Vernon teen dances on air after Royal Winnipeg Ballet invite

Tiernen O’Keefe, 15, has been accepted into one of Canada’s most prestigious ballet academic programs with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. (Carousel Studios photo)
Tiernen O’Keefe has been dancing since she was three years old. (Carousel Studios)
Tiernen O’Keefe, 15, has packed her bags and moved to Winnipeg Sept. 2, 2020, to study at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. (Carousel Studios)
Tiernen O’Keefe, 15, has studied dance in Lake Country, Vernon and Kelowna, and now she’s headed to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet mid pandemic. (Carousel Studios)
Tiernen O’Keefe has been accepted into the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. At only 15 years of age, she has packed up her room and is moving away from her Vernon family home. (Caitlin Clow - Morning Star)
Tiernen O’Keefe, 15, dances with her sisters Aislin, 10, and Bronwyn, 6, on the slippery plastic flooring laid down at her in-home studio. (Caitlin Clow - Vernon Morning Star)

Moving away from home on your own is a big deal, especially if you are 15 years old, but that’s exactly what Tiernen O’Keefe is doing after being accepted into Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet (RWB).

The young talented teen, who just celebrated her birthday Aug. 22, packed up her childhood bedroom and left her lakefront family home Wednesday, Sept. 2, headed for the Prairies.

Tiernen will be the first of the O’Keefe brood to move away from home. Meanwhile, her four siblings, between the ages of six and 19, are vying for the newly vacated room.

“Her little sisters are going to miss her so much,” mother Sue O’Keefe said.

Tiernen has been studying dance since she was three years old, but when she started to concentrate on ballet, she knew this was her path.

She has been a student at dance studios in Vernon, Kelowna and Lake Country and danced competitively for several years in a myriad of styles.

After being nudged by supportive dance teachers, Tiernen was convinced she should audition for either RWB or the National School of Ballet in Toronto.

“When I was 12 years old, Miss Kira Hofman (a former RWB student herself) called me in after class and told me I have to audition for Royal Winnipeg,” Tiernen said from the edge of the family dock on Okanagan Lake.

Without ever visiting, Tiernen had her heart set on the Prairies.

Growing up in the sunny Okanagan, Tiernen admitted she’s nervous about the weather in “Winterpeg.”

Rightfully so.

Especially after she heard the frigid air can leave your hair – on your head, and in your nose – frozen.

“We’ll have to go shopping because there’s not a lot of winter clothes stores here,” she said.

But the notoriously cold winters won’t hold this disciplined dancer back.

“I am definitely looking forward to having dance and school in the same place so I don’t have such a crazy schedule,” she said, noting the plus side.

Tiernen will attend class at the University of Winnipeg Collegiate both in-person and online.

“I’m also looking forward to meeting new people, getting a new room and having a more disciplined dance environment.”

The more rigid schedule and shared career-oriented mindset with her colleagues will motivate Tiernen, she and her mother agreed.

Sue said Tiernen has always been a driven self-starter and that has helped her in her blossoming ballet career.

“I don’t know of any other kid…” Sue said. “She would wake up at 5:30 or 6 a.m. and workout before practicing ballet.”

She gets it from her father, Roderick.

“I get my discipline from him,” Tiernen said. “He’ll wake up at 4 a.m., he’ll send me an email the night before and say, ‘Do you want to do a workout tomorrow’…I think that’s also motivated me because I wanted to be as disciplined as he was and show him I could do it too.”

“That’s what I love about ballet too,” she added. “You have to train every single day or it’s not going to happen.”

As if moving at 15 was difficult enough, Tiernen is doing it during a global pandemic.

COVID-19 changed everything about the auditioning process for RWB this year, Tiernen said.

What would normally be done in a month-long in-person intensive, was moved online. And this was not free of its challenges.

The O’Keefe family rigged up a makeshift studio in the family’s bonus room.

With some plastic flooring taped onto the carpet and mirrors and ballet bar already in place, Tiernen followed along with the exercises and required routines via webcam for two weeks.

“I was super grateful to have an in-house studio,” Tiernen said.

“Most girls had to do it in their living room, using their couch as a bar and I actually had a really nice space to do it in.”

The plastic floors proved to be more slippery than expected, but Tiernen made sure that didn’t ruin her audition.

“I had to dip my feet in water between each exercise so that I could have some traction,” she said, laughing.

It worked.

Sue said she was surprised when she got the call from RWB.

“I was at work and half paying attention when they called,” she said. “They told us they would be doing progress updates and all of a sudden, they’re telling me she’s been accepted!

“It’s very exciting. We told her how privileged she is to do this – it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity and she needs to remember to be very, very grateful for this opportunity.”

The RWB students typically return home over Thanksgiving in October, but this may not be the case with the expected resurgence of COVID-19 cases this fall. Now, it’s looking like Tiernen may come home for Christmas.

“With this on her resume, so many doors will be opened,” Sue said of her daughter’s opportunity.

Plus, with programs like FaceTime, Zoom and Instagram, it’s easier to stay in touch.

Upon graduation, Tiernen said she would like to dance with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet Company or audition with another company and become a professional ballet dancer.

None of this would have been possible, Tiernen said, without the support from her parents, teachers and photographer and family friend Amie Roussel, owner of Carousel Studios.

Together, they have kept Tiernen on track in the pursuit of her dream to become a professional ballerina.

Tiernen said you can follow her along on her journey in Winnipeg by following her Instagram @O_Tiernen.

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