YOUNGSTOWN AIR RESERVE STATION, Ohio --
It is common to dream of a life on stage. One person may dream of becoming a rock star while another wants to become an actor or actress on the silver screen. These dreams are reflected in our media through shows like “America’s Got Talent” and “American Idol” where viewers can catch a glimpse of a hopeful performer’s rise to stardom, if only for 60 minutes each week. Although very few understand the cost of making these dreams a reality, one Reserve Citizen Airman at Youngstown Air Reserve Station, Ohio, knows what it takes to live a life on stage.
Master Sgt. Marie D. Spencer, an aerospace and services medical technician with the 910th Medical Squadron here, aimed high well before she joined the Air Force Reserve. At the age of three, Spencer showed an interest in dance.
“It’s a typical age for people to put their daughters in dance,” said Spencer. “My mom put me into ballet lessons once a week. Nothing too crazy.”
Spencer said her parents never thought it would turn into anything significant when they put her into ballet, that it would just be an activity for their daughter to do.
“I always remember my parents being very supportive of dance, but also leaving the choice completely up to me,” she said. “The only thing they enforced was that I upheld my commitment. Telling me that, ‘If you agree to do dance this year, you will finish the year out.’ I think that links to my success in the military.”
As the years progressed, Spencer said that she found interest in other hobbies alongside dance, like Girls Scouts and playing the piano. However, as her skills in ballet improved, lessons slowly increased from one night a week to two, then three, absorbing more and more of Spencer’s time. This presented Spencer with her first true crossroad in life.
“I remember one year I had to make the decision between piano or ballet lessons because we could only afford one,” said Spencer. “I picked ballet.”
As the seriousness of her dance lessons increased to pre-professional levels, Spencer switched dance studios, introducing her to a wide variety of dance styles. At the start of her freshman year, Spencer auditioned to attend Coventry High School, a performing arts high school.
“In middle school, I began to feel like I didn’t fit in,” she said. “My school was like a lot of other schools and was heavily into traditional sports and centered on the jocks and the cheerleaders. I felt kind of like I belonged on the Island of Misfit (Toy)s from Rudolph (the Red-Nosed Reindeer). I couldn’t explain myself to other people, and it didn’t seem like my classmates had the same appreciation for the activities I was involved in.”
Upon her acceptance at Coventry, Spencer immediately felt at home.
“For the first time, I felt like I could be myself around other people, and I could be proud of what I was involved in without being embarrassed,” said Spencer.
At this point, Spencer was dancing five to seven days a week. She would live, eat and sleep ballet.
“It isn’t all pink tutus, rainbows and butterflies,” said Spencer. “Ballet is raw, it is rough, it is hard. TV paints this completely different picture; it looks innocent, it looks sweet, it looks cute. But true dancing as you get older is tough. What you’re asked to do to your body is absolutely insane. It’s more of a sport, and dancers don’t get enough credit in that category.”
Spencer recalled going to class in the middle of winter wearing flip flops so injuries sustained by her feet being in pointe shoes would have time to heal and how various forms of self-applied first aid made her no stranger to gore.
Spencer said, “My toenails would get bruised and start to fall off, you know? Dancers always laugh, we perform surgery on ourselves. We’d all be on the floor at night taking our toenails off.”
But Spencer pressed on; it was her way of life. Leading up to the end of her freshman year, Spencer looked into summer programs so that she could continue her dancing. At the age of 14, she was selected to dance for the Ballet Met in Columbus, Ohio. According to the Columbus Ballet Met website, it inspires 125,000 audience members through local performances at home, touring shows and academy classes. As a dance academy, it has impacted more than 1,500 students each year since its opening in 1978 and ranks among the nation’s 20 largest professional ballet companies.
This was Spencer’s first taste of a life on the road and time away from most of her family. Each summer, Spencer would audition and attend one of these summer programs.
“I remember being on the road a lot, always auditioning for things,” said Spencer. “Me and my mom would go on these long car rides across the country just to audition at places in Oklahoma, Virginia, all over really. It was really a great bonding experience for us.”
