An Allegro Anecdote: The Austin Toe Episode

“We’re idyllic, graceful beings onstage, but…in the light of day we have our more human moments.”

Ballet dancers are a rare breed. Superhuman, flexible, musical, artistic, graceful – all are common adjectives used to describe this specific subset of artistry. However, those of us within the dance field have definitely had our share of non-graceful moments. Let me share one of my personal un-graceful, unlucky moments as a dancer, braving the “elements” of the real world.

~

One particular weekend of adventure…PC: me

Seven years ago (whoa) I attended Ballet Austin’s summer intensive program in Austin, Texas. It was an exciting time for me. I took my first solo plane trip, and as a soon-to-be college graduate, investigating a potential company for the summer was a thrilling opportunity. The BA program was six weeks long. Dancers were given not one, but two opportunities to learn original choreography, by Artistic Director Stephen Mills, and perform for audiences in the studio theatre. It was a difficult program, and definitely a challenge for me. As a more classically inclined, Vaganova trained dancer (from my days spent at Bossov Ballet Theatre) the more neoclassical, quick, and sometimes dry classes were very different from what I knew, yet still very valuable to my training.

As the summer passed and I developed friendships with other dancers within the program, we used our weekends to not only rest, but also to explore the culture of the Austin scene (did I mention I was 21 at the time?..) On a typical weekend adventure, we sought out one of our favorite delicious Mexican restaurants. I attended, dressed in shorts, a t-shirt, and flip flops, prepared to combat the hot, dry weather of Austin. (I was obviously a much younger version of myself, since my feet weren’t killing me hiking around Austin in only flat flip flops..)

Graceful ballerina that I am, on the way back I tripped dramatically on an uneven section of sidewalk, stubbing the very top of my big toe bluntly into concrete. The pain was immediate and the force split my skin, blood gushing out onto my flip flop and the sidewalk. Since we were just a few blocks from our dorm, my friends and I thought I could make it back without requiring first aid care. But I couldn’t make it. My sandal was now stained with blood, and it just wouldn’t stop. We made a quick pit stop at a gas station (ew), and I wrapped my toe up like a mummy, with a thick glob of toilet paper. Glamorously blood stained, I made it back.

“I couldn’t believe it. I’d nearly incapacitated one of my precious feet within the course of about three hours.”

I proceeded to panic with my suite mates for a bit about the status of my toe, and we debated whether or not I’d be able to suffer through pointe work and rehearsal the following day. I figured all I could do was care for my toe and hope for improvement as quickly as possible, so I hopped in the shower to rinse off from the day. My toe finally clean, I stepped out of the shower into the small bathroom. Now this next part I promise you I did not make up; it is the honest truth. I pulled my towel from the bar on the wall, and the wobbly hardware loosened, sending the bar down. I wish I could say I had been quick enough to step out of the way, but I had no such luck. The towel bar came down vertically and smashed directly into the pinky toe of my injured foot. The force and the sharpness of the metal, immediately sliced my pinky toe nail into two pieces, and for the second time that day, I started losing a lot of blood. I finally cried with disbelief at it all. I couldn’t believe it. I’d nearly incapacitated one of my precious feet within the course of about three hours.

Suffice to say I got some pretty weird and unbelieving looks when I explained my unfortunate tale at the summer intensive the next day. I remember Michelle Martin, the ballet mistress, looking pretty skeptical as I gave the details, but my gauzed, mummy toes sealed the deal. A visit to the company’s nurse was less than comforting, as she cautioned that I be very careful not to let the wounds become infected.

A BA first arabesque at the Capital building..PC: Mom

After taking one full day off from dancing and a few off from pointe work, I was able to jump back into my classes and rehearsals, bandaged and ready to make the best of things. The pressure of a pointe shoe didn’t bother my toes much, but with only the barrier of a technique shoe and some gauze between my toe and the floor, ‘flat’ was rather painful for a while.

This wasn’t my first unfortunate event by any means, but this episode was one of many times where I learned to grit my teeth and power through. There are definitely occasions as dancers when we need to admit defeat, give ourselves a break, and “sit one out”. However, we are also often asked to spring back into action as quickly as possible. Time is precious, and we must defend our title as superhumans, after all. We’re idyllic, graceful beings onstage, but, obviously, in the light of day we have our more human moments. Today, my little raggedy pinky toe nail (that never really grew again) reminds me of my imperfections, but it also reflects my superhuman ability to carry on.

