Whenever I meet someone for the first time, one of their first questions is, “What was it like to be a professional ballet dancer?” Ballet is in the public eye like never before, yet movies like Black Swan and shows like Breaking Pointe tend to focus on the gritty side of dance, and are at times extreme. It’s difficult to explain what something is like to someone who’s never personally experienced it, but I can sum it up with one line:
Ballet is a hard life.
No other job on the planet requires so much time and energy with so little pay…and it’s one of the most competitive fields in existence. Out of the 2000 dancers who audition each year for the School of American Ballet’s Summer Intensive, only a handful are chosen to become permanent students. Out of the 200 permanent students only 20 are hired for professional ballet companies around the world. These figures give a whole new meaning to the term “the one percent.”
Although ballet is a difficult life it’s not without its perks. Fellow dancers feel like family (maybe slightly dysfunctional, but show me one that isn’t), there’s often the opportunity to travel (and someone else pays), and the experience of working towards perfecting your art is satisfying on an entirely different level than most jobs.
Lastly, choosing a life in dance pays off for the rest of your life in unexpected ways, from living fully in your body and treating it respectfully to understanding and applying the principles of hard work and dedication to everything you do.
So yes, ballet life is hard, but so is everything that’s worth doing.
Look at any professional dancer and you’ll see someone at the top of their game. Since peak fitness is a major part of the job description it goes without saying that dancers know a thing or two about keeping in shape. And who wouldn’t want to look like that? (Those legs…)“Any woman can have that long, lean look – and the strength and posture of a ballerina,” says Mary Helen Bowers, who trained Natalie Portman for her Oscar-nominated role in “Black Swan.” In fact, 99% of Bowers’ clients are women who’ve never danced before.
Megan Stockman, a principal aerialist and dancer with Quixotic, says dancers stretch a lot, which is one of the reasons their limbs look so long and lean. “Every day I’ll stretch for about an hour, making sure to hit every muscle group.” Emmy-nominated director, choreographer Laurieann Gibson(she’s worked with Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, and Katy Perry) stresses the importance of warming up your body.“I like to always remind my dancers about ways to avoid injury,” Gibson says. “One of the basic ways to avoid injury is to always make sure to stretch and warm up your body. This will loosen up your muscles, which will help to avoid common strain injuries such as shin splints and ankle strains,” Gibson says.
For core strength, many dancers turn to Pilates and exercises that target the abdominal area. Why is core strength so important? Mary Helen Bowers says, “It leads to a flat stomach. But a strong core also strengthens a ballerina’s center of balance. It’s what gives us good posture and the ability to look graceful.”
Cardio is another key element of fitness; we all know we have to do it, so why not make it fun? “I hate cardio, so I find fun ways to disguise it,” says Stockman. “I’ll go on a bike ride or I’ll run to the store. I also like to go out dancing—that’s my favorite cardio workout.” Principal dancer Laura Jones agrees: “Find something fun and creative that also keeps your mind working, like dance, aerial, or something outside.” Gibson agrees. “Add variety to your workout routine. I believe it’s extremely important to include some other type of fitness activity in your training… to avoid injury when you are dancing,” she says.
Although this looks pretty cardio to me!:
Along with every workout comes thirst – anytime you sweat fluids are being lost and need replacement. The drink of choice? You guessed it: H2O. Every dancer carries a reusable water bottle… and refills it often.
Dancers know it takes the right foods to build a strong, healthy form – you are what you eat, as the saying goes. Start moderating your diet by eating less sugar and less processed foods and adding in those vegetables and fruit, you’ll be doing yourself a favor. Mary Helen Bowers starts the day with a bowl of oatmeal and tosses in some nuts and fruit. “It boosts my energy, and the fiber is great.” Blake McGrath (who has shared the stage with some of the hottest bodies in the music industry—Madonna, Janet Jackson and Beyonce) says he eats lots of protein, such as fish and chicken, and plenty of vegetables. “And I stay away from junk food.” DWTS’s Chelsea Hightower says, “I typically order a salad with chicken. You can get that anyplace, including fast-food restaurants. And I always carry almonds and red seedless grapes with me for snacking.”
