Daniela Il Grande started dancing professionally when she was fourteen years old when she joined the Miami City Ballet. At fifteen, she was selected to train with Mikhail Baryshnikov and his coaches. At sixteen, she went on to perform and tour with the American Ballet Theater, Joffrey Ballet, Connecticut Ballet, St. Louis Ballet, and Charleston Ballet. Now, Daniella enjoys a successful career in corporate America in her role as the Executive Director for Dean & DeLuca Specialty Food Markets and Cafes. Daniella sits down with Tess Baum to share her exclusive zigzag story in a retelling that moves us as easily as her dancing career.
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The Career Dance With Daniela Il Grande
On this episode, I’m thrilled to introduce you to Daniela Il Grande. One of my great friends and one of the most skillful, genuine, and big-hearted person I know. I met Daniela when she was finishing her twelve-year professional ballet career. She started dancing professionally when she was fourteen years old when she joined the Miami City Ballet. At fifteen years old, she was selected to train with Mikhail Baryshnikov and his coaches. At sixteen years old, she went on to perform and tour with American Ballet Theater, Joffrey Ballet, Connecticut Ballet, St. Louis Ballet, and Charleston Ballet. Daniela enjoys a successful career in Corporate America in her role as the Executive Director for Dean & DeLuca specialty food markets and cafes. Daniela will share her exclusive zigzag story with us. Her storytelling moves us as easily as her dancing career. Enjoy.
Daniela, how are you?
I’m good. How are you?
I’m good. I am as happy as I can be in this crazy environment that we’re living in. I’m happy that we’re together and we’re talking. I always love our conversations. They’re always inspiring. We go through the ups and downs in life, and it’s great speaking to people that you can feel a sense of comfort with and inspired. You are one of those people for me. Thank you. Where are you right now? Share with our audience where you are in the world.
I’m in South Florida in Fort Lauderdale. I’m sitting in my condo which is located on a little mini Marina. My backyard is filled with boats and water. It’s quite beautiful here.
I know you know the theme about the Zig-Zag. I wanted to ask you what your most impactful zigzag story was in your life or something that is close to your heart that you want to share.
One of the most impactful zigzag stories for me and a story that I would like to share is a career that a lot of people that know me now don’t know that I had. I was a professional ballet dancer for a good fifteen years of my life, not including training that was involved prior to becoming professional. I started ballet when I was nine years old and I was extremely talented. I did not know. I knew that I loved to dance. At the beginning of my training, everything came easy for me.
I remember you were telling me a story about your early years and this was something you wanted to do. It wasn’t anybody behind you pushing you to do this. In fact, you were telling me about when you had to purchase a couple of items like outfits.
When I was younger going to ballet school, you have to wear a uniform. My parents at that time didn’t have a lot of money. My uniform was a hand-me-down black leotard, a pair of tights that were pantyhose that my mom had found at a store called Zehrs which is the equivalent of Walmart, and a pair of black hand-me-down ballet slippers. The uniform was a black leotard, pink Danskin tights, and pink ballet slippers. Everything was pretty but I didn’t have that. It was my first interaction with what you refer to as mean girls. A couple of the girls in the class were teasing me and making fun of me that I didn’t have the right uniform. Therefore, I was not a real ballerina and you’re nine years old.
I thought to myself, “I’m going to show you I’m going to be better than you.” I became better than them. Obviously, I had a competitive streak and surpassed them. By the time I was ten years old, I was in classes with 15 and 16-year-old girls. I was performing on pointe and in a Pas de chat. I don’t know if many people will understand what that means. I was too young but my teachers felt that I was strong enough. It’s unheard of now. I don’t think young girls go on pointe until they’re about thirteen. At around thirteen, I started leaving school at noon to train, rehearse, and I was working on becoming a professional ballet dancer.
I know you’ll take us through when you started to dance professionally. It’s such a beautiful part of your story. That’s when we go through a zigzag. You’re zigging, you’re zagging. Now, you’re zigging in your younger years. That took action quickly because you were good at it so you began moving into it. For a lot of mothers or children reading this that don’t have that thing that makes them feel that there’s zigging or at this point in so much going on in our world, a lot of people are on pause. It was wonderful that you had this passion and that’s what I love hearing but it’s okay if we’re younger and we don’t have that. The magic of doing something that you believe in or that you’re good at takes over. It’s an interesting thing because you’re blessed that you had it at such a young age. Do you have anything to say about that? It wasn’t handed to you but it clicked.