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An Allegro Anecdote: The Duct Tape Fiasco

“Spending numerous hours either aggressively dancing or standing around awaiting rehearsal in pointe shoes, I needed a tape option that would stay on my feet all day…Hence, the introduction of duct tape into my dance supplies.”

Plaids. Penguins. Stars. Stripes. Florals. All cute patterns, right? In this case, though, I am actually referring to some of the many kinds of duct tape I’ve used throughout my dance career. Now if you’re not a dancer, you’re probably thinking, “what does this chick need duct tape for?” I started using duct tape about four years ago, as a super resilient alternative for toe tape.

Repetitive work, literally on the toes, can create a bit of a disaster for the skin and nails of a ballerina’s feet. It’s customary for dancers of all levels to apply a “toe pad” of choice and/or protective tape and/or bandaids to individual toes while dancing en pointe. Spending numerous hours either aggressively dancing or standing around awaiting rehearsal in pointe shoes, I needed a tape option that would stay on my feet all day despite blood, sweat..and tears, I guess. Hence, the introduction of duct tape into my dance supplies.

The longer I’ve used duct tape, the more interesting the designs have become! Florescent pink used to be my most exciting option, but now they have everything from paisley florals to macaroni and cheese (always discussed amongst my friends as a great option, but then again, I feel awkward putting images of pasta with melted cheese all over my foul smelling feet…).

I remember once mentioning to my Dad that I had duct tape on my toes. Protective Italian father that he is, he panicked. “Why are you using industrial strength tape on your toes?!” (Good question, but it seemed irrelevant at the time) I responded with some sort of, ‘I know what I’m doing’ comeback. But father certainly knew best.

One of my favorite pics of myself ever....note that tape, lurking at the bottom right!! PC - Keith Alan Sprouse
One of my favorite pics of myself ever….note that tape, lurking at the bottom right!! PC – Keith Alan Sprouse

Now this particular disaster actually happened to me twice. However, the play-by-play of the second experience was particularly hilarious…Flashback to over a year ago, a typical day in the life of a professional dancer – dancing, immediately followed by a few hours of teaching. With just a little time in between these two blocks of time, I had left on all the duct tape I’d applied to my toes earlier. After teaching, I took a moment in my dressing room to change out of dance clothes and remove all the tape from my feet. In my haste to leave and feeling “maxed” out from my day, I overzealously tugged the piece off that surrounded my big toe (which one, I honestly can’t remember). Blood started pouring out of the pad of my big toe as I stared at it, confused and in disbelief. The tape had stubbornly clung to one of my calluses and pulled a large chunk of skin with it-the flesh I had lost still bound to the tape. I did my best to audibly mask my anger, shock, and pain (an academy class going on just outside the room), as I tried to figure out what to do. I hobbled over to a box of tissues and stuck a huge chunk to my toe. I assumed I’d just need to do this once or twice, but that wound kept on gushing, one wad of kleenex after the other.

” ‘Why are you using industrial strength tape on your toes?!’ (Good question…) I responded with some sort of, ‘I know what I’m doing’ comeback. “

Enough time passed that I realized I had to leave that room for assistance and supplies. But there was the issue of having to hobble across a studio full of young students with a bleeding toe, so I literally phoned for help from the other room. I shamefully called my friend at the front desk of the dance studio to fetch me some first aid supplies. With her she brought not only band-aids, gauze, and ointment, but also our company podiatrist and my two co-directors. Initially shocked to find me curled up on the floor tending to a gushing wound, we all eventually also found some humor in the unusual situation.

I spent the rest of the following week reminded of my mistake each morning, as I re-wrapped my wounded toe. It required Neosporin, a band-aid, and a good amount of self-adhering gauze in order to protect the “hole” I’d created. All this to somewhat lessen the pain of stepping on or pointing the toe. Of course, I had an in-studio performance the following Friday in which I was supposed to dance barefoot. I was thankfully able to ween myself off of a great deal of the gauze by that point, and managed to perform the piece with only a small amount for protection.

The duct tape fiasco was a grave error and something that would only happen to me, but I had learned my lesson for the time being. However, I must admit, I still tape my toes with duct tape to this day…but I take my sweet time and attention when removing it.

