An Interview with Kat Mische Elle
Jessica began studying classical ballet at the age of 5, and has been dancing professionally since the age of 17. Her career has taken her all over the world. She is currently performing in the Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. In 2017, Jessica founded the children’s hospital outreach nonprofit Broadway Hearts.
Jessica, will you share segments of the journey that led you to your current life?
I grew up in California and started dancing at the age of five to improve my gymnastics. After my first ballet class, I came home and said, “I don’t want to do anything else!”
I was focused and obsessed. My drive for my entire childhood was ballet, ballet, ballet. I grew up with two brothers. My little brother, at the age of four, also started dancing. My older brother was a martial artist and an athlete, my father was a writer, and my mother was an artist and potter, and had a dance clothing company.
We all grew up surrounded by art in some fashion. Our parents were incredibly supportive of anything we set our minds to and were passionate about. My parents were so supportive of our dreams that they would even take us out of school early to drive us an hour and a half each way to study ballet.
Was your brother also in ballet?
It’s the quintessential story of the younger brother following the older sister into a ballet class and going on to become a ballet star! He was a beautiful dancer. It was a huge commitment for my family for us to study. I had studied on a scholarship for summer sessions with the School of American Ballet in New York City from the time I was ten years old and then at 15 decided to stay and train for the year. It was when I suffered my first major injury. I fractured my hip, an overuse injury that came to light during ballet class – I felt a click in my hip doing one of the combinations, and it kept me from dancing for almost two years. I had to go home to California, which was devastating at the time. It was also the beginning of my ongoing path of self-discovery through injuries.
How did you heal from that injury?
Time. That was the beginning of some of the roughest phases in my young life because it was the first time I had ever been without dance. I was a teenager, and I had to think about my identity without it. Those were a really tough couple of years for me. I didn’t know where I was going.
I ended up moving to San Francisco and started to teach at a local ballet school where my brother was training and I discovered a love a teaching!
What was your takeaway from this healing period?
The love of teaching others was now a part of me for the rest of my life and continuing my knowledge. Teaching is something I gained from that injury, it helped free me from being stuck.
The great takeaway from my time away from dance was that if you love to do whatever you do, something else can also come from it. And so always staying open and curious was a gift to me. This was something that my parents impressed upon us while growing up and this was the first time I was actually implementing it.
We both went to Washington, DC, studied with The Kirov Academy there, and then came to New York City. I’ve been here ever since.
And then, I sustained another terrible injury, which kept me out for almost four years.
Was it your hip again?
No, I tore my Achilles tendon and thought it was the end of my career.
How many years between your injuries?
About six years. This injury came and just flattened me. The doctor said I shouldn’t count on dancing ever again. I didn’t agree with that. But I hustled during that time and worked a million different jobs. That was a defining moment for me because I realized that I could do different things if I allowed myself to.
What things did you discover you were good at in addition to dancing?
The work ethic that ballet gave me applied to anything I put my mind to. In the four years I was out of dancing for my injury, I was a sous chef, a candy maker, a receptionist, a bookkeeper, and so many other things, as I needed to make a living for myself.
In essence, was this the beginning of your self-ownership?
Absolutely. My career didn’t define me, I defined myself. And that was such a huge realization that I would be okay. My life and happiness had always revolved around dance. When I finally got back to dancing, and in shape, I realized that my Achilles would never be strong enough for ballet company life.
A friend of mine was in Phantom of the Opera, and she said, “Why don’t you audition? You could rehab your foot specifically to do this choreography.” And so I did. I auditioned a few times over a year and a half, and I finally got in and got the job. It was a dream job with a steady paycheck and incredible health insurance. It also allowed me to do some other gigs – like The Nutcracker.
And then, my father got diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2009.
My dad was one of the greatest source of joy and happiness in our family’s life. Losing him took all the air out of the room and out of my world. It changed everything. He was diagnosed in October, and he passed away the following August. We learned it was a genetic cancer. His whole family had died of either pancreatic or ovarian cancers. He was tested for a specific gene, BRCA (a genetic cancer gene). He tested positive for it, and they said, “Your kids should get tested.” And so I got tested, and I too was positive for the gene.
