Back To (Ballerina) School

“I love this time of year. I thrive off the thrill of day one.”

September looms before us as students, young and old, head back to school. The nights are a bit more crisp, school sales are underway, and Halloween decorations have somehow crept onto store shelves. Bear with me, because this all makes me rather nostalgic. A truth has hit me (and I accept it willingly, but need to talk it out of course): this is the first year of my life since I was five years old that I will not be “going back to school”, so to speak. Obviously, for 17 of those years, I was truly attending an academic institution of some kind. However, the past five years of my life I have started each late August with a “first day of school” as well. “Ballerina school” – five years of company life.

Just another day at school – happy ballerina – April 2015

I know I’m not the only one that treats the first day back for the company season as the fantastic fresh start that it is. Just as a student preps with a backpack full of fresh notebooks, their coolest outfit, and the yummiest lunch, a dancer preps their shoes, their best leo, and the lunch and snack that will fuel their long day back. It’s clean slate time. Although not all mistakes may have been forgotten, the purity of summer allows even dancers a chance to unwind and be real people. The possibilities are endless now, there are new faces and old friends, spirits are high, and the road that is the next year of your life is laid out before you.

I love this time of year. I thrive off the thrill of day one. Freshness (I’m convinced I have a low grade case of OCD), new beginnings, organization, and plans, plans, plans. But this year is not like the rest. There will be no first day of school for me (for those of you who haven’t heard). It is not ideal, and, honestly, it makes me sad. But it’s what’s happening. A year ago today I took a fall (Balanchine loved dancers who fell, by the way). It was obviously a stumbling point, and it has caused me to stumble again and again, but I won’t let it be an end point.

“What if nothing else besides dancing makes me happy?”

I don’t know when I’ll have another opportunity to be on-stage…another opportunity to pour out joy and emotion and leave it there for the taking…but I know that the skepticism I have about the road ahead is okay and it’s natural. Sometimes this is where the true magic lies–in the unexpected.

I admit I am questioning things. Because I like to know what I’m doing…I like a good plan. Not knowing what I’m meant to do next is killing me. What if nothing else besides dancing makes me happy? (teaching dance makes me happy, but in an entirely different way-that’s a convo for another time…soon) What if there isn’t a replacement, a supplement for it? I’m afraid that I won’t be content with anything else…But I’m trying to figure it all out because that’s what I do. That’s me.

So to all my good friends who have started school – regular schooling or “ballerina school” – good luck. Put your best foot forward and plunge into the new.

To ballet company life – this isn’t goodbye, it’s see you later.

“the true magic lies-in the unexpected.” PC – Wendy Grande

The One-Year Anniversary of The J.O.D. Blog – ‘Don’t Put Me In A Box’

One year. Blogging. Teaching. Injury. Love. Lessons. Struggle. Recovery. CHANGE. Where I’m at this year, feels like completely different territory than where I was last year. I’m sure I am stronger {in some way…both physically and mentally}, but I also feel that I have succumbed to negative feelings many a time – doubt, fear, uncertainty, jealousy. If anything, one of the most important lessons I have learned in the past 365 days, is that joy should be taken in dance. It is a true gift. A privilege. Along the way I have found it difficult to brush aside my emotions, my unnecessary concern with what others think of me, and my natural instinct to protect my body from further harm. But while dragging all these feelings around, I have forgotten to practice what I preach. Joy. Self-respect. Gratitude. Yes, I have been damaged, but that doesn’t have to define me.

And with that, I give you “Don’t Put Me In A Box”…

Happy One Year Anniversary to my baby, “The J.O.D. Blog”. May you all bring joy to your dancing and remember that “You Are Enough.

Bunhead. Tall. Not a jumper. Cute. Corps. Injured. – All labels that pop up in the dance world. Sometimes they have to do with our looks, sometimes they have to do with our personalities, sometimes they actually relate to our performance capabilities (go figure, this is the only legitimate reason any sort of label should exist). Now this might not seem like an issue if you’re just being described as who you truly are, but sometimes those labels begin to adhere too strongly. It’s called type-casting, and once it starts it never ends. Someone who knows their qualities and strengths and has a job which is well-suited and specific to them, has no problem. Dancers and artists, however, are constantly battling for jobs and parts. It’s all very competitive in nature. So we have to be diverse.