Don't try this at home. PC - Keith Alan Sprouse
Don’t try this at home. PC – Keith Alan Sprouse

Just Like The Pros

“…the world of ballet [is much more] than just going to class and performing. It is a culture and a lifestyle.”

They say that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” (Charles Caleb Colton) As we each create our own personal journey as dancers, it is only natural that habits and inspirations are gathered along the way. I can remember the extreme distraction, fear/utter respect, and curiosity I felt whenever I was around a professional dancer. I wanted to dance, walk, talk, dress, and altogether BE like them. Now, despite any qualms I may ever have about myself as a professional, I can “feel” the eyes that evaluate my movements as well.

There is much more to the world of ballet than just going to class and performing. It is a culture and a lifestyle. The fashion, hairstyles, cross training, eating habits, and even character traits of dancers are greatly affected by their profession.

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” –Charles Caleb Colton

When I consider some of the important elements that construct my life as a dancer, it is safe to say that many of those details I “stole” from others or adapted as my own. Hairstyles (I’ve watched Sara Mearns’ instructional French twist video on YouTube, and I have perfected a braided hairstyle that I developed from Sarah Lamb), leotards (you better pair those two Yumi colors you like together first before someone else does, or you’re just going to look like a copycat), warmup apparel choices (everyone got on the dance overalls “train” at some point or has cut up a pair of tights to make a shrug; also, trash bag clothing is everything)…Ballet is really quite the fashion world. Even if you’re not on the cover of Pointe Magazine, someone may very well be eyeing your leo and thinking that if they had that very one they’d be a beautiful dancer too.

The world of dance can feel like a foreign place as you take your first steps into the professional world. Thankfully, there will always be opportunities to learn from one another and from the pros we admire above us. As we grow as artists, we gather information and assistance as needed from others – recommendations or personal touches that keep us in touch with our dance culture and that help us further our career or passion for ballet. After all, dance is a hard enough endeavor – the least we can do for one another is share some tricks of the trade.

Center Stage – Every Girl’s Dream (?)

“…the film brings honor to the art of ballet and the strife of dancers of all ages, [but], logistically, there are some snags in the fabric of the happy ending that Jody Sawyer selects.”

The past few days for me have been more than eventful. There are no words to describe the happiness and pride that radiates from attending and supporting the wedding day of a dear friend. This past Wednesday I packed my bags, wrapped my Bed, Bath, & Beyond goodies for the bride and groom, hung my cornflower blue bridesmaid dress in the backseat of my car and set the GPS for New York. From Wednesday evening through the late hours of Sunday, there was time to reconnect with close friends and to begin new friendships too. Amidst the bachelorette festivities, introductions to the groom’s family and friends, and some good ol’ manicures of course, three of us bridesmaids set aside time for a movie. Two of us dancers, one not, we obviously chose the 2000 classic, Center Stage

Whenever I curl up to enjoy this movie, I never cease to be amused by its antics and also occasionally confused by its values. While the film brings honor to the art of ballet and the strife of dancers of all ages, logistically there are some snags in the fabric of the happy ending that Jody Sawyer selects.  While I truly enjoy every late 90’s jam of the soundtrack, the classic beating of the pointe shoes scene, and the pure beauty of the authentic artistry of Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel, my, perhaps hundredth, glance at the values within makes me retrospectively fear for my young self as a viewing audience.

As I hovered around a laptop this past week with my two friends, we laughed in amusement/shock as we watched Amanda Schull’s character develop—a young girl with clearly no appropriate concept of relationships as she entangles herself within the life of her “boyfriend”/choreographer (a million times quoted, because they literally have one passionate encounter and then never date or interact outside the studio again…come on Jody, you’re better than this…aren’t you?). Who can blame her for falling for his bad boy charm and flawless technique, but girl, this ain’t the time! You are on the brink of your career! There are bigger “fish to fry” for god-sake. While the doe-eyed lead’s obsession with this male figure makes for the perfect dance-meets-love mini-drama, it’s also a concerning snapshot of the dominance of male authoritative power within the dance world.

“While I truly enjoy every late 90’s jam of the soundtrack, the classic beating of the pointe shoes scene, and the pure beauty of…authentic artistry…my, perhaps hundredth, glance at the values within makes me retrospectively fear for my young self as a viewing audience.”

