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When life calls for a Plan B: Guest post by Terez Mertes Rose

When life calls for a Plan B

By Terez Mertes Rose

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There is a certain line of thinking in an ultra-competitive, high-stakes career like ballet or gymnastics, that mandates one to focus on the shining goal alone, and not the what-ifs. “Don’t ever make a Plan B for your life,” more than one elite coach or teacher has told their pre-professional student. “If you do, it’s as if you’re saying, ‘it’s okay if this doesn’t work out.’ Give this your all, and then give more. And more.” It’s an intense philosophy that nonetheless breeds winners, those who will rise to the top of the top and stay there. But the laws of physics are clear: what goes up must come down.

I recently published a novel, Outside the Limelight, which chronicles the journey two professional dance sisters take when life and career don’t turn out quite as planned. For the elder sister, lack of a promotion has meant nine years in the corps, that have increasingly debilitated her body. For the younger, a swift rise through the ranks is halted by a devastating medical diagnosis: a brain tumor. Sidelined in the aftermath of complications from the extraction surgery, her life is no longer at risk, but her career is. Which, to her, feels like one in the same.

Both sisters now grapple with the question that few young elite athletes want to face: what comes next, when the career you’ve trained your entire life for, devoted all your attention and energy to, tries to nudge you out?

I had the opportunity to explore real-life scenarios in conversations with former New York City Ballet dancer sisters Romy and Zippora Karz. Like my younger character Dena, Zippora, a soloist, had to struggle with a challenging medical diagnosis—Type 1 diabetes—that put her health and career at risk every day. “From the moment I first learned how to inject insulin, I questioned how realistic it was for me to continue with the NYCB,” she said. “It was just my third year with the company, but I had already been dancing leading roles. Through the years, as the reality of life with insulin dependent diabetes took its toll on me, and consequently affected my dancing, it became a daily question. Each day I would go to bed thinking that was my last, and each morning I would wake up thinking, just one more show.” (Her journey is eloquently chronicled in a memoir, The Sugarless Plum, published in 2009.)

Love for her art prevailed and she danced for sixteen years with the NYCB, thirteen after her diagnosis. Finally it came time to transition to a Plan B, and with it, a pleasant surprise.

photo by Mark Harmel

photo by Mark Harmel

“I wasn’t really looking to be a teacher. I never wanted to impose or perpetuate the perfectionism I struggled with so much. But as I taught and staged Balanchine ballets, I was brought back to my early years, before my illness, before the stress and pressures of being a professional. I re-experienced the magic and purity of dance, the innocence. I fell in love all over again, but this time it was about giving back. It was a huge relief to be able to focus on others and not always be preoccupied with my own body and how to manage my disease.”

For Romy Karz, a plan B followed nine years in the corps de ballet, with injuries sustained throughout her career. (The NYCB is renowned for its long seasons, high-powered dancing and extensive number of performances, especially rough on its corps dancers.) She was offered a soloist position in a new company, so she left New York for her native California and the newly revived Los Angeles Ballet, a move that backfired when the company failed to take off. Which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. While pursuing freelance opportunities, a pregnancy caught Romy by surprise, as did the sudden realization that motherhood was something with the potential to be even bigger than dance. She found the experience of childbirth to be so profound, so empowering, that a Plan B unfolded beneath her effortlessly. This was her second calling, then: an advocate for a positive birth experience, as a childbirth educator and later as a doula, and a lactation specialist. It is what she happily devotes her time to now, along with teaching ballet and educating young dancers on how to pursue the craft from a healthier, more holistic point of view than she and her own era had.

For more than one professional ballet dancer (including Rebecca, my fictional older sister dancer), Plan B involves taking college classes. Fortunately, that’s become easier these days, thanks to the help of institutions like St. Mary’s College in San Francisco, which offers a bachelor of arts degree program that caters to dance and other performing arts professionals. Fittingly called LEAP (Liberal Education for Arts Professionals), it gives its students the opportunity to work classes into busy performing weeks and seasons. LEAP extension programs can be found in New York and Los Angeles now, as well. New York City’s Fordham University, too, offers close proximity to Lincoln Center and reduced tuition for dancers, and American Ballet Theater affiliates with Long Island University, just as Boston Ballet does with Northeastern University.

Social media, too, has become an avenue allowing dancers, sidelined or otherwise, to engage with the “outside world” in a way that profits everyone. Former New York City Ballet soloist, Kathryn Morgan, has built a veritable social media empire with her website and YouTube channels, with views in the hundreds of thousands, as well as her posts on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook that share the ballet world with countless eager, interested ballet aspirants. The Kathryn Morgan Show is her podcast on the Premier Dancers Network, and she offers advice as “Dear Katie,” an advice column in Dance Spirit magazine. Fans can’t get enough of her.

