On stage for her first recital with Maple Avenue Dance 23 years ago, 4-year-old Katie Vasilopoulos didn’t exactly dance. Instead, she pointed out the mistakes made by other girls around her.
“I turned to my husband jokingly and said, ‘I guess we’re not going to be spending a lot of money on dance lessons for that one,’” Katie’s mother, Eileen, recalled. “Little did we know that she would become a professional dancer.”
In the middle of the 16-show run of Nashville Ballet’s version of “The Nutcracker,” Vasilopoulos, now 27, is marking her 10th year with the Tennessee company. She will debut as the Sugar Plum Fairy on Friday, a role she hasn’t performed since her sophomore year in high school.
Vasilopoulos, who grew up in Rockville Centre, said she began to truly love dancing at age 9, and was enamored of ballets she saw in Manhattan. Her teacher, Kim LoPiccolo, owner and director of Maple Avenue Dance, now Magnolia Dance Company in Lynbrook, said she knew after first seeing Katie dance at age 5 that she had a special talent.
“We watched her over the years blossom into an artist, and even as a young student, she had this exquisite technique,” LoPiccolo said. “… I just knew that Katie was going to make it because she just had an incredible work ethic and a true love for ballet.”
Over the last decade with Nashville Ballet, Vasilopoulos has not missed a performance of “Nashville’s Nutcracker,” and estimates that she has danced in about 140 shows. That doesn’t include her career as a youngster in Rockville Centre, when she was first exposed to the traditional holiday ballet.
The two-act ballet tells the story of a young girl, Clara, whose favorite toy, the Nutcracker, comes alive. After defeating the evil Mouse King in battle, he whisks Clara away to a magical kingdom filled with dolls.
Though she has played almost all of the show’s major role over the years, Vasilopoulos remembered landing the role of Clara, while in fifth grade at Hewitt Elementary School, as a defining moment. “I think Miss Kim really put a lot of faith and trust in me,” she said, “and that was kind of her saying to me and the rest of the studio that I have talent and this is something she trusts me to do.”
LoPiccolo agreed that earning the lead role was a milestone. “When we posted her name, everybody was saying, ‘Who’s Katie, who’s Katie?’” she recounted. “She really was such a humble, quiet little girl, so for her to land this big role, and not to be such a prominent figure yet at the dance studio came as a surprise to everybody.”
At about 13, Vasilopoulos said, she realized she wanted to dedicate her life to dance, and began considering skipping college to make it her career. “I had made up my mind that that’s what I was going to do,” she said with a chuckle, “and then it was kind of convincing everyone around me that made sense and was a good life call.”
After two years at Kellenberg Memorial High School, she attended a ballet-intensive program upstate in Saratoga, where the instructors recommended that she focus more on ballet. She transferred to the Professional Children’s School in Manhattan — an independent day school that caters to teenagers pursuing goals in the performing arts, competitive sports and other endeavors — for her final two years of high school, and left Maple Avenue Dance to attend Ballet Academy East. “From there, it kind of snowballed,” Vasilopoulos said.
LoPiccolo said she knew it was best for Katie to surround herself with people with the same goal, noting that Manhattan is a hub for dance. “I had no problem with letting Katie go,” she said, “because I knew she would just soar.”
The summer before her senior year, however, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and needed surgery. It didn’t stop her, as she continued dancing, auditioning for about 30 companies from across the country that year. When Nashville Ballet expressed interest in her, she signed a contract and moved into an apartment there the weekend after her high school graduation.
“I think I grew up a lot in that first year,” said Vasilopoulos, who didn’t even have a driver’s license at the time, but added that she found support from dancer friends. “We were trying to figure out having our first full-time paid dance job as well as first time living away from home, cooking for ourselves … but it was a lot of fun those first few years.”
Though her thyroid cancer returned a few years later — requiring another surgery — she has always returned to the stage for “Nashville’s Nutcracker.” She continues to take daily medication, and said the support of her doctors has helped her keep dancing.
One year, she remembered, she suffered a hip injury, but still played the role of Mother Ginger, which did not require much lower-body movement.
Juggling Nashville Ballet’s five main stage shows per year, and a 9 a.m.-to-6 p.m. rehearsal schedule five days a week, Vasilopoulos is also pursuing a degree in business administration from Belmont University. Noting that ballet is “a fleeting career,” she hopes to stay immersed in the arts world when she retires in the coming years.
Eileen said that she and her husband, Nick, would travel to Nashville to see Katie debut as the Sugar Plum Fairy, which she last played at age 16 in her final “Nutcracker” performance with Maple Avenue Dance.
“When I watch her as a mom, I hold my breath when she’s on stage, especially when she’s on stage alone,” Eileen said. “You look, and part of you is like, ‘I can’t believe that’s our daughter on stage.’”