ould you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” asked Alice in her immortal journey through Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” answered the Cheshire Cat.

Alice in Wonderland makes me think of my childhood. When you’re younger everything is like Wonderland—exciting,” said Riley Duck who plays one of the dancers in the titular role of BYU Theatre Ballet’s original production of Alice in Wonderland. “I love how Alice always tries to find the joy in everything, because you can.”

alice in wonderland
Riley as Alice in BYU Theatre Ballet’s production of Alice in Wonderland. (Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)

Like her fictional counterpart, Riley learned that the way you wander through life often becomes the path you choose. Although now a BYU sophomore in nutritional science, Riley always wanted dancing to be a major part of her life starting at age two when Riley and her twin brother, Reynolds, began choreographing recitals for their parents, Renee and Randall Duck. In her hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Riley was on her way to become a talented, professional dancer who never heard of BYU or the LDS Church.

Dancing Through Life

Riley and Reynolds
Riley and her Twin brother, Reynolds, on their first day at the University of the North Carolina School of the Arts Preparatory Dance Program

When she was 8 years old, her mother would drop off Riley and her twin brother at the University of the North Carolina School of the Arts Preparatory Dance Program.

“When you’re young, you’re not really learning steps. You’re exploring movement,” Riley recalled. “I just remember a feeling of being free—that it didn’t matter what I looked like. I was just happy.”

riley dancing

Riley in Times Square (Photo by Addie Taylor)

These sensations became the motivation for Riley and Reynolds as they grew older and abandoned their traditional high school to move to New York City where they attended the School of American Ballet, one of the most famous ballet schools in the world. This intense conservatory program built upon her early memories of dance to teach her the structure and rhythm of classical ballet.

“It’s the easiest way to express yourself,” Riley said. “I couldn’t imagine life without it. I think it would be boring.”

Riley danced for six hours a day nearly every single day but sometimes wondered what might be missing from her nontraditional, dance-filled life. During this time, she vividly remembers walking past the Manhattan LDS Temple on her way to school every day. She described the feeling that she felt simply as a curiosity that would lead to something deeper.

Meeting the Mad Hatter

Attending top dance programs across the country would lead her to meet an introduction to the church, friend and future Alice in Wonderland cast-mate, Sean Cooney, who plays the Mad Hatter. Cooney, a BYU student studying English language met Riley at a summer dance program in San Francisco in 2010.  They stayed friends as Riley trained in New York and he served his LDS mission to Boston, Massachusetts.

Cooney remembers how in one of her letters to him, Riley noted how beautiful the temple was and that it made her feel good every time she walked by it.

“We stayed in touch for a few years,” Cooney said. “I knew how much the gospel was blessing my life and my family. I knew that as a friend I wanted her to have that opportunity in her life.”

Mad Hatter

Sean Cooney as the Mad Hatter. (BYU Photo)

He encouraged Riley to look into the questions that she had. The two corresponded as she started meeting with the missionaries in October of 2012 and was baptized a member in January of 2013.

“She’s made a lot of sacrifices,” Cooney said, remembering how quickly Riley gave up coffee. “She really did that for herself. It was her decision.”

Growing up Presbyterian, Riley always attended church with her parents but notes that her conversion felt like a choice she made especially for herself.

“I started to realize that this church really means something more to me,” said Riley. “I found that the gospel brought me so much happiness on days that were really hard.”

riley leaping
Riley dancing on Lincoln Square in New York City

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole

As a new convert, Riley continued to dance and train through her second year at the School of American Ballet. But the next few months, life threw her a curveball.

She first noticed a dull ache in her foot while dancing that soon progressed into excruciating pain. Her doctors told her it was caused by overuse from repetitive trauma of ballet and would very likely reoccur for the rest of her professional career.

Devastated, Riley’s injury forced her to abandon dancing for four months and miss an opportunity to perform in a major production.

“It was very upsetting,” Riley recalled, as she knew that her hopes of joining the prestigious New York Ballet Company were now unlikely.

riley with family

Riley after she broke her foot with her brother, parents and grandparents.

“For the longest time, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I wanted to get out of that environment,” Riley said. “I just wanted to take a step back.”

As Riley struggled with her injury she started thinking about attending other colleges. She auditioned and received offers from ballet companies across the country but still feeling unsure, she sent in an audition tape to BYU.

“The Church came into my life at the perfect time because I was taught that I could pray about things that I really need to have an answer to and that I could get an answer.”

BYU: An Unlikely Answer

dancers stretching
©2016 Nathalie van Empel

She mentioned that she loves the freedom she’s experienced while exploring movement with her teachers. There’s not just one way to dance and her favorite part about coming to BYU is the opportunity to teach this to younger students.

BYU surprised Riley because she found that she could study to become a dentist like she wanted yet still be challenged in ballet.

“I’ve been so impressed with how hard Theatre Ballet is! It’s almost like a conservatory dance program,” Riley said. “I didn’t think that a university could compare but it’s been awesome. The teachers have helped me so much. It’s really cool to have that at a university level.”

Riley with students
Riley with the students she teaches after a performance of The Nutcracker

“That’s something that is new for me,” Riley said. “That’s been really cool to share my love—to explain why I love it.”

BYU Theatre Ballet’s production of Alice in Wonderland will be January 28-30. For more information and tickets go to BYU Arts.

ballerina feet
©2016 Nathalie van Empel
alice costume
©2016 Nathalie van Empel

Written by Riley Oliphant

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Showing 2 comments
  • Kayla Bagshaw

    I’m a dance major here at BYU in the dance department! I have been a part of this program for the past 4 years. I love the environment that has been established here and am sad to be leaving and graduating this April. I will always cherish the many memories, classes, experiences and teachers that I have worked with over the course of my college education. Thank you for putting on and producing such incredible and inspiring work. I love BYU and I love to dance!!!!! Xoxoxo

  • Kayla Bagshaw

    I’m dying to see CDT’s concert!!! Pick me… pick me….. Xoxoxo Happy Valentine’s Day!!!

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