I loved it. I didn’t know I was as talented as I was. There were many prerequisites to becoming a professional ballet dancer like your height, your weight and everything. Not just the training but there’s a lot of discipline. Technique and strength came easy for me. I’m not being fair to myself when I say that because it was a lot of work, but I enjoyed it that the joy overrode the work.
That is something that is important to listen to because when you get your hands in something that you like, you pour your whole self into it. A lot of kids go off and they have some deviant behavior or they want to act out. A lot of kids start getting into drugs and alcohol. The parent always wants to put the kid in an activity to keep them busy but the key is to doing something that you love and not doing it to get them out of boredom. It’s wonderful that you found it on your own and nobody pushed you.
I used to have to beg my mother to allow me. She felt that I would become engrossed in it that she would pull me out at different times.
Could you take us through it a little bit because it is a great story and it inspires others to fly with something that you love. You even coming across a lot of struggle in it or there are times that you stopped along your path but there was a drive in you that kept on going.
At fifteen, I was hand-selected by Mikhail Baryshnikov. Most people know who he is. If you’re of the younger generation, you know that he started on Sex In The City with us like Sarah Jessica Parker. Prior to that, he’s a ballet dancer but defected from Russia and joined New York City Ballet under Balanchine and then became the artistic director of the American Ballet Theatre. He was young when he became the director of the American Ballet Theatre so he wanted to work with younger dancers. Anyway, I was in a class, he saw me, he approached my mother, and said, “She’s talented. I would love for her to come to New York and train with me, myself, and my coaches.” You feel you’re in this dream like, “Is this happening?” It was so I begged and my mother let me go.
[bctt tweet=”‘I could do something that other people couldn’t do. I had something special that no one could take away.'” via=”no”]
There were about ten of us that had been hand-selected across the country to train with him and his coaches for the summer. I did that again at summer that I was sixteen and the winter that I was seventeen. Prior to that, I had met Edward Villella who became the Director of Miami City Ballet which is the sister company of New York City Ballet. Edward and Baryshnikov danced together in New York City Ballet under Balanchine. When I met Edward, I had gone to an audition with an older friend of mine who was graduating from high school that year. She said, “I don’t want to go alone. Would you go with me?” I’m fifteen years old, I went, and I did well in the audition. I gave Edward a black eye because I didn’t have much partnering experience and he was using me as an example. It’s so embarrassing.
He looked past it and I was in an interview with him at the end of the audition. He asked me how old I was. I told him I was fifteen. He said, “I will make arrangements for you to go to School of American Ballet and then I will have a position for you with Miami City Ballet when you graduate from high school. It’s important that you graduate high school.” On the flip side with ABT, that wasn’t something that was important to them although they had made arrangements in my senior year of high school for me to live with one of the coaches and to complete high school in New York. When Edward said to my parents, “Education is important,” that was the direction that they went in.
You were always guided in the right direction. You’re lucky but then again, you are focused.
I don’t have many videos of me dancing. I never wanted to hold onto videos or photographs because I felt like I was dancing in the moment. I felt even as a young person, I wasn’t dancing to turn around and say, “Look at me.”
There was nothing for show, there was nothing to impress anybody else. It was truly the passion of what you were doing. You were in the moment.
I see mothers and their daughters, they dress them up in tutus, and things like that, and that was not what was going on. I graduated from high school and I joined the Miami City Ballet. I was offered a contract with Boston Ballet too at the same time. Growing up in South Florida, my parents wanted me to be close to home. I took the apprenticeship with Miami City Ballet and Edward. I’d already started dancing professionally at fifteen. The first professional performance that I ever did was with the dancers of the American Ballet Theatre. You’re fifteen, you’re on stage, you’re dancing, and you’re getting paid for it, it’s a big deal but I didn’t know.
You were never necessarily taken or impressed where it caused you to be intimidated or discouraged at all because you kept on going. You were doing your thing.
I have a friend who was a dancer that said the same thing, “You never seem to be jealous or envious of anybody else.” I need it back then that I could do something that other people couldn’t do. I had something special that no one could take away. I was always happy for other people in their accomplishments because I wanted them to find that same place, joy, drive, whatever they wanted to start to do. My season with Miami City Ballet was not my best year. I wasn’t what I thought that it was going to be.
There was excitement and you got it.
I remember the choreographer, Jimmy Gamonet De Los Heros. He was choreographing the ballet. He had thrown me into reverse and Edward came over and he said, “I don’t want her in the piece.” He said to me, “You were supposed to be doing Serenade. That’s a piece that you’re going to do. That’s a piece that you’re going to be performing.” I knew, prior to joining the company, what his plans were for me. I was there and then I didn’t know what was going on. On the flip side, ABT was in town touring and Baryshnikov was there and I went to say hello.
