During a recent interview with Smuin Ballet’s Erica Chipp, she shared her (comical) story of getting into Smuin Ballet and what she’s learned about dealing with dance injuries
A native of Lake Tahoe, NV, Erica Chipp trained at The Harid Conservatory in Florida before joining Festival Ballet Providence in 2004. Directed by Mihailo Djuric, she performed featured roles in Viktor Plotnikov’s Cinderella, Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo, Colleen Cavanaugh’sPippi and Balanchine’s Tarantella, Rubies and Donizetti Variations. Erica was also a guest artist for Sierra Nevada Ballet, where she was directed by one of her former ballet teachers, Rosine Bena, in the principle roles ofGiselle and Coppelia. This is Erica’s fourth season with Smuin Ballet.
I’d love to open with your story about how you got into Smuin Ballet.
I was dancing with Festival ballet in Providence, Rhode Island but I planned to be in Tahoe over Christmas for a visit. I emailed Smuin’s ballet mistress and asked if I could come take class and audition. She didn’t get back to me until I had already flown out here and I had no leotard, no pointe shoes–nothing. I told my brother he had to drive to San Francisco with me–we stopped to get a leotard, and pointe shoes, and I was sewing elastics and ribbons in the car and I was thinking, “Oh my God. I am going to be auditioning on brand new pointe shoes.” You know how that is. I kind of smooshed them against the car seat to break them in–and by the way, this was in the middle of a blizzard, of course–my brave brother was driving through this blizzard.
We made it to Yerba Buena barely on time. Right after class I felt awful, like I did the worst job. But everyone was really sweet and very welcoming. After class they told me the usual, “You’ll hear from us soon. It’s still early in the season and we don’t know how many contracts we’ll have available.”
Of course right then all I thought was, “I didn’t get the job.” We drove back home through the blizzard and I told my brother I didn’t think I had done that well. But when I got home there was an email waiting for me! It said “We felt you were a really good fit for this company because of the way you dance and your personality. Again, it’s really early but let’s stay in touch for the next 5 months.”
I was freaking out! So excited. It was the longest waiting period. I went back to Providence and I didn’t tell anybody because it wasn’t worth making a big deal about it if it wasn’t going to happen. Amy emailed me in April to tell me they were still considering me for the company. She asked if there was any way I could come back and audition. I said, “I really can’t because I’m in the middle of performances. I can give you a video or anything you need.”
She said, “Okay. I have a weird question. Do you know how to tap?”
I knew that Smuin tapped. It’s a thing. I said, “Well, I haven’t tapped since I was twelve, but when I was twelve I was pretty good.” I made a video with my friend Christine in this little tiny studio…I hadn’t tapped in so long I didn’t even have tap shoes–I just borrowed them.
They called me two days later and offered me a position. The first thing I said was, “It was my tap video, wasn’t it?” (laughs). They still have that video!
Erica in Smuin’s Carmina Burana. Partnered by Wes Krukow. Photo by Keith Sutter
Describe your two favorite career high points.
In Festival ballet we did Rodeo and I got to be the cowgirl. That was such an amazing mesh of my childhood and my love for horseback riding and my love for ballet. When I was kid it was one or the other; I could never do both. I love those character roles–love to make the audience laugh playing a role like that, carrying it on through the ballet.
One of my favorite Smuin experiences was when we performed Oh Inverted World to the music of the Shins. That music is so powerful and so fun and the costumes were one of those rare costumes that you love to wear and the audience was into it.
When I got to do Giselle with Sierra Nevada Ballet in Reno–I dance with them every summer–I danced with a principal from Ballet San Jose. That role was amazing because of the difference between being this peasant girl and then being one of the frail Willis. I could hear the audience laughing during the peasant scenes in the beginning, and then I saw them crying in the end. Being able to reach that kind of emotion in people, I think that’s why we do this. That was one of the best experiences I’ve had on stage.
Recently you have been dealing with an injury. What happened and where are you in the healing process?
I have two stress fractures and they’re one top of the other on my shin bone. I had felt one of them for about a year, and I think it’s because I’m always the jumper. Now I’m learning there are a lot of alignment issues, like my right foot tends to roll in and I think that caused a misalignment in my whole right side that I’m slowly correcting right now through physical therapy and Pilates and great trainers who see these things that we don’t see in ourselves.
Also I didn’t say anything. I didn’t tell them I was hurting.
