Leigh-Ann Esty has danced in ballets, on Broadway and in films and TV shows. But the Gorham native says she might not have pursued the unpredictable life of a professional dancer if she hadn’t had someone to do it with.

That person just happened to be her twin sister, Sara Esty. The two attended Maine State Ballet together, worked in the same professional ballet company and have appeared in Broadway productions together, once sharing the same role. Right now, they can be seen on big screens across the country in Steven Spielberg’s remake of the iconic 1961 musical film “West Side Story.”

“Sara was 1000 percent ready for this journey. I was thinking about going to college, but I also didn’t want to miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to dance professionally,” said Leigh-Ann, 35. “I think knowing I would have someone to go on this journey with really helped me to do it.”

Leigh-Ann Esty, left, and Sara Esty, right, in costume before filming of “West Side Story.” Photo courtesy of Leigh-Ann Esty

Their journey as professional dancers landed the Esty sisters the roles of Jet girlfriends in “West Side Story,” which was released to theaters in December. The two can be seen prominently in the gym dance scene, where members of the rival Jets and Sharks gangs, and their girlfriends, face off against each other in a choreographed dance filled with passion, anger and energy.

The sisters worked on the scene – which lasts about eight to 10 minutes in the film – for seven days in the spring of 2019. They say they rehearsed it like a theater piece, running from beginning to end every time. It made for some sweaty, heart-pumping days, but also exciting and energetic dancing.

Even though they were only in one scene, the sisters say they were made to feel welcome by all, including Spielberg. For one thing, their characters were given names – Sara plays Tat and Leigh-Ann plays Gussie – even though they have no lines. They were invited to both the New York and Los Angeles premieres of the film and were impressed by how hands-on and engaged Spielberg was with the whole cast. As young girls, they thrilled to Spielberg’s films, including “E.T.”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” The characters, action and music inspired them. But they were not sure what to expect of seeing the famed director in action.


Spielberg, they said, could be seen watching rehearsals of the gym dance scene – which took place in a school gym in Brooklyn, New York – from various angles. Sometimes he’d be up on a ladder or laying on the floor. He would film the scene with his phone and then say with a giddy tone, “Kids, come here, I want you to see this.”

Cast and crew called him “Papa Spielberg,” and he and others in charge treated them with ice cream and taco trucks, hired to come to the Brooklyn location. At one point during a shooting day with a lot of downtime, he had a photo booth – like you might see at a beach arcade – brought in so “the kids” would have something to entertain themselves.

“It’s always tricky meeting your heroes, but he was everything you’d hoped for, someone who is genuine and really cares about his cast members and team,” said Sara, who lives in New York City. Leigh-Ann lives just across the Hudson River, in New Jersey.

Gorham native Sara Esty can be seen on the left side of this Jets-versus-Sharks scene from “West Side Story.” She’s near the left corner, with a blonde woman and a man in a blue jacket behind her. Photo by Niko Tavernise


The Esty sisters grew up in Gorham, where their mother was a school administrator and their father ran an optical businesses. Both parents worked full-time and had their hands full with the energetic twins.

“I think Mom and Dad realized they had these super active twins, and they needed to get us out of the house,” said Leigh-Ann.


Their parents signed them up for dance and creative movement classes around the age of 3. By the time they were 7, they were dancing with Maine State Ballet, where they immediately impressed the artistic director, Linda Miele.

The gym dance scene from “West Side Story” features Maine-born dancers Leigh-Ann and Sara Esty. Leigh-Ann can be seen on the left edge of the photo in a blue dress and Sara on the far right, to the left of a man in a green jacket. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios

“They had everything you need, the physical structure, flexibility and beautiful feet,” said Miele. “But what really set them apart was they had so much love for dance. They’d dance all the time. When they were 10 or 11 years old, they’d come back from a holiday break and show me a new dance routine they had choreographed.”

As they discovered their love of dance, they also explored other forms of art. They loved film, including Spielberg’s epics, but also classic musicals like “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” “The Sound of Music” and, of course, “West Side Story.” Sara remembers watching the original “West Side Story” film with her sister, both picking out which dancers they’d want to be, or which character’s dress they liked best.

They also started making films as soon as they could, filming their American Girl dolls or their friends, and coming up with the stories and dialogue. And they appeared in musicals at Gorham High School.