I had full permission from Edward to go. They were annoyed that they had trained me and I joined another company but I didn’t know. I was seventeen years old. I didn’t know how things worked. That was disheartening. After my season with Miami City Ballet, I quit. All my friends were in college. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I was confused. A good time to be confused though at seventeen. I stopped. I was like, “What am I doing?”
Let’s re-evaluate. We all need that point to stop because we need to see what’s going on.
I don’t even know if I was aware that that was what I was doing.
We never do.
I didn’t crash and burn. I went, “Put the brakes on.” My mom had told me about an arts college that had opened in downtown Miami called New World School of The Arts. She said, “Why don’t you go and check it out?” I did. I remember I went with my best friends. For me, it was a casual meeting. I went to meet the dean and I asked him, “How do I apply for the school? What do I need to do? When is the audition?” He said, “You need to submit a video of a ballet variation to the committee.” I’ve taken the entire summer off after Miami City Ballet. I said, “I’m not in shape and I don’t have a video camera. I don’t know what you want me to do.”
He said, “Why don’t you tell me a little bit about your background?” I said, “I finished a season with Miami City Ballet.” He asked, “Are you Daniela Il Grande?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “It would be a privilege and an honor for you to attend our school. I’m offering you a full scholarship.” When I was with Miami City Ballet, they were newspaper articles out in Miami Herald and Sun-Sentinel that I was a Miami trained dancer. I joined Miami City Ballet which we can go back and say that’s not true because I was training in New York. It ruffled a few feathers but I don’t think that I was that important and it was detrimental.
You kept on dancing but that’s what I get from everything about your story and how you move through life. You keep on going. You wanted to stop but people said, “Keep on moving.”
Other women were like, “What are you doing? Keep going.” I had a lot of great experiences at New World. There were jazz classes and modern classes. My focus was ballet. My biggest thing was when I was a kid, I love tap. I was terrible at tap. I was awful. My mother said I was a frustrated tap dancer and I was. I was good at ballet but I wasn’t good at anything else besides ballet. I was taking classes at New World and a teacher came in to teach a master class. He had been the former director of Joffrey and Boston Ballet, a well-known dancer, Tony Catanzaro, who had moved to South Florida and had a local ballet school. He said, “What are you doing here?” I said, “I’m going to college. I’m getting a degree.”
He said, “A degree in dance.” It’s very Tony ways. He was like, “What the F are you going to do with a degree in dance? You need to be out on stage XYZ, whatever.” I said, “I don’t know if that’s a path that I want.” He said, “You don’t know because something happened and you have to get over it. I’ll get you back out on stage and I’ll get you going.” He did. That same year, I’d run into my friend, Christine, who I trained with at ABT. She was in New York going to NYU and doing the Joffrey training program. Getting credit to NYU for the Joffrey training program and she would come out and stay with me for a week. I did. I took a class and I was immediately called into the office at the school.
I remember saying, “I’m sorry. I didn’t pay for a class.” That was not why I was being called to the office. The director of the school asked, “Who are you? Where have you danced? There’s a difference between a student and a professional. You’re not aware of it as a dancer.” I wasn’t aware at that time but it was reflecting when I was taking classes. She asked me about my background. I told her this is what had happened. This is what I was doing. She said, “You need to move to New York. I promise you, you’ll be out on stage at City Center within the next couple of months. I’ll get you a waitressing gig across the street at Mandalay Café.” I was on stage at City Center a couple of months later. I was rehearsing for a Joffrey workshop and injured myself severely that I was in an air cast and on crutches for six weeks. My zig intersect. I had a lot of work to do to get back to where I needed to be.
You were telling me you went through some soul searching, figuring it out, and fulfilling on many levels.
I met a guy who I fell madly in love with. He was a drummer in a punk rock band. I was naive. I was always in ballet. I wasn’t the kid that was going to parties in high school, etc.
You never allowed for any deviant behavior because you were so focused in what you were doing. You couldn’t be a bad kid all those years.
I don’t know that I was a perfect kid. I gave my parents a run for their money. There was this whole life that opened up to me and I was making friends outside of ballet. I don’t think that I was ever your typical bunhead which is what a lot of people refer to little ballerinas that don’t have much of a life outside of ballet. I was always pushing limits. I was always running with scissors. I would show up in class with purple nail polish or whatever. I wouldn’t be wearing the proper school uniform or whatever. I would get away with it because I was talented. It was like, “What are we going to do with this one? What can we do with this one? This is part of her fire. This is part of her passion.”
