There’s nothing quite like big balloon letters spelling out your name to make you feel welcome.
In a gymnasium decorated in hand-painted signs and green and white balloons, ballerina Tiler Peck spoke to Garces Memorial High School students about her journey from Bakersfield girl to principal dancer at the New York City Ballet and how they, too, can follow their dreams. After speaking to the students and answering a few questions, Peck performed a brief dance before she and the crowd moved to Garces’ new dance room, the brainchild of Garces principal Myka Peck and dedicated to Tiler and their mother, local dance teacher Georgia Peck.
“It will hopefully be inspiring to know that I came from Bakersfield and am now a principal dancer at the New York City Ballet,” Tiler told the students, seated in the bleachers and on the gym floor. “I had big dreams, and I hope all of you do too ... I can share with you all that it took to get there, because it was not an easy road.”
Tiler, 26, has certainly hit the big time since she started dancing at age 2 at Bakersfield Dance Company, her mother’s studio. She made her Broadway debut at 11 in “The Music Man” and later moved to New York City to study at the School of American Ballet when she was 14. From there, she worked her way up from apprentice, to a member of the corps de ballet and soloist before becoming a principal dancer at 20 years old. She’s performed for President Obama at the Kennedy Center, danced in an Emmy-nominated production of the New York Philharmonic’s “Carousel” and was named one of Forbes magazine’s “30 Under 30” in Hollywood Entertainment.
Living in New York City off and on as a teenager, the dancer had to make sacrifices, including spending months away from her family and missing typical high school experiences like proms. Before she left Bakersfield, her grandmother would drive her several hours a day to and from dance lessons in Los Angeles, where the young dancer would do homework in the car.
“If you set the bar really high, you have something to reach for,” she told the students. “With determination, discipline and positive thinking, you can (make your dreams come true).”
Students asked Tiler about her favorite foods (pasta, bread and salad dressing), living in New York City (“I still say I’m a California girl,”) and whether she ever thought about quitting dance. She has considered it, she said, especially when the stress of dance is taking its toll on her body.
“What helps me get through that is thinking, ’How lucky am I?’” she told them. ”I think that, and all the negative thoughts leave my head, like ’Why am I even complaining?’“
After the assembly, the Pecks and the rest of the crowd walked over to the new dance room, where Monsignor Stephen Frost said a prayer and blessed the space. Garces is one of only a few Bakersfield high school the Pecks knew of that has and still uses a dance studio on campus. The new studio will host not only the Garces dance class, which Georgia teaches, but also the cheer team, drama class and student government. The Kern Dance Alliance, which donated the studio’s floor, will also hold its future events there, said KDA president Andrea Hansen.
”This room is extremely special to me,“ Myka told the crowd gathered around to see the new studio, before thanking her mother, her sister and Hansen for their support.
Work on the new dance room started in the summer, and what’s made the process even more special for the Pecks is that it’s been a family affair, said the matriarch.
”I don’t think words can express,“ Georgia said. ”What family gets to do something like this together? In life, what we give back is more important than what we get.“
With elementary school-aged dancers inside twirling, jumping, laughing and giving a couple of male Garces students a few pointers on their form, the dance room is already getting some use. After speaking to dozens of students there and taking pictures with them, Tiler had a few moments to speak about what the new room meant to her. She said it was ”really special“ and that she was happy to support her family after all they gave up to support her in her dancing career.
The ballerina usually visits Bakersfield about twice a year and makes it a point to do more than just see her friends and family and eat at Mexicali, her favorite restaurant. Whenever she’s able to visit, she said, it’s important for her to do events or classes in the local dance community.
”I want them to have dreams and aspire to be the best they can be,“ she said of the young dancers. ”I get to teach them and share my knowledge. Bakersfield is where I’m from, and I never forget that. I still call it my home.“