Breaking In Your Shoes

One evening not long ago as house lights dimmed at the San Francisco Ballet and a bell rang to indicate the performance was about to begin, Tari Pelaez, sitting in the audience, felt a little tremor of nerves: “That moment of silence right before you hear the strings warming up, you hear the orchestra and you’re thinking: ‘Oh, it’s happening! Oh, it’s happening!’ And I could feel it in my stomach.”

She could feel it because a few years ago Tari would have been on the other side of the curtain.

Tari is a Project Designer at O+A. She has worked for major design firms in Miami and San Francisco, has contributed to spaces at Facebook, Bacardi, Cisco and Uber. She taught design at Florida International University. Design is her life, but there was a time when she knew another life. For 16 years, Tari Pelaez was a ballerina.

“Sometimes I hear the scores and I see the movements,” she says. “I remember being in rehearsal and I can still see the same people rehearsing it. My memory is not even of the performance. It’s the rehearsal. Because there was just hours and hours and HOURS of it.”

Tari danced ballet in Miami with a company formed by a woman who had worked with the maestro for whom Tari’s aunt and mother danced. That’s the way it works in South Florida: performance runs in your family—ballet, flamenco—and you carry on the tradition. Not because you have to, not because you’re pressured, but because it’s your world. “I think Miami is more rooted [than San Francisco],” she says. “People don’t leave Miami. Everyone’s immediate family is there. Everyone’s extended family is there. So you have deeper roots.” Which means creative careers grow from a soil rich with legacy. “Hobbies and sports were seasonal,” Tari says of her days as a young dancer, “but ballet was like—it was LIFE. Forever. Until you stopped.”

She started when she was 7. She remembers being a particularly playful ballerina, dancing The Nutcracker every season—as a toy soldier, as a mouse, as one of the children at the party. A dancer’s Christmas memories are different from those of us who only watched The Nutcracker. They are memories of movement, whispered excitement, hasty costume changes. “What’s interesting is that from the stage, especially in a performance at a large theatre, you really don’t see much,” Tari says. “You see beyond the orchestra and you’ll see maybe a couple of rows, but the lights are so bright and you’re moving typically…” So you don’t get a chance to wink at your mom.

As she grew up Tari danced the classics—Swan Lake, Giselle—but if you ask her for the highpoints of her life as a ballerina, it’s not a particular role she mentions, but the all-immersive culture of the art: “I think it was the build-up and the preparation for the performances—dress rehearsals, costume fittings.” She also relished the rigor of it. Even people who have never seen a ballet know what a rigorous life it is. The classic images of dance almost always relate to discipline: ballerinas at the barre practicing the same moves over and over, imperious dance masters walking the line, bloody shoes! Tari has her own bloody-shoe story:

“So you basically have to break in your shoes. But you can’t make them too soft because then you can’t dance in them. Different people did crazy things. They’d snip the satin off the toe so it wouldn’t be as slippery. Some people would stuff them with lambswool or cotton. I had teachers who would actually check our shoes. During one rehearsal we were dancing and dancing and I felt something—it hurt, but it always hurt. I looked down and through the satin I had blood coming up.” She turned to her dance master—surely that would excuse her for the day? “And he looked at me and said, ‘You have another pair?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘Okay, change.’”

One result of this dancer’s boot camp: Tari has a ballerina’s feet to this day. She wears high heels when she goes to the store. “People ask me, ‘Your feet don’t hurt? You can walk in those?’ I think I’ve lost all the nerve endings in my toes.”

Ballet was LIFE, but life goes on, and eventually Tari realized that a dancer’s career, like an athlete’s, is limited. “If you don’t go pro by 16 or 17—and by pro I mean like a principal dancer at San Francisco Ballet or in New York City or something—you’re kind of an old lady at that point.” An old lady at 18! Tari danced professionally into her early 20s, but as she continued her education a new love surfaced—for design. It was impossible to do both, so she chose the one she knew would sustain her, creatively and materially, throughout her life.

Tari says she doesn’t miss the limelight. Ballet was one chapter. Design is another. She does adagios on AutoCAD now; her leaps are from one elevation to another, but there are times when she will catch a backstage scent on a construction site or flash on a rustle of satin at a party or hear a strain of music and briefly, fleetingly the old chapter will ignite—in her mind, in her stomach:

“Oh it’s happening! Oh it’s happening!”