You were never showing to fit in. You just did your thing.
I wasn’t trying to be the perfect little ballerina bunhead. I’m telling you it was more of a physical athletic drive that’s amazing. I miss it sometimes.
It’s part of you and your soul. It gave you that energy that made you want to move throughout life in such a dynamic way. That’s why I love hearing this story.
With that and with all the discipline that’s required for it, I wanted to know who I was or who I was going to be outside of ballet. I wanted to be a normal person as I called it a normal person. I struggled with that a lot. I knew that I wanted to have a ballet career but I also knew that I wanted to experience other things. That was a hard year for me. Joffrey said, “You’re not strong enough to join the company and you have to join a second to your company.” Back then, when you talk about ballet companies, you had the top three ballet companies in the United States, New York City Ballet, Joffrey Ballet and American Ballet Theatre.
Those were the three companies that I wanted to join. I had danced with all of them at that time. I was being told that I had to go and take a few steps back. Being talented and having so much zig, when the zag hits, I was not prepared. I did what I had to do. I danced two seasons with the St. Louis Ballet as a demi-soloist and a soloist of great experiences as luck had it. Carl Corry had come out and he staged his ballet transcriptions. Carl Corry is from Joffrey Ballet. Damara Bennett from San Francisco Ballet comes out on stage with Murray.
I love hearing your story and you go into another direction. You didn’t overthink anything because you kept on going.
At that point in time in my life, the one thing that I didn’t have to think about was I was offered a job with Princeton Ballet and a job with St. Louis Ballet and because my relationship had become so intense, I felt like I needed some space to grow. I took the job at St. Louis rather than the job that was close to New York and in New Jersey because I felt like I needed the space. My boyfriend at that time, still to this day, doesn’t even know that. I kept it to myself. Two seasons with St. Louis Ballet and then I joined the Charleston Ballet with my friend, Jennifer. That same year, I was offered a job with North Carolina Dance Theater which I didn’t take because Jennifer was offered the job with Charleston and so was I.
We decided to make a move together. It was the hardest season I have ever experienced. When I left Florida and I joined the New York City talent pool, it’s an incredible pool of talent. I’ve left all of the rumor mills of the little dolly dinkle dance schools behind. Somehow, some of these things had caught up with me. I don’t think it’s a secret that most dancers and most athletes struggle with weight issues. I struggled with anorexia and bulimia for many years and it wasn’t addressed until I was at Joffrey. Somebody made a phone call and I started an out-patient program to get me past that.
[bctt tweet=”We can be friends and hang out with people that don’t see things the same way that we do.” via=”no”]
It’s amazing how other people always seem to support you and look after you. You were guided along the way.
I was lucky even though there were alligators talking at my heels, there were not nice people, but the people who were important believed in me. I was talented and nobody could take that away from me. No matter what.
That is an amazing message even if we all don’t have that. A lot of people are searching for that. It is nice that you knew what you wanted to do, you were doing it. It wasn’t a question of where and how you’re going to find that passion. It was in you from the start.
I was going to do it, no matter come hell or high water, I was going to get there.
I would love to move it to now and how you would give any recommendations to other people out there because your story is unique in the sense that early on, you found your passion. A lot of people don’t find it early. In your life now with what’s going on in the world, we’re all at a standstill, we’re all questioning many things. In your journey, you did take a few stops and you questioned it but what I love about it is you kept on moving. I love that vision of you dancing and moving along your zigzag.
I have a more difficult time outside of the world of ballet lately. I don’t know if it’s because of the stress I’m having of what’s going on in the world that I find it more challenging to see things too. I’ve always been able to say, “I see myself doing that. I can imagine myself doing that.” Lately, it hasn’t been easy.
That’s the honesty of what’s happening now. We need to express that. It is okay if the pauses are longer than we want them to be.
A lot of us are surviving even if it’s hard.
My hope is for us, as a society, to move out of that and it’s climaxing. We’re all trying to survive now. To move out of that mindset is the hardest thing. It’s hence defying for us to look at things in a different way and now it’s at a crisis level where we’re all holding on for dear life. The only way we can survive this is to open up our hearts, connect with those that we love, keep that going, keep that faith. I love hearing your story and other stories where people did feel inspired so we can catch onto that energy. There’s a lot of fear, apathy, and emotions coming through. Stories of hope are important. In your earlier years, you were not in that mindset of survival. It was more of life was taking you on a fun ride. It’s not always easy. Now it isn’t easy at all for the majority of society. It’s difficult for everyone. I do feel that we’re in it together no matter what color we are and where we’re from. Believing in humanity is the most important thing.