When Spencer was 16, she was also selected for the Joffrey Ballet in New York City on a scholarship. With the support of her parents and additional financial aid from her grandfather, Spencer found herself on a flight to New York City with her parents, knowing full well that they were dropping her off just to fly back home. There were no chaperones and no safety nets.
“The fast pace of New York City was definitely my first big culture shock,” said Spencer. “The hustle and the bustle, the getting on and getting off of the subway; you just got to keep moving. I can honestly say though, New Yorkers are fantastic. It was the best summer of my life.”
It was during that summer that Spencer was first contacted for a professional job.
“After one of my classes I was approached by this woman offering me a job in Las Vegas,” said Spencer. “I had to explain to her that I was still 16, and I was going back to Ohio to finish High School.”
She gave the woman her parents’ phone number back home and went on with her day.
After getting a taste of what life as a dancer would be like, Spencer put her nose to the grindstone so she could graduate early from high school in her junior year. She did so, with honors. After her graduation, Spencer began looking for jobs dancing in Oklahoma and in Virginia, but after a late-night phone call from the woman in New York City, she decided to accept the job in Las Vegas with the Nevada Ballet Theatre at the age of 17.
“I was on the phone for like two-and-a-half hours,” said Spencer. “My parents had to be wondering who in the world I was talking to. Eventually I came downstairs and said, ‘Mom, Dad, I’m moving to Las Vegas in two months.’”
For a year, Spencer danced with the Nevada Ballet Theatre. She said that the professional dancing world was tough. She was expected to be in the studio doing classes and rehearsal without a truly livable wage. In addition to dancing, Spencer had to pick up jobs in retail and as a nanny. After analyzing her situation and the pressures she encountered while at NBT, Spencer decided to audition for the Milwaukee Ballet in Wisconsin. It provided a change of pace and a closer proximity to her family.
Spencer danced for the Milwaukee Ballet for two-and-a-half years before she decided, at the age of 20, it was time for her to move to something new in life, starting with attending Akron University in 2004.
“I wanted to leave on my own terms and bow out gracefully,” said Spencer. “I wanted to close that chapter in my life as I would a performance on stage.”
It was Spencer’s mother that first pointed her toward the medical field, and a fellow student informed her of the Air Force Reserve’s Tuition Assistance which aided her in graduating from Cleveland State in 2012 with a Bachelor’s of Science in Health Sciences.
“There I was, a broke dancer that didn’t know what to do with her life, and when I heard there was a way to get school paid for I decided to start looking into it.”
Spencer said that for her it was not hard to switch to a military lifestyle and that she did far more than she ever thought she was capable of.
“I fell in love with it,” said Spencer. “I knew this was for me. When you’re doing chest compressions on someone, trying to save their life, you find your value. You have a stake, you’re doing something worth doing. In the arts it’s hard to show that worth to someone on the outside, here you’re essential.”
Though performing ballet on stage was like nothing else Spencer ever experienced, she said performing her duties as a medical professional is its own experience.
“Doing my duties as a medical professional is kind of like being on my own stage,” said Spencer. “Being able to help someone and see them appreciate you efforts provides me equally as much joy as getting on stage and expressing myself.”
Though it started as a way to offset the steep price of college, Spencer has now spent 12 years of her life as a Reserve Citizen Airman. In her civilian life, Spencer has a full time job at the Veteran Affairs hospital in Cleveland as an intermediate care technician. During her time there, Spencer participated in a new pilot program to create new roles for military medics, who are required to understand a wide scope of practice so they can perform life-saving duties while in combat situations. The VA recognized this untapped resource and pushed for the creation of an exclusive position that Spencer and other military medics like her fill.
“If I learned anything, it’s that the sky is the limit,” said Spencer. “No matter what you do in life, look at what your actions are doing to make you a better person, doing to build your character, to build your foundation. Although dance seems like a simple form of entertainment, it’s at the heart of who I am.”