Life in motion: Gabrielle McNeillie dances over seas of delight


Ed Flores

McNeillie photographed by ED Flores. Photo courtesy of Gabrielle McNeillie.

Katherine Camarata, Lead Editor

From studying ballet in the Rochester, New York area to performing professionally on Carnival Cruise lines to teaching as a dance professor at CWU, Gabrielle McNeillie’s lively spirit has touched audiences all across the globe. 

McNeillie’s dance career started at the young age of five, as dance runs in her bloodline.

“I was lucky enough to have my aunt as my very first dance teacher,” McNeillie said. “She owned a dance studio, so I danced with her as a student until high school, and then I joined a pre-professional school for ballet called the Rochester City Ballet.”

McNeillie said she learned from all different types of teachers, French and Russian teachers as well as those who taught American styles of ballet, modern and jazz dance. 

McNeillie was living in New York at the time of the September 11 terrorist attacks, which she later learned played an instrumental role in landing her nearly-decade long stint as a performer for Carnival Cruise lines. 

“I found out many years later that they actually tried to get all the dancers they had hired out of New York when [9/11] happened … which I thought was really kind and it made me realize how lucky I was to work for that company,” McNeillie said.

According to McNeillie, dancing on the cruise ships was contracted work that lasted 10-11 months at a time, and she worked with Carnival for almost eight years. 

She said getting accustomed to the jargon of a ship was an unforeseen aspect of living at sea. 

“Looking back, one of the unexpected elements of ship life is the camaraderie and relationships you create while there,” McNeillie said. “I feel so lucky to have met and worked with people from all over the world.”

McNeillie recounted many adventures and misadventures of working on a cruise ship. She told one story about forgetting her dance steps to a dance she knew “backwards and forwards” and sharing a laugh with her dance captain.

“When you’re doing a show over and over and over again for eight, nine,10 months, you maybe start thinking about other things besides the dance you’re doing in the moment, and so this comes with consequences,” McNeillie said. “I completely forgot what I was doing. I was like a statue and my dance captain at the time was right behind me … I could hear his laugh behind me and … had to turn around and look and see what everyone was doing, so I could catch up, and he just had the biggest goofiest grin on his face because it’s not something I did regularly.”

McNeillie also reminisced about a small fire that was lit on stage as a result of pyrotechnics used to accentuate dance numbers. She said the fire safety officers hopped on stage to put the fire out and the sound of the fire extinguisher was very timely. 

“The fire safety officer comes up on stage right in this perfect moment in the music,” McNeillie said. “It’s from Miss Saigon … and it’s supposed to be a really serious number and we were all just trying not to laugh.”

According to McNeillie, the show must always go on regardless of unforeseen circumstances, even fire.

McNeillie said the accomplishment she is most proud of was filling in as dance captain when she started work on a cruise through the Mediterranean, and later being promoted to dance captain for her final contract with Carnival.

“It was a nice way to end my career there,” McNeillie said. “That kind of solidified the trajectory I wanted to take … I knew I wanted to be in a teaching position and a position where I could be working towards creating curriculum that guides students to being professionals.”

McNeillie garnered far more than simply lasting career experience and amusing anecdotes from her time with Carnival Cruise line; she met her husband and CWU alumni Blair McNeillie on ship, where he also performed.

“He was a musician, so I think that’s one of the reasons I stayed so long,” McNeillie said.

The couple left ship to get married and moved to Ellensburg so her husband could obtain a master’s degree in music at CWU. This is where McNeillie’s journey as a professor began, when she started teaching dance part time. 

Eventually she earned her Master’s of Fine Arts from the University of Arizona, and moved back to teach at CWU full time where she became a tenured track dance professor.

“I’m really thankful to Therese, who’s the director of the dance program, for having so much faith in me and bringing me back here,” McNeillie said.

According to McNeillie, her favorite style of dance to teach is ballet while her favorite style to perform is musical theatre jazz “all the way.”

McNeillie said the art of teaching and the art of performing are very similar, in that they both involve a performative element.

“We’re working really hard to be engaging and to encourage our students to be participants,” McNeillie said. “Having a performance background does really assist with that. Even when I’m struggling or having a hard day, I can walk into a class and put that aside and put my performance face on.”

McNeillie mentioned that dance classes are open to all types of students, even students outside the dance department.

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  • Preshow warm up in McConnell Hall. Photo courtesy of Gabrielle McNeillie

  • McNeillie with her husband Blair. Photo courtesy of Gabrielle McNeillie

  • Photo courtesy of Gabrielle McNellie

  • Cotton Club performance featuring Gabrielle McNeillie. Photo courtesy of Gabrielle McNeillie.

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She said she is excited for the upcoming dance performance put on by the choreography class where students will choreograph and talk about their work this December. She also said she is excited for a collaboration between the dance, music and theatre departments and the Ellensburg Dance Ensemble for The Nutcracker this winter.

McNeillie’s work has touched and inspired many students, as was the case for junior in elementary education and dance education Sophie Blasingim who worked with McNeillie to choreograph a can-can dance for the Orpheus in the Underworld opera and has taken many of McNeillie’s classes.

“She’s just so supportive and she really strives to make sure that you’re doing the best in class,” Blasingim said. “If you need help, she’s willing to give you the right steps or techniques you can do to make the movement work with your body.”

McNeillie said she hopes her students feel proud of what their bodies can do and find more strength than they expected to have. 

She said she hopes students “have a lifelong love and appreciation for dance and what it can do not only for themselves but for others.”

McNeillie gave some advice for upcoming dancers who hope to dance professionally. She said they must be versatile, learn from a variety of teachers and be prepared for all types of choreography.

“Anyone who is hoping to be a professional must be prepared for a lot of rejection and therefore, needs to learn how to continue despite it,” McNeillie said.