Was any of this part of her original plan? Decidedly not. While dancing with the New York City Ballet, Kathryn suffered a debilitating illness, an autoimmune thyroid disorder, during a time that should have otherwise been reserved for flexing her considerable talent and growing ever more accomplished. Instead, after two difficult years of fighting against her illness, she headed back to her hometown to heal, a long, long process, as it turned out. Initially, she told me, it felt like the end of the world. But ballet dancers are tough, and their talent and persistence don’t stop easily at a “no.” Plan Bs can incorporate whatever you need, and for Kathryn, this meant staying right there in the midst of the dance world.

Linda Hamilton, in her book Advice for Dancers; Emotional Counsel and Practical Strategies, offers tips on preparation for that inevitable transition, to avoid that rug-pulled-from-beneath-you feeling. “Start early,” she counsels. “It’s better to make a gradual transition than to switch to something new out of the blue.” She encourages dancers to develop their skills through hobbies, or internships. “The sooner you begin, the more prepared you’ll be for your next career,” she says.

Prudent advice. Because there will, some day, be a need for a Plan B. The good news, as the above dancers have revealed, is that your Plan B might pleasantly surprise you.

About the Author

Terez Mertes Rose is a writer and former ballet dancer whose work has appeared in the Crab Orchard Review, Women Who Eat (Seal Press), A Woman’s Europe (Travelers’ Tales), the Philadelphia Inquirer and the San Jose Mercury News. She is the author of Off Balance and Outside the Limelight, Books 1 and 2 of the Ballet Theatre Chronicles (Classical Girl Press) respectively. She reviews dance performances for Bachtrack.com and blogs about ballet and classical music at The Classical Girl (www.theclassicalgirl.com). She makes her home in the Santa Cruz Mountains with her husband and son.

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HOPE: Indigo Ballet Series, book #2 New Book Release

I don’t know about you but cake is one of my favorite things about birthdays. There’s something about the candles…and all that icing.

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Happy Book Birthday!

 

I’m writing today to let you know about a different kind of birthday. Specifically, a book birthday (sorry, no cake). HOPE, book #2 of the Indigo Ballet Series has been officially released today! I’m very excited to share it with you. You can read an excerpt below and grab your copy here. I hope you enjoy reading HOPE as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Happy Reading!

HOPE: Indigo Ballet Series book #2

HOPE: Indigo Ballet Series book #2

 

Excerpt

Someone grabs my elbow firmly and I turn to find the new guy leading me to get a spot in line. I scowl at him and then at my elbow. “Um…hi? That’s my elbow.”

You do not wish to dance?” he says, eyes wide. His accent is silvery, melodic. Also hot.

Um, no–I mean yes–I mean, you’re grabbing my elbow a little too tightly.”

He drops it like he’s been scalded, holding up both palms in defense. A stray lock of brown hair curls along his temple. “My apologies. Sometimes I forget myself.”

I look at him as I try to appraise whether or not he’s making fun of me, but his face is unreadable. Also I can’t look at it for long or I might get hypnotized. “Riiight,” I say.

We wait in silence, watching the other dancers ahead of us. When we reach the front of the line I see our two reflections–dark and light–in the mirrors that run along the entire front wall of the studio and decide they are complementary. At least it’s nice to have a tall partner for a change; my opportunity to dance with someone my size is limited because I dwarf several of the other boys in the room.

I start to move and feel his hands firmly on my hips. His breath warms the back of my neck and I feel myself flush. Normally I’d take a glimpse in the mirror to make sure my alignment is perfect, but I don’t dare. For reasons I don’t want to admit to myself, I feel nervous and jittery. We face each other and he offers his hand as I come into arabesque. He starts the slow promenade and I chance a quick glimpse at his face. He smiles and I catch my breath. I switch my gaze over to his shoulder and notice that my palm is slick with sweat. I’m so embarrassed I feel heat in the tips of my ears. I pray my face isn’t bright red.

He slides a hand around my waist for the dip and I close my eyes. “Relax,” he says into my ear. “I’ve got you.”

Playlist

And…. for your listening pleasure: The official playlist for HOPE:

Diablo Ballet: Why They’re Still Going Strong After 22 Years

Diablo Ballet has a lot to celebrate: This year the company marked twenty-two successful seasons (with a gala evening that opened with moving speeches by City Councilwoman Cindy Silva, and co-founder/Artistic Director Lauren Jonas) and the company has never looked better. While many San Francisco Bay Area dance companies are struggling to stay afloat, this is not the case with Diablo Ballet. The reason is clear: Diablo Ballet brings an eclectic offering of dance to the stage and beyond into the community through its PEEK Program (Performing Arts Education & Enrichment for Kids), the only arts education program of its kind offered by a professional dance company in the Bay Area. The PEEK program has served 65,000 kids since 1995, most recently a group of incarcerated teen girls in the Contra Costa County juvenile justice system.

The program began with Tears From Above, choreographed by Val Caniparoli with music by Elena Kats-Chernin. Dancers Rosselyn Ramirez and Jackie McConnell wore simple dresses in muted tones, dancing a sensual, fiery interplay with bare-chested men, Christian Squires, and Aidan Young. The dancers’ technique was gorgeously fluid, yet they held nothing back as they undulated, leapt, and turned wildly, driven by cellists Joel Cohen and Janet Witharm.