The hardest thing for me, you and I talked about it, is I have many wonderful people in my life. My friend, Kirk, says, “You grew up in the New York City bubble.” There were homosexuals, people of color, people of different cultures and nationalities. We are who we are. I like you. I want to spend time with you. Let’s be friends. Let’s hang out. Let’s this, let’s that. To realize that a lot of people in the world that don’t see things the same way that you do, it’s jolting to think that there are people that are backwards. That they judge people on the color of their skin and then to escalate it to what we’re dealing with like, “Do I know what it’s like to be black?” No, I don’t. “Will I ever know?” No. “Will I ever know that someone’s going to react to me in a certain way because of the color of my skin?” No. I wouldn’t react that way to somebody because of the color of their skin, their sexual preference, or whatever but that’s who we are. You and I are similar with that. Most of my friends are.
We don’t want to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and be sympathetic or stand in solidarity with everybody, give our love and support. It’s difficult because we don’t get it. When I was young, I grew up in Long Island up until I was eight. I grew up in Far Rockaway, my house was there which was a block away from Cedarhurst which is in the five towns. I went to a private school and it was blended. We had a lot of kids from the heart of Far Rockaway, including myself, and they were black. I was friends with them. I have great memories. We all hung out. We all had great times.
I remember going to one of my girlfriend’s houses and she lives in a predominantly black area. I had no problem. I was excited. My mom was like, “Did you feel different at all?” I remember feeling different because I was the only white person there. I told my mother at that time, “No, I did not feel different at all.” I didn’t want to say I felt different because I wanted to not think about it. I didn’t want to have to think there was a difference.
She also wanted you to go there and spent time with your friend again.
This was my friends but I did feel the hype. I’ve never experienced this before like going to a supermarket and being the only white person. We were in school together and it was mixed but obviously, the majority are white kids but being in her turf, I was like, “Wow.” It wasn’t uncomfortable. They were great people but I did feel a little weird because I know I never experienced it before. That is a little taste of what many people feel when they’re going into a predominantly different color culture.
It’s not a good feeling to feel that people look at you differently. It’s not a good feeling when people judge you because you’re different. It’s a hard conversation for us because we are white and people would think of us as white privilege. Who are we to talk to now? It’s nice and important to have these conversations. You and I are the most open-hearted people in the world but we always have room for growth and to learn. I’m here to learn and listen and you share that with me.
What I find incredibly amazing and hard to wrap my head around is, what people like you and I do on a daily basis. We still have things to learn. As you said, it’s something that people need to be told.
That’s what’s shocking. We would think that most people feel the way we do but that’s not the case.
As Kirk says, “You’ve been in New York City bubble.” I’m like, “What do you mean I’ve been in the New York City bubble? Have you been in the melting pot? You don’t judge people for those things. Do I enjoy your time? Do I like working with you? Do I this or that?” It’s not, “You’re black, white, Puerto Rican, Latino, whatever.” We’re showing different nationalities and cultures.
I’m happy that we discussed this because it’s important. I love hearing your story. Anything that you would like to close up with?
The whole zigzag of my ballet career is that after my season with Charleston Ballet, I did come back to New York after that tough year. I was taking classes and watching rehearsal. One of the dancers injured herself and I was struck. I did everything. It came full circle for me with that. I ended up moving back to New York on a permanent basis and that contracted out with Connecticut Ballet and Joffrey Ballet. I finished my career. The last performance that I did was a studio performance for my friend David Fernandez who is a choreographer for The Villain and then I was done. I want to see what else I could be. I wonder if I’d stayed in there longer. That’s where I met you.
Daniela, thank you. This was wonderful and we have many more things to discuss. I’m looking forward to sharing it as well. Enjoy the rest of your day. Enjoy the sunshine. Send it our way.
I love you.
About Daniela Il Grande
Executive Director with 20+ year background in navigating brand partnerships, B2B sales growth, corporate sales development, and consumer brand building across multiple industries, including gourmet foods, housewares, cosmetics, personal care products, apparel, accessories, and luxury lifestyle brands.
Progressive responsibility in marketing, strategic sales planning and corporate development for global brands. A highly detailed and motivated personality with proven ability to take on multiple roles to effectively and efficiently drive results. Passionate, enthusiastic; fully committed to details and quality of work.
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