As House Majority Leader Eric Cantor fielded questions from the press corps last month, Megan Whittemore stood in a lax first position behind him.
The Virginia Republican’s deputy press secretary was totally clueless that her ballerina toes were turning slightly outward — a bun-head reflex that most professionally trained ballerinas never shake.
When she’s not at work answering journalists’ questions and prepping the Majority Leader for media talks, Whittemore practices splits, pliés and pirouettes and performs several times each year with modern dance companies based in the D.C. area.
“I always said I wanted dance to be part of my life,” said Whittemore, who began ballet training at age 5.
The 25-year-old certainly looks the part: You could balance a book on her head — just as every good dancer is taught by age 10. She also speaks with her hands, answering questions with a graceful flick of her wrists or wave of her forearm.
Poised and well-spoken, Whittemore doesn’t seem to have a jumpy nerve in her petite frame. Whether she’s standing before a crowd of top-notch journalists or Kennedy Center season-ticket holders, she seems comfortable performing.
“In politics, most things are somewhat choreographed — from a press conference to rolling out a big media announcement,” she said. “You want to be as well-rehearsed as possible, aware of what topics are on reporters’ minds. But there will always be times where you have to improvise, adapt and be ready to think on your feet when unexpected issues come up.”
Becoming a Ballerina
Professional ballet training is worlds away from 3-year-old girls squealing with delight over a sparkly tutu. It requires 20-plus hours of technique classes and rehearsals each week starting at age 12, bruised or broken toenails and, at times, little to no social life.
Whittemore cherishes the memory of buying her first pair of pointe shoes, a significant rite of passage for young ballet dancers. She even remembers what she wore that day: red leggings and a shirt with a heart on the front.
When she was 12, she was cast in “The Nutcracker” as Clara, every young ballerina’s dream role. The performance with the Shore Ballet School in New Jersey was her first lead role, and the solo only whetted her appetite for more.
Like many dancers training for professional careers, Whittemore spent summers during her high school years at dance programs away from home. She attended her first at age 14 with the American Academy of Ballet in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., dancing eight to 10 hours each day in ballet, pointe, modern and jazz classes.