Curtains closed on the final performance, Jody dons her semi-formal attire to hear whether or not her fate includes ABC (the “American Ballet Company”). While her decision here is gutsy, I  actually find it rather terrifying. It makes for great movie content, but Jody again falls headfirst into the outstretched arms of Cooper Nielson, and accepts a (potentially non-existent) principal dancer role in a brand new company. No, no, no, no!! Where’s the contract? Where’s the funding?! Are there even other dancers?!! Jody asks zero questions, and dives right into the opportunity. As an uber-organized, planning obsessed, practical individual, I naturally struggle with this, but now with five years of professional experience and additional years of training under my belt, I can tell you that that is not the way to accept a job. It’s the perfect lack of detail to cue the happy ending, Mandy Moore track, and end credits, but if you’re going to survive as a “bunhead” out there please don’t take a page from Jody Sawyer’s book.

Don’t get me wrong, this will forever be one of my favorite dance movies-a film that brings dancers and non-dancers alike together under the guise of the ballet world and its complexities. However, if I stood near Jody at barre I’d have to snicker to myself a bit and wonder, “girl, what are you doing with your life?” After all…

“I am the best goddamn dancer in the American Ballet Academy. Who the hell are you?!”

The Importance Of…Taking Class

“…slower is faster if you practice every day with patience and correctness, you will get there. It’s like preparing for a jump. You can’t rush. You must summon the appropriate energy with split-second timing and have an understanding of purpose to get up in the air. It requires training, confidence and mental effort. You can’t have a vocabulary without the alphabet. Balanchine used to say, “Do you want to be a poet of gesture or do you want to be a physical entity?”
 -Edward Villella,
Masters of Movement: Portraits of America’s Great Choreographers

Truer words have never been spoken. Ballet is an agonizing game, yet also strangely addictive. No matter how much time and energy you commit, there’s always more that can be done. There’s no sort of holding point or “safe zone”, no short cuts you can take…no medals for technical accomplishments. If you did four pirouettes yesterday, you may struggle to do a clean “two” tomorrow, so tread carefully. Confidence high, but chin down, and “nose to the grindstone”, so to speak. It doesn’t matter if you’re a pre-professional star or Misty Copeland-you’ve got to go to class.

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Tudor rehearsal with Amanda McKerrow. Ballet Theatre of Maryland, 2013 (P.C. – Donna L. Epstein-Cole)

Lately, I’ve felt a bit alone in my undying love and pursuit of a daily ballet class. Not shocking, since we’re about to hit that dead zone season of the dance world, when smaller, regional companies have completed their seasons and ballet schools and academies are wrapping up the semester with recitals and performances. Everyone’s ready for a break. Schools are letting out, and it’s summer time, baby. But although I’ve tried to supplement the need for endorphins with other exercise, and also unintentionally taken long bouts away from the barre (last week, for example, when an abrupt case of late flu prevented me from taking my one class I had planned), my love affair with ballet carries on.

Even if the source of my problems is ballet at times, class is my opportunity for reconciliation and a reminder as to why I still come crawling back each time. With every plié I execute and every allonge of my wrist, I can leave it all at the door and simply stick to what I know. I don’t know what’s next, or even when I’ll take the stage again, but I know what I can find at the barre (pun somewhat intended). In the words of the wise character of Juliette Simone, from the now iconic Center Stage:

“The unwise dancers blame [others]. He didn’t like me…she was unfair…I should have had that part. The smart ones know where to look…when things get rough. It isn’t there. (Walks over the the barre) It’s HERE. No matter what happened in class, performance, last week, five minutes ago…if you come back here…you’ll be home.”
Juliette Simone, Center Stage (2000)

I’m never going to stop needing class. It’s not something I can deny myself…so I surrender.

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HOME at the barre. Class with Amanda McKerrow. Ballet Theatre of Maryland, 2013 (P.C. – Donna L. Epstein-Cole)

Oh Merde…

“Whatever you choose as your comfort and encouragement, make it personal…”

Routines, lucky leotards, good ol’ wishes of “Merde!” – we all have our superstitious rituals that we think ensure us a shot at a perfect performance. But do all these drills really guarantee our success? Not at all, but the peace of mind that comes along with them certainly can’t hurt.