A world premiere of the film We, Divine, choreographed by Robert Dekkers, with cinematography by Walter Yamazaki followed. This simple, elegant film, set to music by Jacob Wolkenhauer, showed the company in a series of stop-motion choreographic vignettes of the dancers in flowing silks (designed by Christian Squires), giving viewers a new way to appreciate the Diablo Ballet.

Sonya Delwaide’s Serenade, choreographed to Ernö Dohnányi’s Serenade For String Trio (Featuring violinist Philip Santos, cellist Janet Witharm and violist Katrina Wreede) was a playful, acrobatic piece, that opened with a trio of dancers and the musicians in an unusual location onstage behind them. Mayo Sugano and Christian Squires were particularly exquisite in the 2nd movement; Ms. Sugano’s delicately arched feet highlighted her precise lines. In the 3rd movement five dancers created an interconnected series of lines and shapes in movement, ending with a humorous tableau, posing in homage to the musicians.

Tetyana Martyanova held center stage in the solo from Diablo Opus, choreographed by Gary Masters, set to music from Cara Mio Ben. Clothed in red, her hand covering her mouth, it was easy to feel her longing, sadness and isolation, although she was surrounded by men. The piece was short, with a sweet ending as Martyanova was carried offstage by a trio of men.

The evening ended with another Diablo Ballet Premiere, the Petipa classic La Fille Mal Gardée, re-envisioned for the company by Lauren Jonas. Although the choreography was new, the black and white costumes gave the piece a timeless look. Amanda Farris and Jamar Goodman were a strong, sturdy duet. Newcomer Jackie McConnell showed strong technique, particularly in her pirouettes. This ballet was the perfect end to the evening; a light, crisp end, like a glass of bubbly.

Diablo Ballet’s 22nd gala was a wonderful retrospective for the company, with something old, something new, and even something blue (the costumes in Serenade). It’s easy to see why they’re still going strong.

5 Ways Dancers Can Build Their Confidence

Like a scary shadow, self-doubt has haunted dancers of all ages and abilities. Ballet dancers, in particular, tend to grapple with feelings of inadequacy. But take heart. Whether you’re a seasoned professional, or absolute novice, there are things you can do to increase your self-esteem and enjoy dancing again. Consider five ways dancers can combat self-doubt and build their confidence.

  1. Give yourself more credit.

Think about it—you could be sitting on the couch, or engaging in some other activity that adds nothing to your life. At least you’re doing something healthy and productive for yourself! Every dancer has ups and downs, but when you’re at a low point, remember that you could be somewhere else. And if you can’t seem to bring yourself to do this, allow me to do it for you: kudos to you!

Sensual beautiful girl near the window morning

  1. Set realistic goals.

Having trouble nailing those fouéttés? Maybe it’s because you can barely do a pirouette without falling off balance. Professional dancers are notorious workhorses, but even beginners can set the bar too high for themselves. Setting small, realistic goals for yourself will help you feel less overwhelmed. For instance, if you have trouble executing a double pirouette, why not learn to master a clean, single pirouette first? Even taking the time to do a proper warm-up can help you feel prepared for the demands of class.

  1. Focus on something positive about yourself.

We all have gifts. Maybe you have naturally stellar turnout, or picture-perfect arches. Instead of nit-picking all your perceived negative traits, focus on your positive attributes. Perhaps your strong points have nothing to do with your physical appearance. Can you get through allegro combinations without gasping for breath? Do you remember combinations with ease while your classmates struggle to retain instructions? The next time you’re feeling down, think about the one (or multiple) things about yourself that you love, or set you apart.

The hands of two classic ballet dancers at ballet barre on a white room background

  1. Don’t compare yourself to others.

The reality is, there will always be someone who can jump higher or turn faster. Depending on how far you go in your career, you will meet these individuals somewhere along the way. Instead of competing with others and fostering jealousy, focus solely on your own progress and develop good sportsmanship. Doing your part to promote healthy dynamics with your classmates will contribute to a positive learning environment that benefits everyone.

  1. Remember your reasons for dancing.

Do you dance for recreation? Fitness? Some dance because it’s their life’s calling. Remembering why you dance can increase your motivation and reignite your joy. Everyone feels a little insecure sometimes, but keeping in mind the factors that drew you to dance in the first place will help to mitigate the effects of self-doubt.

Don’t let self-doubt cast its dark shadow over your life. It can be easy to fall into a rut, focus on the negative, even question your right to be in the studio at all. Through consistent effort, and a good sense of humor, you can successfully shake that self-conscious monkey off your back.

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About the Author

Bethany Leger taught ballet for 7 years in Dallas, TX. She is the founder of Ballet For Adults, a site dedicated to educating adults about ballet at http://balletforadults.com/