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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.
She later attended other summer dance programs, known as intensives, at the Harid Conservatory in Florida, which boasts an international faculty of teachers, and the Boston Ballet, one of the most prestigious companies in the nation.
“I was Miss Independent,” Whittemore said. “I loved being on my own and dancing every single day.”
Politics and Performances
Other interests captured Whittemore’s attention as well. During high school, she found herself following the politics of the day, an interest passed down from her father, who was active in local government. She also discovered a love for communication and attended a vocational high school that specialized in media technology.
But with her new fascinations came a serious dancer’s dilemma: how to juggle a rigorous ballet schedule with other passions.
Instead of choosing one over another, Whittemore combined them all.
While training with the Boston Ballet, she sought an internship in the company’s marketing department. The directors were dumbfounded by the young woman’s interest in the administrative side of dance and let her help with cold calls, donations, ticket sales and designing fliers between technique lessons.
During high school, Whittemore participated in Presidential Classroom, a leadership program that brought her to Washington to study politics and the press. She met Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman, who talked about his job as the voice of the Defense Department.
The program would inspire her career. As her parents sped her back to New Jersey for her annual ballet exam with a teacher from the London-based Royal Academy of Dance, her mind swirled with thoughts of the media’s role in democracy and the politics of the day.
When looking at colleges, she sought schools where she could major in political communications and still dance. At George Washington University, she could double-major in both her passions. Even better, the school awarded her a dance scholarship.
“When I found out I had received the dance scholarship, I knew GW was a perfect fit because I could study in the field of politics and media and also continue to dance,” she said.
At GW, the bun-head ditched her pointe shoes for bare feet and transitioned to modern dance — a totally different technique that she continues today.
“Ballet was always so floaty in pointe shoes, but modern to me was a new challenge, more grounded and focused on centering in,” she said. “I was always Ballerina Katrina, always turning my feet out when you were supposed to turn in, but I loved it.”
So did her toes, which are now pedicured, sans calluses.
GW’s location couldn’t have been better suited to Whittemore’s career. During college, she worked across Washington’s media scene, freelancing for Fox News, the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation and Cox Communications.
In early 2008, around the time she earned her bachelor’s degree, “Fox News Sunday” hired her full time as a producer. The job offer came just as the presidential election was picking up speed, and Whittemore produced live coverage from the Democratic National Convention in Denver and the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn.
Meanwhile, she attended night classes at GW, working toward a master’s degree in political management. She scaled back her dance commitments, but she still managed to take classes and perform in small shows during her free hours.
Her hard work paid off: In the spring of 2010, just months before earning her master’s, Whittemore received an offer from Cantor’s office. She had managed to land her dream job without abandoning her art.
Once a ‘Rina,’ Always a ‘Rina’
Serious ballet dancers have to be driven to survive in an intense and often competitive environment. While few make full-time careers gracing center stage, that self-discipline can be applied to successful professional lives in others fields.
Whittemore fits that mold, tapping the perseverance that helped her endure dancing on her toes and applying it to her work representing the House Republicans’ No. 2 leader.
Beating the clock is another skill that Whittemore perfected with dance.
“If dance is in your life, [time management] almost enforces itself in you,” she said. “There are 24 hours in a day, and it’s never enough. But you must make time for the things you love to do.”
As her career takes off, dance is never far away. She continues to indulge in her artsy side, rehearsing with modern dance companies and practicing yoga. During August recess, she performed at the Chicago Fringe Festival.
She still giddily swoons over American Ballet Theatre’s Sascha Radetsky, who appeared in the movie “Center Stage” and who once performed alongside her.
“There are a lot of people in Washington focused on politics and just politics, so I enjoy being more of a cultural mind in a political city,” she said.
The art affects even some of the most practical decisions in the deputy press secretary’s life. She chose her Foggy Bottom apartment, for example, because the foyer’s closet doors are lined from bottom to top with mirrors — similar to a dance studio and “the selling point for me,” she joked.
And the small reminders of her past, she knows, will probably never fade.
Grandma and Grandpa will likely always hound her about the good old days of ballet. “We miss seeing you in ‘The Nutcracker’ every year,” they often say.
And there’s no avoiding those curious passers-by who crinkle their brows and ask, “What are you doing with your feet?”