What brought this topic to mind this week was my leotard selection Monday morning. To anyone else, it was a peach colored Yumi (short for the popular brand Yumiko, for the non-dance folk) with sky blue trim. Style – Noe. It’s gorgeous and gets constant compliments, but to me it’s not just a pretty little number. It’s also the leotard I was wearing when I brutally sprained my ankle four and a half months ago. I’ve honestly completely avoided it until now. Seeing it just made me sad and angry, and also terribly afraid that it was jinxed with injury. But Monday morning, I went for it. Audition ready for a guest artist at Charlottesville Ballet, I donned the dreaded, beautiful Yumi, put up my hair in my favorite Sarah Lamb copycat braided hairdo, and strapped on my pointe shoes. And I got it – a role in a beautiful classical, pointe piece, awarded to me by a completely outside party. It was the proof that my mind needed that not all hope is lost. Leotard curse – eliminated.

snow sticks
Snow sticks. In a Facebook post on November 20, 2012, I stated, “They look vicious even lying there. So evil.” So true.

Another superstition example that comes to mind is a ritual I used to participate in during Nutcracker. During my time at Ballet Theatre of Maryland, performing snow was an experience. Intense. Hats off to this version, for sure. My second or third season at BTM though, a good friend and I developed a small tradition that we felt guaranteed success. Whether in the studio or backstage, we would take our “snow sticks” (small wooden props outfitted with blue and silver tinsel, one for each hand, giving the illusion of icicles onstage), tap them against each other’s, and do a little whispered chant – “J.O.D., J.O.D., J.O.D.!” (needless to say this is where the inception of my blog occurred, as well…). Three reps would complete the chant, and we then wrapped it up with a little nuzzle of tinsel against both sides of each other’s necks. To an outsider, or even to our colleagues in the company, we looked crazy. But we did it every time. Did it affect our execution of the steps or guarantee smooth sailing? No, but it cheered us up, gave us a good laugh, and boosted our spirits for the chaos about to begin.

” ‘Merde.’…the most honorary of wishes for ballet dancers worldwide.”

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J.O.D. is born, original merchandise made for a dear friend

If you’re not a dancer, I’m sure you’ve wished dancers a good show in the past by saying, “Break a leg!” Don’t. Never. Will the dancer actually break their leg? Most likely, no, but know now that this phrase is for actors only. For dancers, no thanks, too risky. You should instead be prepared to say, “Merde.” Upon research and translation, you will find that this term does in fact mean s**t in French, however, it is the most honorary of wishes for ballet dancers worldwide. Opinion varies on why we actually use the term, but there are two tangents of thought. The first – that ballets and operas in the past, involving actual live animals onstage, led to spectators yells of “Merde” to warn performers to watch their step to avoid the droppings. The second – that a successful performance would see a great deal of carriage traffic outside the theater, and therefore, a large quantity of horse droppings – the more carriages, the more poop, the more people who attended, the better the show, the better the luck! Makes sense!

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First day in the peach leo…no longer the last…Photo Courtesy of Emily Mott

So regardless of what you wear, what you do, or what’s said to you, anything can happen when you perform. Whatever you choose as your comfort and encouragement, make it personal and make it something that lifts you up. Maybe a warmup that literally lifts you and gets you “on your leg”, maybe a special pair of earrings, maybe a prayer, or even just a hug from a friend…don’t worry how silly you feel, or who’s watching or judging – do exactly what you must do to succeed and to triumph.

Sugar Plums, Stress, And Sentiment

“…Regardless of how we feel about this classic storybook ballet today, there was a time that we all were drawn to it.”

NUTCRACKER. For a dancer, this one word can ignite such a variety of feelings. Anxiety, exhaustion, pain…to name a few. Small company or large, contracted dancer or freelance artist, Nutcracker is widely known as moneymaking season. Other projects come to a halt and ballerinas and modern dancers alike prepare themselves for weeks on end of Tchaikovsky, pointe shoes, tulle, and chaos. I am part of a small percentage of grown dancers that love Nutcracker. At the age of 26, I know there are not many that share the feeling. I would find more camaraderie of opinion amongst the casts of mice and party children that perform in this ballet, honestly. But regardless of how we feel about this classic storybook ballet today, there was a time that we all were drawn to it. And though our stage smiles may be hiding the pain and stress of the season, you cannot deny that Nutcracker is a ballet that unites.