Love what you do.

We can’t be good at everything. Trying to be perfect is exhausting and impossible as artists. It will never happen. You can be flawlessly “on your leg” one day, and then the next you feel like you’re brand new to pointe. Despite the technical facts, I wish that we were all given the chance to shine, personal labels aside. A glimmer of potential can go a long way. Yes, this is a business that can’t waste even an ounce of time-you either have it or you don’t. But don’t waste your own time caught up in the labels you’ve been stuck with or the labels of others. The princess and the villain of the ballet don’t always have to be the same individuals. They’re both probably dying to sink their teeth into the opposite role that the other possesses. It all gets monotonous! It’s simple and comfortable to address an individual as an artist and think you have them all figured out. But in doing so, you are limiting your perception of others.

The desire to branch outside of our comfort zone will not always be nourished…and that’s okay. But as an audience member, a teacher, a director, or even as yourself, try to stop the labeling. The superlatives you are bestowing…—it might be time to give them up. It could be disastrous or it could be wonderful, but if you never stir the pot you’ll never know. Personally, I want to rip my label off, and I want out of my box. I am not defined by anyone but myself, but I understand now that I must resist the temptation to self-label as well……I am ready to shed any labels that I bear, whether others have bestowed them or I have bestowed them upon myself. So don’t put me in a box. Because I refuse to stay inside.

Go Organic

“My sole (soul) connection is to movement, and its bounty of styles and intricacies.”

I am a mover. Yes, I am a ballerina, an artist, a technician, and a perfectionist, but the bottom line is that I am simply a mover. My sole (soul) connection is to movement, and its bounty of styles and intricacies. But this can easily be forgotten. In pursuit of knowledge, we tend to overcomplicate our lives, stressing, overthinking, and beginning to feel so many conflicting ideas  that we can barely move at all. It is the basics that will save us – natural, organic movement and remembering who we are. Ballerina, Rockette, or breaker, you just need to keep it simple.

I think one of the most common flaws when moving is overworking yourself. A body that is working with conflicting ideas cannot display flow and ease of movement. It’s interesting that a common failure among dancers is not letting go and being natural. Not to hop on the Elsa train, but you really have to “let it go” sometimes! When I receive the correction to “just dance” or “don’t try so hard” at first I’m a little doubtful, but it’s nearly laughable in the end because it always works. The answer is so accessible. If you’re supposed to be turning, let yourself turn-naturally. If you’re jumping, don’t analyze the movement to the extent that you barely come off the ground. Jump. It’s so simple, but as professionals of our craft, our pursuit of greatness and exploration of new ideas can cause us to miss the big picture.

“…the difference between a dancer and a great dancer is exploration of movement and the awareness that they have…A dancer who can vary the way they move and have control of these sensational concepts, will convey beauty in everything they do.”

Here’s something else I bet you haven’t thought about lately in class – sensation. Yes, you’re moving through air, by yourself or maybe partnered, on a Marley floor, but what is your connection point? What is your relationship with all of those things? Although you shouldn’t complicate your life (as I mentioned above), the difference between a dancer and a great dancer is exploration of movement and the awareness that they have. When we dance we are of another world to the audience. They want to see ease and beauty. A dancer who can vary the way they move and have control of these sensational concepts, will convey that beauty in everything they do.

Ballet Theatre of Maryland's Nutcracker 2013 - I think our best photo moments are dancers are the moments we think no one will capture, when we are simply living...
Ballet Theatre of Maryland’s Nutcracker 2013 – “I think our best photo moments as dancers are the moments we think no one will capture, when we are simply living…” Photo Courtesy of Donna Cole
All of this is fine and dandy as long as you’re breathing though. As dancers, not a class goes by that we don’t let out a shockingly long exhale at the end of a combination. An audible reminder that we were holding our breath the whole time. Not only will you tire yourself out this way, but you lose that natural side, your connection to the earth. You start to become a pent up dancer soon to fatigue, instead of a smooth, confident mover. Be “otherworldly” so you look flawless and confident, but do not lose that organic appeal. It’s okay to breathe. Give yourself moments in which you can embrace what you’re doing and fuel yourself.