Leigh-Ann Esty, left, and Sara Esty, right, at the New York City premiere of "West Side Story."

Leigh-Ann Esty, left, and Sara Esty, right, at the New York City premiere of “West Side Story.” Photo by Roy Rochlin

In their teen years, it became apparent they both had the talent to pursue ballet further, Miele said. They attended summer programs at the School of American Ballet in New York and the Miami City Ballet. They were both accepted to attend the Miami Ballet’s school after high school as well. Even once they both decided to go to the dance school, instead of college, they were still nervous.

“I remember being at some function (near the end of their senior year at Gorham High School) where they read what we were all doing, so and so is going to this college. When they got to my name, they just said ‘is pursuing a career in dance,’ ” said Sara. “I remember feeling a little scared and embarrassed. But something in my gut told me it was the right thing to do.”


Leigh-Ann says Miele’s support and teaching at Maine State Ballet was “the most important step” on the twins’ path to professional dance careers.

After studying at the Miami City Ballet school, they were both eventually accepted into the ballet’s professional company. Leigh-Ann spent 12 years with the company while Sara was there for 10. Sara left around 2014 for the Broadway production of “An American in Paris,” based on the 1951 musical film starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. She started as part of the ensemble but then spent about two years in the lead role of Lise Dassin, a French ballerina.

At some point during the grueling touring run of the show, the producers were looking for someone to play Lise on Sara’s nights off. They found that someone in Leigh-Ann.

“They said something to Sara about how the wished they could just clone her,” said Leigh-Ann. “She said ‘Funny you should say that, I have a twin sister.’ ”

Leigh-Ann also appeared on Broadway in 2018 as part of the ensemble and as the understudy for Louise in a revival of “Carousel.” In October, Sara began appearing in “The Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway in the role of Meg, friend of the lead female character, Christine. They’ve also both danced in productions around New York and in other parts of the country.

Sara Esty, left, as Tat and Leigh-Ann Esty, right, as Gussie, in costume for their scene in “West Side Story.” Photo courtesy of Sara Esty

The sisters also appeared together in the 2019 television mini-series “Fosse/Verdon” on cable network FX, about the romantic and creative partnership between director/choreographer Bob Fosse and actress and dancer Gwen Verdon. Leigh-Ann and Sara play secretaries who dance with Fosse (Sam Rockwell) in a dream sequence.



Both Leigh-Ann and Sara had known Justin Peck, the choreographer of the new “West Side Story,” when he worked with Miami City Ballet. But both came to their roles in the film in different ways.

Sara tried out after hearing about it through her agent. Leigh-Ann had worked with Peck on “Carousel.” So it didn’t seem too unusual for Peck to invite her to help out on some dance scenes for a “new project” he was working on. She didn’t know what the project was or who else would be there.

“I walk into the rehearsal and, surprise, there’s Spielberg,” Leigh-Ann said.

“West Side Story” tells a Romeo-and-Juliet love story amid the racially-charged hatred and violence of 1950s New York City, where newly-arrived Puerto Rican immigrants and the descendants of earlier immigrants clash. Spielberg’s new version retains the setting, the time period and the story. The differences come in the telling of the story and the fact that Hispanic actors play Puerto Ricans, which was famously not the case in the original. Rita Moreno, 90, who won an Oscar for playing Anita in the original and was born in Puerto Rico, is in the new version as a shopkeeper named Valentina.

Sara said that besides seeing the film at premieres and cast screenings, she recently went to see it by herself, and found it very emotional. She thinks the message – about the damage that can be caused by hate and distrust – is always resonant.


“I think it’s an important story to keep telling. There’s always hardship and conflict between groups of people who don’t share the same headspace,” Sara said.

The film has gotten many positive reviews so far, including from A.O. Scott in the New York Times, who said this new version of the story “reaffirms its indelible appeal while making it feel bold, surprising and new.”

Leigh-Ann said she lost her voice from screaming so much after she saw the finished movie for the first time, with other dancers and cast members. She said it took a minute for her to fully realize she was seeing herself in one of the most honored and praised Broadway and movie musicals of all time. The 1961 film won 10 Oscars and is known for such classic songs as “America,” “Somewhere” and “Tonight.”

“When I saw the (new) film, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It’s ‘West Side Story’ and now I’m part of that legacy,” said Leigh-Ann.

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