Although Nutcracker is a holiday classic now, it was far from that upon its inception in 1892. Petipa and Ivanov’s adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffman’s classic story did not appeal to the masses initially. The inclusion of so many child dancers, the wait through nearly three quarters of the ballet for the introduction of the prima ballerina, and the harsh contrast between the real world first act segment and the fantasy world segment of act two did not sit well. However, the music stuck immediately. After countless tweaks and adaptations by companies nationally, by the 1960s it had become a Christmas tradition. It was an easy way for the general public to “access” ballet and simultaneously celebrate the holiday season. Today it continues to hold its place as a beloved Christmas experience. It is a wonderful stepping stone to the dance world – a common and acceptable first viewing experience for non-dance audiences.

“For some of us, [Nutcracker] is the pivotal moment when we realized we wanted to dance.”

Liz & Mom dance
My moment.

Nutcracker is known as a timeless and magical holiday tradition to the masses, but behind the scenes, dancers are responsible for the countless repetition of the ballet. Companies big and small, and ballet schools and academies as well, know the value of the Nutcracker. It is the prime ticket-selling time of year. Regardless of ticket sales year round, companies everywhere recognize the opportunity they have to fill a theater with young, eager children, with visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads. It’s also prime time to sell merchandise, solicit donations, spread the word, and offer special backstage access for an extra ticket price. With good marketing and strategy, the Nutcracker season can be an extremely profitable time for a company of any size.

However, the promise that this ballet holds comes with a price to its dancers. The massive opportunity sometimes stretches people far beyond their limits. Smaller regional companies who seek to reap the rewards, must require their dancers to perform a variety of challenging roles for countless performances on end, sometimes also traveling to other locales to perform. The aches and pains of Nutcracker season are common holiday banter amongst the dancer crowd. It’s a blessing and a curse. The best we can do is load up on Emergen-C, painkillers, ice, and pairs of pointe shoes.

Despite the chaos, I shyly admit that I love Nutcracker. The beautiful music and familiar dances are comforting and festive year after year. Despite the agony of repetition (and having to hear the tunes far in advance), the melodies remind us that the holiday season is approaching. A time for family, friends, and love. And I’m sure many of us are also reminded of the first time we saw this beloved holiday show. For some of us, it is the pivotal moment when we realized we wanted to dance. I myself am not sure of my first theater visit to the Nutcracker, but I am reminded of time spent in my childhood kitchen dancing to Nutcracker on cassette with my Mom (experience complete with hot pink legwarmers and a sparkly tutu). In that kitchen, my love of dancing began. When I take the stage, I only hope that I can help others discover the same magic I did, a magic that can be used to fuel their hopes and dreams.

Nutcracker through the years. I've had more roles than I can count. Missing out this year was one of the hardest experiences I've had in a long time, and I can't wait to take the stage again.
Nutcracker through the years. I’ve had more roles than I can count, and I’ve performed the material with every company/school I’ve ever been with. Missing out this year was one of the hardest experiences I’ve had in a long time, and I can’t wait to take the stage again.

“Do You Do Toe?…” – The Biggest Misconceptions About Pointe Work

“…For the love of the art, we find a way. We make it work, and develop a thick skin…By no means should worst-case scenarios deter young dancers…from taking the next step in their growth as artists.”

This year I have the pleasure of preparing four of my dance students for pointe work. Every Monday, we gather for 45 minutes to practice the “bread and butter” of pre-pointe – Theraband exercises. Now that we are nearing the halfway point(e) of our dance year, tensions and questions have mounted regarding pointe and its intricacies. So, let me take this opportunity to clarify some of the classic tall tales of pointe work.

Da boots.
Da boots.

If I had a dollar for every time someone has asked me “do you do toe?”, I would be a wealthier chick for sure. No disrespect at all, but I would like to clarify for any non-ballet readers, that “doing toe” is not a phrase that is ever used in the dance world. I do understand the confusion, since the toes are most definitely involved in the process, but when discussing the matter with dancers stick to the word pointe. While on topic, please also note the ‘e’ at the end of the word.