During this insane grief, I had to figure out my health and how I would move forward with this genetic mutation. BRCA1 predisposes me to ovarian, breast, and pancreatic cancer (the big ones!) and five or six other types of cancer. And they keep adding cancers all the time. So rather than dealing with my grief, I went into full distraction mode and kept my grief as far away from myself as possible.
I had to figure out what I would do with my health and the doctors. I connected with really good oncologists and they were urging me to have an oophorectomy (take my ovaries out), which was going to put me in immediate surgical menopause, and I wouldn’t be able to have kids. All I could think was, “I can’t do this right now. I can’t make this decision right now.”
I put that surgery off for a while because I didn’t know what to do. But I dove headlong into outreach for genetic cancers and got involved with several genetic organizations, to gain as much knowledge as possible. It became a channel for my energy, and a substitute for dealing with grief. Honestly, it’s still hard.
The outreach proved an incredible gift because I got to help other people, it was this wonderful place to put everything into, and I got to know so much about the cancers. And then, I decided to do my first surgery. It was a knee-jerk decision to have the oophorectomy, and I didn’t have a post-operative plan in place. It was so stupid. I just winged it.
I spent the next two years trying to get my body to where I felt like myself again. I had horrible migraines, and I felt like a completely different person. It was a process to get my chemistry levels and hormones balanced. And I thought, “Oh my goodness. Wow! I must share this story with others to ensure that no one else does what I did.” That became my mission to help as many women as possible with their decisions regarding the care they will need.
From what platform(s) were you doing that?
One of the groups I work with is called FORCE (Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered).
I’ve become a patient advocate. They pair me with women having the same surgeries, doing surveillance, or specifically dealing with surgical menopause. Later, after a mastectomy with reconstruction, they paired me with women going through something similar as well.
So, how did Broadway Hearts come to be?
I knew I wanted to start a foundation in my dad’s honor, but I had no idea what that would look like.
At Phantom, Make A Wish Kids regularly came to see the show, which was a beautiful part of our experience there. I wanted to figure out a way to bring a version of a Broadway show to kids in treatment. And that became a focus. I started calling local hospitals, and finally, I got an okay to bring a group of Broadway performers to children at their hospital. And then that hospital turned into another hospital, another hospital, and then Ronald McDonald House.
The momentum grew! When the pandemic hit, we took everything online, which was unbelievable because it allowed us to go into hospitals nationwide which I had wanted to do anyway. Online allowed us to visit with kids in every part of the hospital, not just the children who were well enough to come into the room with us. We now have over a hundred incredible volunteers from different Broadway shows, unbelievably big stars, first-show graduates, and everything in between. The kids we visit are beyond inspiring. They live so completely in the present moment, it’s this huge reminder of how to live. They light up when we visit, and we feel very fortunate to get to share the healing power of music with them. Our visits are a wonderful exchange of energy. With all of our programs we try to create wonderful memories for these amazing kids. New, wonderful memories to hopefully take back into their next round of treatment to help buoy their spirits. And we’ve been able to do some really great things for a small boutique nonprofit. I have huge dreams for Broadway Hearts!
You’re blending your art and hearts.
Yes, and my dad would’ve loved this. I get to dedicate this to him. This is, it is all about him, and my goodness, I feel so fortunate.
What is your inspired, impactful focus for the rest of this year?
For the foundation, I would love to bring in a developmental person to take us to the next level and see us go global so we can be in every children’s hospital. I have huge dreams for us, and I don’t think that there’s anything that we can’t do.
I want to do what we’re doing on a much grander scale and keep expanding our programing. I also have a company called Broadway Unveiled, where corporations and individuals can book Broadway performers for an up close and personal concert for employees or parties.
So there are some exciting things ahead, but Broadway Hearts is where my focus is, and I wake up and go to bed thinking about it.
How can people find out more about the foundation?
Social Media: @Broadway hearts