I think that’s typical, and one of the biggest problems with dance. Something starts to bother you but you can’t stop–either because there’s this unspoken rule about dancing through it because you have to, or you don’t want to be replaced. Or you are in a company that can’t afford to have people down.
I think I didn’t say anything for both reasons. I didn’t want to let my company down. There are only 8 girls–that’s not a lot. I also loved the program we were working on at that time and I didn’t want to be out. I had already done ten out of twenty-four shows, in a lot of pain, and it kept getting worse. I did all the things I could–icing, contrast baths, homeopathic remedies, acupuncture (which the company provides), everything to not go out. But I couldn’t just be immediately out; they had to get other people in my roles.
I finally went to get an MRI and they saw the two full-on stress fractures and told me they had been there for a while.
What was your first thought when they told you what was wrong?
I cried…because I had known something was wrong. I felt like I was letting Smuin down and letting myself down; I was mad at myself for not doing something earlier.
Luckily we had a couple of months off from Smuin but I was supposed to perform Swan Lake with Sierra Nevada Ballet that summer and I had to give that role up to another Smuin dancer. I was invited to come up and rehearse the corps dancers but it was really hard. I didn’t want to be a coach or ballet mistress yet. But I did it and I saw the results in the dancers and they were grateful for the coaching and direction. In some ways it was fun. It was good to know I was able to do that but it also tore my heart out because I kept thinking “I should be up there.”
We identify so much with the life of being a dancer. It’s what we do and who we are and what we live and breathe. When you suddenly don’t have that it brings up a lot of questions like who am I? What am I? It’s uncomfortable and strange and hard.
That’s exactly how I felt. It as really weird. My sister said, “I don’t know what to do with you, Erica. I know you’re going through a hard time but you won’t open up to me about it.” I told her I didn’t even know what to say to her because it was so hard and scary. It was just like you said, like your whole identity is taken away from you. I started to think, “What am I going to do?” I also realized I’m not going to dance forever and I don’t want to go through this kind of transition when I do decide to retire.
That was when I started working the Arbonne business with my best friend. My other passion is natural living, homeopathic living and clean eating and nutrition. I’ve struggled with nutrition and body issues in my career so it’s an avenue I like to work with.
Erica partnered by Christian Squires in Helen Pickett’s Petal. Photo by Keith Sutter
Has your company helped you to deal with your injury or have you made those decisions on your own?
It’s really been me deciding what’s best. I decided to take the summer off and then reevaluate at the beginning of the season. During the summer while I was off, Smuin paid for bodywork, cross training, anything that I wanted to do, within reason.
I started the season August 4th and I intuitively felt like I needed another month. By the third day I realized I was 75% healed but not all the way and if I kept going full out I was just going to reverse all the healing I had done over the sumer. That was the hardest part-pulling the plug.
What kind of revelations have you had during your healing process?
I’ve been looking at what my life is going to be like without dance someday, what avenue I want to transition into where I still get that same level of fulfillment and I’m passionate about what I’m doing.
I’ve always been a healthy eater but I’ve realized trying to cut a lot of food to stay thin wasn’t helping my injury. I talked to a nutritionist and learned I wasn’t getting enough,Vitamin D and calcium in my diet. I’m still in a healthy healing weight but not my ideal dancer weight, and I don’t want to re-injure myself. It’s complicated to try to balance those things. I’ve become the Paleo girl; I’ve realized for my body and my genetics I don’t do well eating carbs.
I also work differently in class. I focus on not doing any weird twisting so when I do start jumping again my body knows the proper alignment. I’ve learned a lot working on the Pilates reformer with Smuin’s physical therapist. She’s shown me some things I would have never known about if I hadn’t worked with her. Like how I compensate on one side… I’ve learned how to solidify my core and my back.
Even though we spend our lives doing something so physical we never stop learning about the body, do we?
Exactly. I give this one little girl privates and I’m tell her all of this stuff. I keep thinking I wish someone had shown me these things when I was little.
Postscript: Today, in January, 2015, Erica writes:
I made it through Xmas ballet–26 intense shows–and even though I still had scar tissue pain I did it! And now after 3 weeks off I am completely pain free and it feel so good!! I do have a totally new awareness of my body and my technique when I am dancing now. Especially when I am jumping and landing because that’s the part I love most. I just really tune in to how things are responding and if something is crying out for attention I don’t ignore it. Nutritionally I still take my bone supplements every single day and make sure to eat enough protein for my muscles to recover. Bone marrow has become one of my favorite foods
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