Aside from the name confusion though, the art of dancing en pointe has gained a gory reputation in the general media. Nearly every classic ballet film portrays the turmoil of pointe work. Center Stage, for example – Jody Sawyer takes it upon herself to have a late night private studio session in the dark, furiously practicing bourrées back and forth across the studio (“Flutter Jody! Flutter!!”). Upon removing her shoes, she reveals her feet – bloody, with a blister on practically every digit. Then, of course, there’s the more current ballet horror film, Black Swan – Natalie Portman’s hopelessly innocent character, Nina, decides to practice fouettés in her bedroom (Of course. Who doesn’t do that?) before auditioning the following morning for the role of the black swan. A few turns in, a grotesque crack is heard, and she falls to the floor in a heap. Upon further examination, she realizes she has completely split her big toenail in half – lovely. Even in the current melodrama Flesh and Bone, courtesy of the Starz network, Sarah Hay’s character, Claire, reveals a similarly tragic broken toenail. She bites her tongue at the pain, lets a few small tears surface, and boldly packages her toe back up in her pointe shoe, proceeding through her major company audition.

“If I had a dollar for every time someone has asked me ‘do you do toe?’, I would be a wealthier chick for sure.”

Photo Courtesy of Keith Alan Sprouse
Toe defense. Photo Courtesy of Keith Alan Sprouse

I’ve had many a blister or toenail disaster of my own, but by no means is this kind of thing happening every time a pointe shoe is laced up. These challenges present themselves frequently, yes, but the tricks of the trade are abundant nowadays, and the injuries of pointe work don’t quite plague us as much as they used to. Even when they do, for the love of the art, we find a way. We make it work, and develop a thick skin (quite literally – calluses). By no means should worst-case scenarios deter young dancers (and their parents) from taking the next step in their growth as artists.

Although pointe work is a serious undertaking, it should not be avoided in fear of a bounty of foot issues. Yes, it is hard on the body, but the strength that is gained can be extremely valuable. A dancer who has done a significant amount of pointe work not only has strong feet, but also strength and awareness throughout the entire body. In the most advanced stages of the art form, the dancer should feel as though they don’t even have pointe shoes on, but, rather, that the shoes are a natural extension of the foot. With this unique form of movement and bodily awareness available, the resulting choreographic options are many. Not only does pointe create an additional challenge for the ballerina, but it also adds an effect of beauty that is unlike anything else that meets the eye.

The Great Illusion

“Onstage, we are ethereal. In the studio, we are human.”

Tutus. Tiaras. French twists. Satin, theatrical pink pointe shoes. The world of dance is a glamorous one for sure. But behind the curtain is the reality-human beings who sweat, lose their breath, and feel pain. Behind the scenes dancers are doing everything possible to maintain a level of technical and visual perfection. Tissues are on hand for blotting at sweaty brows, ibuprofen to mask a nagging pain, the reddest of lipsticks to make your smile stand out-the tricks are endless. But the final product is worth it. It is enough to sway children to step into the studio and try a ballet class. It brings a tear to the eye and stirs applause and standing ovations. It is the great illusion.

Coppelia hair 2013-stage ready
Coppelia hair, 2013-stage ready

The display onstage is enough for viewers young and old to think that ballet is a piece of cake. What could be better than dancing around dressed in a fabulous outfit with a cavalier to pick you up and spin you around on your toes? But there comes a point in training when the game changes. The work of the art form rears its ugly head and, sadly, many are not up for the challenge. For some, the daily physical battle and quest for perfection is too high a cost for mere moments of greatness onstage…but, to others, this is everything.

The daily life of a dancer looks much different than the snap shot that is captured onstage. Although an aura of glamour remains in the studio, the picture is not as pretty. While the audience sees a preened soloist and cookie cutter corps, each Shade or Wili looking exactly like the next, in the studio not just characters exist, but human beings. Tights frequently are riddled with holes, warmups protect aching muscles, “trash bag” apparel is as far as the eye can see, but the work does not suffer as a result. Although dancers may not look their absolute best 100% of the time, studio work provides the growth and strife that every dancer needs to experience.

In the studio, 2015
In the studio, 2015

“For some, the daily physical battle and quest for perfection is too high a cost for mere moments of greatness onstage…but, to others, this is everything.”

In the studio, we see the details (it’s like showing your work in algebra and calculus; it’s the meat of everything-the reason the answer exists). The stretches, the care that is taken with the body, the incessant practice of a simple movement-it all happens there. In class and rehearsal, the process is not hidden away under glamour. The athleticism shines through. Onstage, we are ethereal. In the studio, we are human. I was always told that class is your time. The time to take chances, to be relentless, and to push myself to my absolute breaking point. But unlike a sport, the stage is not the place for that kind of behavior. There is room for passion and expression, but technically it is not a time to be overly brave. The illusion does not allow for mistakes.

