FACES Beyond the Ballet Slippers

Olenka Kymak has been in numerous dance shows, including one in New York City.

With Olenka Kymak’s pale blonde features, unapologetic eccentricity, and tendency to stare off into space with a distant daydreaming look in her eyes, it’s no wonder many of the people she meets liken her to Luna Lovegood from the Harry Potter series.

This proudly Polish dancer and UCSB student, gladly embraces all her quirks, with the philosophy that she would rather stand out and be known as someone ‘weird’ than be boring and fade into the crowd.

She ties the pink silks of her pointe shoes onto her feet as she apologizes about her tardiness and starts rambling about her day. She has been up since 6 a.m., and it has been nonstop ever since.

As a double major in psychology and dance at University of California, Santa Barbara, her schedule is endlessly busy. Although only a first-year student, she is technically at a junior level standing due to all the units she has taken so far. Always about reaching above and beyond the mediocre, she sets high goals for herself and accomplishes them.“I like to wake up early to surf, I do it at least three times a week. So I surfed for a couple hours, then had two classes back to back until 1:30.” she says, her eyes wide with energy, “I grabbed lunch really quick. Then I had to head to my ballet and hip hop class, then rehearsal for our dance team’s performance next weekend. Aaaannd now here I am!”

“I think I learned that from my parents, who moved to the States from Poland after I was born, so that they could provide the best for me.” she says, “They left their entire lives – family, job, friends, their home – so I could really strive here and achieve the best.”

As a first-generation college student, there are obviously many expectations on her to succeed and she is determined to make that happen.

She started dance at the age of 5 as something her parents enrolled her in, like most do, to channel their child’s energy into, but has never stopped. Now 13 years later, nearly every day of her life has been spent dancing. In middle school and high school, she went to daily classes at a local dance studio, and persevered through the grueling schedule despite its  interference with schoolwork.

Kymak, who started dancing at age 5, is double majoring in psychology and dance at UCSB. (Rachel Lee)

“It was especially hard in high school because I was taking multiple AP classes. I was at school from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. then would go straight to dance afterwards, usually taking classes until late at night. I’d come home exhausted and aching, ready to pass out, and then I’d be like ‘oh, crap, I have an AP Bio test tomorrow!’”

Yet she made the best of it, earning a close 4.0 GPA and graduating with Honors. Although now a content student of Santa Barbara, she admits she was not too excited at first.

“It was kinda bittersweet ‘cause UCLA was my top school, both for me and my parents. And I remember how nervous I was checking the results; and my heart just sank when I saw I didn’t see that blue Congrats! line.” she says, sighing, “But I finally got over it, decided on Santa Barbara and it was honestly the best decision I have ever made!”

She’s made the most out of her time so far at UCSB, joining its dance team, making a close knit group of friends, and even starting a club dedicated to flying kites.

“I love kites! It’s so relaxing yet exciting. And when I started school, I would fly my kite on campus and eventually people just started joining me or asking questions, so I thought what better idea than to start a club so we can all enjoy this common interest together!”

Now the club has a diverse group of members, ranging from a frat boy to a Spanish exchange student.

As she warms up for the photos by stretching her leg on a ledge, she points out a small tattoo on her ankle with pride. An outline of a brown bear and a mushroom, she describes it as a spur of the moment decision.

“In middle school I would tell everyone I met this story of how I was mushroom hunting in Poland – which is real by the way, me and my family actually search for edible mushrooms, called “kurka” or “borowik”, it’s legit a traditional hobby there. And the outrageous part is how I’d say I stumbled upon a bear and it scratched me on my stomach.” she says, shaking her head and laughing in embarrassment.

Although the validity of her tale is questionable, those she would spin the tale to would believe her, in shock and impressed at her survival skills.

She gestures to a faint scar on her abdomen as her proof, and says, “Fact or fiction, that’s up to the listeners to decide. But it was just a fun story that entertained a lot of people.”

The bear and mushroom story just became a part of her identity as that was what people associated her with (she was known as ‘that mushroom bear girl’) and it became a hilarious inside joke with her and her friends throughout high school.

So on a late night last October, while accompanying a friend getting a piercing, she got the tattoo with a carefree abandon.

“I know it’s not super meaningful or whatever, but I don’t care. It’s fun and brings back good memories and just represents me!”

She’s right. Her enthusiasm for life and unique quirks are symbolized by this anecdote.

She starts standing on her toes in her pointe shoes, which are now thoroughly worn and a faded pink-grey color, and show the signs of her hard work after so many years of use. With a serene expression on her face, she slowly raises one leg to her knee, balancing with an impressive stability.

“It was probably one of my proudest moments when I earned these pointe shoes.” she says after perfecting a pirouette. “You have to go through so much intensive training and years of work to get this. It was so worth it – all the blood, sweat, and tears. A lot of people don’t realize this but our feet get so bruised and battered. I mean, we’re putting all this strain on them, all our weight on our toes. ”

It is clear from how her face lights up when talking about dancing that she is truly passionate. And that translates into her performance. She plays a video on her phone of a dance show she did in New York over the summer in which she leaps, glides, and spins across the stage with an effortless elegance.

How do you do it all? is a common question she gets, when people find out she balances such a hectic schedule of rigorous coursework and dance.

One surprising thing is that she does not drink coffee. She finds it unappealing, and claims she really does not need it, since she can rock the day without caffeine most of the time.

Or through naps. She explains all her favorite places on campus to slip in a quick power nap whenever she gets some time – a patch of grass for example, or her favorite bench.

“Of course it gets a bit overwhelming at times, but I just think about all that my parents sacrificed for me and that motivates me through every slump. I just want to make them proud.” she says, then adds with a mischievous grin, “Oh and going out every so often on the weekends definitely relieves some stress too.”