In the Press
Maya Leathers was going through a rough time earlier this year.
The East Hampton High School junior was struggling to manage the pressure of expectations that are part of that second-to-last year in high school — all while dealing with the extra challenge of living with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, anxiety, dyslexia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD. Then, in March, she developed a tic and ultimately was diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome. It made keeping up with her work and even simply going to school feel like an almost impossible task most days.
There was one place, though, where she felt like herself, where she could forget, at least for a few hours, about the difficulties she was facing: the ballet studio.
Leathers, 16, took her first ballet lessons when she was just 3 years old and living in New York City. She was a self-described “bouncy kid with ADHD,” and the neighbors who lived on the floor below had made it clear that they were not happy listening to the sounds of her constant motion, banging on the ceiling with the broom handle when they felt Maya was making too much noise.
In an attempt to find an outlet for her young daughter’s energy, Maya’s mother, Jennifer Van Arsdale, signed her up for classes. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.
Maya stayed with ballet after she moved to East Hampton, joining Studio 3, the Bridgehampton-based dance studio owned by the mother-daughter duo of Diane and Meredith Shumway. While there have certainly been ups and downs in other areas of her life, ballet has been a constant for Maya, and her natural ability, combined with steady and consistent improvement, has led her to where she is today — sharing the lead roles in an upcoming production of “Mixed Nuts,” Studio 3’s twist on “The Nutcracker,” with two fellow dancers.
Leathers, along with Bridgehampton School sophomore Avery McClelland and Ross School sophomore Bianca Hommert, will share the roles of the Sugar Plum Fairy, the Snow Queen and the Dew Drop, the most iconic roles from the traditional “Nutcracker,” Tchaikovsky’s Christmas classic.
Studio 3 puts on a performance of “Mixed Nuts” during the holiday season, combining elements of the classic “Nutcracker” with a different theme each year. This year’s theme is based on a classic Christmas movie where a certain young child is accidentally left on his own for a few days without adult supervision and has to fend off a hapless pair of intruders.
Perfecting the moves and choreography for three big-time roles is a big-time responsibility, but one Meredith Shumway, Maya’s primary instructor, felt confident in handing not only to Maya but to McClelland and Hommert as well. The trio have been in the Studio 3 program for many years and have shown the kind of talent and dedication it takes to master the separate roles, which they will take turns performing on alternating nights.
“The three of them have grown up together in the dance studio,” she said. “I chose to give them all the responsibility of the three lead roles, because they’re equally strong, and I wanted to highlight them and give them that opportunity.”
Shumway added that, because of the pandemic, this is the first time the studio is putting on a production of “Mixed Nuts” since 2019, and she wanted to help make up for lost time for her elder dancers, in a sense. “I wanted to really feature them as much as I could in our return,” she said.
Having to master three separate and challenging roles could be viewed as triple the stress and pressure, but, according to Maya, it has had the opposite effect on her. The more that is required of her in the dance studio, the more she seems to thrive. It’s something she says she’s always appreciated about ballet.
“I like how hard it is,” Maya said during a recent interview, her smile broadening. “The challenge of it I think is really refreshing. There’s always something else you can learn from it — you can’t always be perfect at that one thing. It’s not like you can just learn everything. You have to build upon it and it takes years of dedication. Even just standing in first position takes a lot of coordination.”
As opposed to other styles of dance that are more open to interpretation, Maya said she likes the structure of ballet, while also enjoying the beauty that can be created within that structure.
“There’s a set of rules you have to follow, but at the same time you can put your own flow on it,” she added. “I wasn’t a big talker when I was younger — I’m still not — so dance is a good source for me to get my feelings out.”
There are a lot of feelings to be felt when you’re a teenager, dealing with mental health challenges, and the fallout of living through a pandemic, and the pressure to figure out “what you’re going to do with your life,” Maya said.
March 23 — she remembers the exact date — was the day that Maya said her life “was turned upside down.” She had her first serious tic while in science class. She was writing, and without warning, her hand flew out. She nearly fell out of her chair, and for several days the tics were constant and disruptive.
The diagnosis of Tourette’s didn’t come immediately. Maya and her mother said her doctors initially thought the tics were the result of a medication error. Anxiety made the symptoms worse, but the tics caused her anxiety to spike, and so it became a vicious cycle. She missed many days of school, fell behind and even lost weight.
There was a miracle within that storm. Maya’s tics would decrease once she entered the dance studio, and when she began dancing, the tics would stop completely. She was not only able to still perform in the studio’s April production at Bay Street Theater, she excelled — and later found out that she also had been sick with mononucleosis at that time.
“I had been beside myself with stress and worried about her,” Van Arsdale said, recalling that time. “But when I saw her on that stage, not only had she improved since the last time I saw her, she was thriving. She was flawless. You would never know the struggles she was dealing with.”
Maya admitted that her legs felt numb after that spring performance, but when she realized the full scope of what she’d overcome, it gave her confidence: “I felt like if I could do that, I could do anything.”
The key to success was not just Maya’s love and passion for ballet enabling her to overcome her challenges, but also the support system that surrounds her at Studio 3.
She admitted to being terrified, when she was first diagnosed with Tourette’s, that it would negatively impact her dancing. Ultimately, it was not an issue.
“Everyone at the studio was so supportive, and that made all the difference,” Maya said. “My friends at the studio were so supportive. I could talk to them about this entire journey and they’d be accepting of it. It made dancing there, and dancing in general, a lot easier.”
That was a contrast to how she felt at school, where she did have friends who were accepting and understanding, but also felt like other peers who were unaware of what she was going through were judging her.
Shumway said it has been incredible watching Maya over the last few months.
“She’s always had such natural talent, but between the pandemic and her diagnosis, and developing tics, it just completely sideswiped her,” she said. “But the studio was her safe space. It was incredible to see this girl really come in and not even think twice about what she was going through and still put her dance first.”
Shumway added she was happy to see the way the rest of the students embraced and supported her, and was proud to cultivate that kind of supportive culture at her dance studio.
Maya said she’s excited to soon show off the hard work she and her fellow dancers have put in over the last few months to prepare for the Christmas show, and to express, through the intricate movements she’s been honing for hours in the studio every week, what dance has meant to her, especially in the last year.
“It made me stronger than people realize,” she said. “I think dance is such a beautiful, hard, amazing sport and art form. I think everyone should take a dance class, because it’s physically good for you and it’s also proven to make people happier. That’s what it does for me.”
“It’s just been such an amazing gift for her to have this outlet,” Van Arsdale said. “To have this thing to continually work toward and push for. A lot of kids in this position would get really depressed and have even more issues, but dance has been the thing that has kept her thriving and growing, and enjoying life.”
“It really was the light at the end of the tunnel,” Maya added.