The next time you go to the ballet, either contemporary or classical, you should appreciate the work before you. Behind the glitz and glam and gobo lighting are artists who work every day to create beauty through movement. The product they present before you is one that has been nurtured. The time spent in the studio has made the experience what it is at that very moment-a chance to be flawless. Presentation is pristine, pain is masked, and the days toiling away at perfection are unknown to you. This is the great illusion of the stage.

Stage meets studio. Getting ready backstage, 2014 - Photo Courtesy of Keith Alan Sprouse
Stage meets studio. Getting ready backstage, 2014 – Photo Courtesy of Keith Alan Sprouse

The Point(e) Of It All

“It is…a literal balancing act, as we create glimmers of perfection poised on the edge of a pointe shoe box.”

The art of pointe work is a beautiful and merciless one. It is both a great honor and a great responsibility when pointe shoes are bestowed upon a dancer. However, there can be many misconceptions and questions. How? When? Why???!

My feet stealing the show...
My feet stealing the show…

It is sometimes thought that these shoes are the only footwear option for a ballet dancer, serving as permanent fixtures on the ends of the toes. Not true. We all have to start somewhere, but the pointe shoe is not the smartest place to begin. Although the epitome of classical ballet is pointe work, the art form is by no means diminished in the absence of these gorgeous shoes. They are meant to add strength, height, length, and further supernatural awe to movement. The beauty of ballet is increased tenfold in a pointe shoe. A relevé is not simply a relevé, but rather an elevated height achieved by shockingly balancing on one’s toes. A pirouette is no longer stifled by the friction of a technique shoe against Marley, but rather aided in number and quality by the small, delicate balance point of a pointe shoe tip. Every line is smoothed, lengthened, and further finessed. And balance becomes a whole other “ball game”. A somewhat simple feat when supported by the strength of five metatarsals working together, balancing en pointe is another story entirely when limited to a couple of toes and the strength of one’s ankle and calf. Refining one’s balance and limiting the wobbles of a pointe shoe, is a never-ending job (when you hit a good balance en pointe in the studio, take the opportunity to wave your arms and/or scream loudly for someone to look because it might not happen again for a while).

Stepping up to pointe...(pardon the floppy wrist) Ballet Theatre of Maryland 2012
Stepping up to pointe…
Ballet Theatre of Maryland 2012

The beauty and challenge these shoes add is obvious, but how do you get to that point(e) in your training? When are you ready? Some are handed a pair of pointe shoes when they hit a certain level or reach a certain age. But pointe candidates should be delegated with care. Although one who has mastered a reasonable portion of the ballet curriculum and language may think they’re well-prepared for pointe work, it is not to be taken lightly. Everyone’s timeline, in this case, is unique. There is no need to rush. Pointe work requires a high level of strength and discipline, and starting too early can harm the body, making it more prone to injury. Frustration is understandable, but it is better to begin fully prepared for this challenge.

 

“The beauty of ballet is increased tenfold in a pointe shoe.”

En pointe... Ballet Theatre of Maryland's Swan Lake 2014
En pointe…
Ballet Theatre of Maryland’s Swan Lake 2014

I remember what a joy it was once I began pointe. The challenge further ignited my passion for dance. All I wanted was to learn and practice everything I could. I would race to put my pointe shoes on for class and then suffer through blisters, so I was the last to take them off. After a while the novelty began to wear off though and certain exercises started to feel monotonous. I wanted to learn more, and I couldn’t get it fast enough. But the strength gained from basic, repeated exercises is nothing to scoff at. It is now something I seek (a valuable pointe class, back to basics, can benefit any dancer). Pointe class can feel like the cruelest of torture-going back to the barre and redoing every intricacy of movement with a wooden block strapped to your foot is not pleasant, quite obviously-but it is a medicine that every dancer needs, fuel for what is to come.

Despite the beauty and despite position and experience, the challenge of pointe work never diminishes. It is like a fantastic game to be played every day-a literal balancing act, as we create glimmers of perfection poised on the edge of a pointe shoe box. Even the wrong attitude can make you fall more quickly. But when it’s right, it’s right. Your feet may be trapped and confined, throbbing and exhausted, but with the height and the balance comes freedom. We constantly dare to do what others cannot. It is an unattainable perfection that we seek, but isn’t that what makes it so intoxicating?…