This is not a lecture, but rather a reminder. I am reminded of something new in my practice of ballet every day (part of what I love about ballet, but we’ll get into that another day). Sometimes the tools you are given will help you and sometimes they won’t. But I guarantee that being natural and simple, will work every time. If you go back to that whenever you stray or overanalyze, you will be just fine. Move, experience, feel the space around you, and connect to it, breathe…Remember who you are. You are a mover.

Partnering work for Ballet Theatre of Maryland's Interlude 2013 - Photo Courtesy of Sarah Gilliam
Partnering work for Ballet Theatre of Maryland’s Interlude 2013 – Photo Courtesy of Sarah Gilliam

Ballet Theatre of Maryland's Nutcracker 2013 - Photo Courtesy of Donna Cole
Ballet Theatre of Maryland’s Nutcracker 2013 – Photo Courtesy of Donna Cole

Don’t Apologize.

“No one will hand you the keys to your success.”

Ambitious…Competitive……Selfish. These are qualities that characterize any athlete at one time or another. How they approach their work dictates which of these descriptors may be applied. In a field that provides only a fleeting moment in terms of a career, being considered selfish isn’t actually a negative. The minute you decide to pursue a career in ballet you must stop apologizing. No one will hand you the keys to your success. No one will follow you and push you front and center at an audition. It is your choice how quickly you pursue success. How far will you go to get there?

At some point during the education of a young dancer, the relationship among students changes. When they take their very first steps into the studio, we demand politeness and courtesy. We tell them to follow the leader, swapping ideas and mimicking one another and their teacher. But, as they mature, the dynamic changes. The day comes when they must stand on their own, rely on their own mind, and ignore the choices of their fellow dancers (in class anyway). At first, it’s perplexing. You’ve been following suit (or suite, let’s say) for years-succeeding one tendu at a time in a chorus of young dancers or perhaps in a class of older dancers, whose movements you observe and absorb. But you must take responsibility for your movement. It is a crucial stage in dancer development. If ballet is the life you want, you must take every chance you can.

The competitive edge of ballet appears in simple ways – where we stand in the studio, for example. A properly executed and focused barre can only be achieved if you find the perfect spot in the room (marking your territory with technique shoes, leg warmers, foot rollers, and water bottles). It is common knowledge that if you don’t arrive in a timely fashion, you’re out of luck. You can be sure no one is going to stand at the end of the portable barre and offer you their coveted spot.

“Underneath the glowing smiles, gentle port de bras, and delicate footwork are people with dreams. There is no aggression or rudeness, but the bottom line is that no one owes you anything. You only owe it to yourself.”

"I have no apologies."
“No apologies, no regrets.” Photo Courtesy of Keith Alan Sprouse

Center exercises and exercises across the floor provide more prime time to find the best “real estate”. You can stand in the back and still be in the center technically, but you’re cheating yourself back there. We all have our days when that’s where we need to be, but you’re going to get the most attention front and center, without an array of bodies in front of you. You’re sure to challenge yourself if you’re out on the front lines alone, with only mirror reflections or peripheral vision to help you. Once you hit ‘across the floor’, if you want to go again, march yourself back to the corner and do it! Even if you seem to be wandering over alone, ninety-nine percent of the time someone will follow your example and go with you. And if they don’t-too bad.

Ballet has an overall politeness about it…after all it’s typically accompanied by classical music, and eludes to a chivalrous world, where women are lifted off their feet, and where gentle, exquisite miming is the common language. Ballet doesn’t seem like it could ever harbor competition and challenge. But it does. Underneath the glowing smiles, gentle port de bras, and delicate footwork are people with dreams. There is no aggression or rudeness, but the bottom line is that no one owes you anything. You only owe it to yourself.

