Crystal Boyce was told she would never be a dancer. Now she owns a successful studio and mentors the young women who adore her
"Crystal is a very strong, very steady force for excellence. And excellence cannot be overrated." - William Conner, President of CAPA
When she was just a little girl, Crystal Boyce wanted to be a ballerina.
She twirled in her bedroom when no one was looking, she danced down the streets of her family's Linden neighborhood while all the other kids played ball. She fantasized about the lights and dreamed of the stage. She wanted Broadway.
But others told her it would never happen. Instructors said she was too tall, out of proportion, that her shape was all wrong. She simply didn't fit the mold.
"I was maybe 15, 16 years old, and to hear that was devastating," Boyce said. "I was 5 foot 7 and 120 pounds, and they said I was too fat. I was trying not to eat and wearing plastic pants and running miles every day. I was killing myself.
"I swore right then I would never tell another dancer that she didn't have the look."
The criticism didn't stop her. It drove her.
Today, Boyce is a successful dancer, instructor and the owner of Leap of Faith dance studio in the King-Lincoln District and Leap of Faith Dancewear Boutique in the shops at the Lincoln Theatre. She's also a community volunteer and runs the dance ministry at St. Paul A.M.E. Church.
The role the 44-year-old treasures most, however, is that of wife and mother of two.
And she pulls all this off with a natural grace under what can sometimes be the cold and unkind spotlight of politics: She is married to former Columbus City Councilman Kevin L. Boyce, who now is Ohio's treasurer.
Crystal Boyce and her two brothers spent the bulk of their childhoods on E. 25th Street. Peggy Porter took her children to plays, concerts and symphonies every chance she got, to expose them to what went on beyond the borders of a not-always-gentle neighborhood. And she did all this on a secretary's wage.
"We didn't have a lot, but my mother found free things to take us to, or she volunteered for community theater just so we could all be a part of it," Boyce said. "She wanted to open our eyes to opportunity."
"There are a lot of circles now where people come up to me and say, 'Aren't you Crystal Boyce's husband?' I just couldn't be more proud." -- Kevin Boyce, Ohio treasurer and Crystal's husband
After graduating from the Fort Hayes School of Performing Arts, studying at Ohio State and embarking on her own careers in both the political and corporate worlds, Boyce opened Leap of Faith on East Long Street in 2004. Then, last November, she added her dancewear boutique just up the street.
Her ideas have been vital to the rebirth of the neighborhood and the renovation of the Lincoln Theatre, said William Conner, president and CEO of the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts. CAPA and Leap of Faith have a longstanding partnership for public performances, and no one should ever doubt that Boyce runs the show, Conner said.
"I do whatever she tells me," he said with a laugh. But he wasn't really joking. "That's what happens. People see her ambition and her drive, and they just naturally want to do whatever they can to help her."
Publicly, he said, Boyce is the consummate professional. But there is a side she keeps very private.
"I cannot count the dancers she had mentored. They can't pay tuition? She takes them anyway. She pays to send them to workshops, she makes professional contacts and uses her own resources to build them a foundation and get them on their way," Conner said. "Dance is critically important to our culture, and what she does is demonstrate that anyone, no matter who they are or how they look, should be allowed to dance."
Boyce isn't used to talking about herself and, between bites of an apple and sips of her protein water, it's clear she's quite uncomfortable with it; it's her husband who is generally in the spotlight.
The two are madly in love, their devotion to one another and to their family clear. Though she and Kevin live high-profile lives and keep demanding schedules, they work hard to keep 11-year-old Kevin Jr. (K.J.) and 7-year-old Kristopher grounded.
K.J. takes out the trash, and Kristopher Swiffers the floor every night after dinner. Half of every bit of money the boys receive as gifts or earn--even if it's just a dollar from a neighbor grateful for help with a chore--goes to Dad for the college fund.
Sundays are devoted to family: church in the morning, then Mom's big, home-cooked meal and an afternoon of snuggling and watching movies.
"Crystal is always the last one to sit down at the table, the last one to turn off the light, the last one to lay her head down in the bed," Kevin said. "But dancing with her students and taking care of her family is a calling, a spiritual journey for her. I think--and I really believe this in my heart--that if someone offered her $10 million to make her life easier right now, she wouldn't trade her current life and her experiences for all the riches in the world."
