By Cameron Levin
Seattle is one of the fastest growing cities in the country, with about 18,000 new residents a year, according to the United States Census Bureau. In 25 years, the region’s population is expected to catapult to an estimated 3.7 million (almost double its current population to date). Faced with nearly 100 active development projects in the greater downtown Seattle area and multiple projects in the queue for the remainder of 2015, hundreds of small businesses, local artists and longtime Seattle residents have been displaced as a result of Seattle’s sweeping population upsurge.
In light of this unprecedented urban growth, I wanted to create a short docu-series to showcase how Seattle’s changing environment is affecting Seattleites. Emeralds is a portrait series of Seattle’s treasured local artists and small business owners who have helped define Seattle’s unique cultural integrity. The series catalogs their efforts to adjust to Seattle’s changing landscape.
First in the series is Elaine Bonow, proprietor of Belltown Ballet and Conditioning Studio, a 30-year-old establishment. Preservationist of a vanishing art form and steward of its nontraditional, under-served audience, Elaine shares her journey as a business owner and as a self-proclaimed original “hipster” on the streets of downtown Seattle.
As a Belltown resident for over a decade, I walked past the Belltown Ballet studio for years, until I finally got the courage to walk in and sign up for classes. And then, I never really left. I faithfully went to every class, even leaving work on my lunch break for mid-day pointe sessions for countless years. Elaine’s studio became a community for a collection of devoted, yet completely unconventional, most likely unwelcome elsewhere, ballet types.
Derived from the blue blood of King Louis XIV, Ballet is an art form that exudes intimidation, and is often perceived as supremely elitist. Dominated (in sport and in patronage) by the upper echelons of society for centuries, in conjunction with its cultural propensity to worship physical “perfection,” ballet simultaneously alienates and fascinates audiences. But Elaine’s studio is different. Nonchalantly ornamented with rustic Degas prints, aged sheer pink drapery, frayed pointe shoes and retired puffy tulle skirts tossed in forgotten corners, Elaine’s studio sparkles with nostalgia. But the people—the atmosphere—is rebellious and free in spirit. For decades, Belltown Ballet was the only ballet studio in downtown, and it has about a year and a half of life left.
Emeralds: Part I showcases Elaine’s unique community of unapologetic dancers—where there are no rules and no barriers to participation. Pretention doesn’t exist. Belltown Ballet’s dancers are perfectly imperfect. Creativity is king, and footwork at the barre includes short time-outs for Elaine’s anecdotal storytelling. During my first class, we sang Billy Holiday’s Them There Eyes during grand battements, and I fell in love again with ballet, my neighborhood and Elaine’s life story.
Emeralds shows what we all stand to lose if big development drives out the “Elaines” of Belltown.