Above all else, keep dancing. JesseLee Santos, a choreographer who has danced with Madonna, Britney Spears and Alicia Keys: “I try and workout, train or take classes on a daily basis. I also use Insanity, a workout program created by my good friend, Shawn T, on the days when travel takes over my schedule. Rest days are vital as well! I usually give myself the weekend to slow down my pace and center my body. Dance is also a total-body workout that has all the benefits of a long run or a session on the elliptical—and then some. In a 1-hour class, you can burn as many as 400 calories. Do that 3 times a week and you could drop nearly 20 pounds in a year without dieting. You’ll also tone nearly every muscle in your body, improve balance, and boost brainpower.
A lot of people ask me what it takes to be a ballet dancer. Here’s what George Balanchine said about it:
“Someone once said that dancers work just as hard as policemen, always alert, always tense. But I don’t agree with that because policemen don’t have to look beautiful at the same time.”
Mr. Balanchine was right. It isn’t easy to be a ballet dancer. These days ballet is in the spotlight, with films like Black Swan and TV shows likeBunheads and Breaking Pointe creating a national obsession. It is every little girl’s dream to become a ballerina. However, for most people, this dream will never come true. Why? Because ballet is one of the most demanding and competitive fields in existence. Only a small percentage of people have what it takes to make it.
Here are the three things that all dancers must have in order to succeed:
• internal characteristics
• external characteristics
• an action plan.
We’ll start with the most obvious first: the external. A dancer must have the proper physical build. Dancers are slender and swan-like, with long, lean limbs and perfect proportions. They can’t be too tall… or too short. Basically, they are perfect.
There are other, not-so-obvious physical traits that ballet demands: flexibility (for those high kicks and gravity-defying leaps) turnout, or outward rotation of the hips, and supple, beautifully arched feet… every dancer knows how important it is to have “good feet”. The wrong kind of foot looks like an unsightly ham hock while the right kind of foot completes the line beautifully.
Equally important is what’s going on inside. Obviously there is a burning desire to dance… that is true for all dancers. The desire lights the fire, but there’s got to be a whole lot more than that to keep the flame burning against when the going gets tough. What keeps the flame alive is what I like to call the three D’s of dance: determination, dedication and discipline.
Determination means that defeat is eliminated from your vocabulary. You know deep in your core that you will never give up. Trust me, all dancers come up against plenty of discouragement. Determination means you keep on going no matter what.
Dedication means commitment to a task or purpose… practice, practice, practice because it must be perfect, perfect, perfect… but dancers must take dedication to a much higher level than most people realize: in order to be a dancer, dance comes first, often to the exclusion of many other things. Most of the hours of your days are devoted to classes, rehearsals, strength building and even private coaching, if necessary. More importantly, dedication to ballet means sacrifice: sacrifice of time and sacrifice of activities like skiing and horseback riding, a few of the things list of Forbidden Things for dancers… it’s a pretty long list …
Discipline means applying yourself, training by regular instruction and exercise… or to bring about a state of order and control. Both are true for ballet dancers.
The final piece of success is an action plan. Once a dancer decides to pursue to a career (usually during the early teens) it’s time to map that plan. Of course, the plan can change over time and often does. First choose a professional ballet school. Many ballet companies run professional ballet schools to train up and coming generations of dancers. These schools accept students by audition only and the competition is fierce. Many dancers start by taking summer intensives at these professional schools. If all goes well, they are invited to stay on as a permanent student.
When a student reaches the advanced levels in a professional school (usually anywhere between 15-18 years old) it’s time for more decisions. Sometimes the parent ballet company will invite students to apprentice with the company. Apprenticeships last about a year and are stepping stones to becoming a full-fledged company member.
More often dancers attend open call auditions to get work. Make a list of the companies that interest you and find out when they are holding auditions. Most dancers have a love/hate relationship with auditions because they are nerve-wracking and crowded. But they also represent opportunity and you never know which one will pan out.
Some dancers call companies directly to see if they are hiring. If so, they can arrange to take class with the company as a sort of informal audition.
Either way, it all boils down to making choices. You aim, you shoot… and hopefully you’re hired. If not, you keep trying until it happens.
As you can see becoming a ballet dancer is not simple… or easy. But if a dancer has what it takes: the proper internal and external characteristics and an action plan, they have the best chance for success.
NYCB’s Kathryn Morgan. Notice what she says about success.