Boyce packs her sons' lunches and takes them to school, and then picks them up each day. She shares carpool duties for soccer, basketball and whatever else comes along.
"Crystal is always the last one to sit down at the table... the last one to lay her head down in bed." -- Kevin Boyce, Crystal's husband
Her husband, however, says she's not without faults: "She refuses to put the toothpaste cap back on, and it drives me crazy. It's awful. I can't stand it." But he's learned to live with it.
His wife believes the toothpaste cap is a tradeoff, payback for the fact that Kevin leaves a trail through the house each night--shoes, socks, jacket, tie, shirt, paperwork--as if he might need to follow it to get back to the door. "Oh, don't even get me started," she said.
Boyce spends her evenings and all day every Saturday teaching at the studio. Among her students are Juilliard hopefuls and Broadway dreamers, plenty of girls with stars in their eyes. (She has boys and men in her classes, but they are much fewer in number.)
She teaches them to dance, yes. But when it comes to mentoring the girls, it really is about so much more.
"A lot of my kids will never be professional dancers," she said. "But they will be women. Strong and confident women, I hope. This is about teaching them to be bold, to be strong and brave and courageous and to never let anything get the best of them."
The girls who take her classes are from a kaleidoscopic swath of society. She has doctors' daughters and lawyers' kids, girls hoping for Harvard and girls who may not make it through high school. She has students with parents in jail, students who will have nothing to eat when they go home and students who have no one but Boyce to ask them how they did on that science exam.
"I'm not their parent, and I don't step over that line. But if the need is there, I make them accountable," Boyce said. "If they're having trouble in school, I say bring me your notes. If their grades are bad, I say bring me your tests. I know I can't save them all. But I believe in the power of prayer. So even if I can't save them alone, I pray and leave it in God's hands."
Each class begins and ends with prayer and a time to share.
"A lot of my kids will never be professional dancers. But they will be women. Strong and confident women, I hope." -- Crystal Boyce
"She gives us a safe environment," said Kristiauna Trelay, a 26-year-old banker and a member of the The Crewzers, the Columbus Crew's dance team. She has taken classes at Leap of Faith over the years, and now teaches there.
"We might start a class by talking about the world, like what happened in Haiti, and how we can help. Or we might start a class by talking about who got stood up on their date last night and how that made them feel," she said. "With Miss Crystal, it's like girl talk, you know. Nothing is off limits with her."
The students feed on Boyce's stories, off her experiences. For she did indeed make it to New York. She made it to just one dancers' call.
"I saw all of these people there, a thousand of them just like me, and they were clawing to get noticed and scraping to get by, and some of them had been doing that for years," she recalled. "It wasn't for me. I knew then I'd someday open a studio and give dancers some options."
She stayed about five weeks. When she returned to Columbus, her mother was waiting. It was Mrs. Porter, after all, who enrolled her daughter in ballet at the tender age of five. Back then, though, it had nothing to do with pursuing dreams.
"Crystal is an awesome dancer, but she can't walk. Never has been able to. She still today trips over her own feet. It's the funniest thing," said Porter, a secretary at University Hospital East. "I put her in dance because all the other little girls were doing it, and I thought maybe it would give her some coordination."
It didn't take long for her daughter to blossom. But it wasn't always easy, she knows. Boyce was often the only black girl in dance class, and she wondered why she had so few instructors who looked like her. And, her mother says, Crystal took the criticism of her dancer's body to heart.
"I told her not to mind what anybody said. I told her you can be anything you want to be, no matter what your size, no matter what your shape. You just use your mind and you'll see."
When Boyce finally did get an African-American instructor, they instantly bonded. Gail White-Dixon choreographed Boyce as a teenager, and the two remain best friends.
"I saw something special in her," said White-Dixon, a fourth-grade teacher at a Columbus charter school. "Now, I take classes from her. I love to be at the studio and watch her with her students. They just soak up the passion and power with which she dances, and I can see it--literally see it--changing their attitude. They watch her dance and think, 'I can be like that, too.' "
It is here, at Leap of Faith, where Boyce has found her purpose. Here, she doesn't just encourage her students to try; she encourages them to try harder. She doesn't just teach them to dance; she teaches them to live. She doesn't just help them leap; she helps them soar.
And sometimes, she still twirls in her living room when no one is looking. Sometimes she still dances down the street while the neighborhood kids play ball.