2013 Audition with Amanda McKerrow for Anthony Tudor's "Continuo" at Ballet Theatre of Maryland. I was not cast, but being up front and up close learning first-hand from Ms. McKerrow is an experience I will never forget.
2013 audition with Amanda McKerrow for Anthony Tudor’s “Continuo” at Ballet Theatre of Maryland. I was not cast, but that’s me up front in blue! Being up close, learning first-hand from Ms. McKerrow is an experience I will never forget. Photo Courtesy of Donna Cole

“This is just as much your class as it is theirs,” said my artistic director to a young student this past week. Class is for everyone, and corrections are free for the taking. I have never felt any ill-will toward someone who makes the most of class. Instead, I am inspired by them. They provide a reminder that I, too, should be seizing the moment. You have come this far, so don’t hold back now. Take what is yours, dance like it’s your last class, and showcase yourself-better to regret doing something, than having done nothing at all…

Try Bourréeing In My Blochs

Pilates class last week: Everyone’s feet were barefoot or sock clad, but as I took a close look at mine during the roll up series, I instantly worried someone nearby might be offended. They’re callused to the max, have pink blister scars all over them, and the bunions just scream ballerina, don’t they? I would say my feet have really been around the block (or actually, they’ve been in Blochs…no joke, I wear Alphas). Our feet really do see a lot of the action in the studio and on the stage, but I don’t just want to address them-I want to address our bodies. What is unusual about the career path of a professional dancer is how all-inclusive the job is. You don’t just punch out on the time clock and you’re off the hook for the weekend-you have to take care. Sometimes though, no matter how much Epsom salt you bathe in, no matter how much toe tape you put on, no matter how diligent you are, things happen.

An array of feet I've shared the stage with-Ballet Austin Summer Intensive 2010
An array of feet I’ve shared the stage with-Ballet Austin Summer Intensive 2010

Like any athletic endeavor, you have your normal, run of the mill, dance aches and pains. You can honestly develop or contract just about anything in the dance studio. There are the times you aggressively bruise or “Marley burn” yourself. There are the times you bruise, and then break, and then proceed to lose a toenail. (Oh, P.S. for those of you who don’t have a ballet background, you are still expected to dance on that bruised, cracked, or possibly nonexistent toenail) There are the times you push a little too hard during adagio, and you pull a muscle. There are the times you wear your pointe shoes for eight hours in a row and you develop a nice, juicy blister. And for silly individuals like myself, there are the times you rip a huge piece of skin off the bottom of your toe because duct tape really is tough stuff, and you’re just moving too quick and probably shouldn’t have industrial strength tape on your toes to begin with (true story).

We all have our horror stories. Just about every time you step into the studio, whether you’re taking class for fun or you’re in the midst of tech week rehearsals, you’ll usually come away with new problems. This is not a nine to five. You have a 24/7 responsibility to yourself. You need to treat yourself like a freakin’ temple if you’re going to succeed and really give yourself a shot.

“…don’t judge until you’ve bourréed in my pointe shoes…until you’ve been in my skin, and you know what I feel when I move.”

Photo Credit Victor Smith
Photo Credit Victor Smith

Conversely, there are events that you cannot work around. Bruises fade. Toenails? You can grow another one of those. A sore muscle can be subdued. A blister can be bandaged (and grit your teeth because you still have to wear your pointe shoes-this is the big leagues) and will heal. And no matter how big a gash you put in the bottom of your big toe, your skin will grow back! But what do you do when it’s serious? (I’m sorry if you’re confused, but dancing on half a toenail is NOT serious-it’s a right of passage)

There are so many extremely serious things we can do to ourselves on the job…sprains, fractures, breaks, ruptures, concussions. Are you sure you really like dancing? Because last time I checked, we’re continuously putting ourselves on the front lines for injury. And injury is a huge game changer. You might just need to R.I.C.E. for a week, or it may end your career. But we all fight. We schedule P.T. appointments, we get ourselves adjusted at the chiropractor, we get surgery, and we rock a walking boot like it’s a Manolo. Because this isn’t a nine to five. You want to be in that studio with every fiber of your being, and you’ll do anything to get there.

I want to finish this week by offering a reminder/suggestion-be kind to one another. Everyone shares those daily dance world struggles, but it’s the tough stuff that you bear on your own. Although our careers are all about the judgment factor, don’t judge until you’ve bourréed in my pointe shoes…until you’ve been in my skin, and you know what I feel when I move. Because you never know what struggles someone has been through to be dancing. We all share J.O.D. It’s a beautiful and terrifying concept. Dance is a talent we are blessed with, but it’s something that can be taken away at any time. So appreciate. Enjoy yourself. Live. Enjoy your dancing like it’s the last dance you’ll ever do.