“I know, I’m a contradiction,” she said.
The recent aerial championship came with a $1,200 prize. Burke is debating if she should go somewhere to train, such as Berlin or Canada, or invest in a free-standing rig that would allow her to perform anywhere.
In the meantime, she continues to work on her performance. She’s been accepted into the casting database of Cirque du Soleil, a Canadian entertainment company that’s the largest theatrical producer in the world.
She’d love to get a position with that company, which focuses on contemporary circuses, while shows such as Ringling Brothers do more traditional ones.
Whatever she undertakes, she’ll do it with passion and personality. That’s the advice she gave others during a 2014 interview with the Dance Saves Lives blog.
“Who you are is what sets you apart from the rest, makes you unique, makes people want to watch you,” she said. “Ultimately, your individuality is all that you have and you don’t want to sacrifice that for anything.”