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.
Anyone who’s ever wanted a behind-the-scenes look at the world of ballet pretty much has their pick these days. After the recent success of World Ballet Day where millions of viewers tuned into live streams from five top companies the interest in ballet is at an all-time high. Here is an additional handful of series and films to help you get your fill. Happy viewing!
Breaking Pointe: A reality show about Ballet West, a ballet company based in Salt Lake City, Utah. The show is described as “A series that goes behind the stage curtain for an intense, unfiltered look at one of the most competitive ballet companies in the country. Beneath the beauty and glamour of the dance and costumes is a gritty dog-eat-dog world of extreme athleticism, focus, dedication, passion, pressure and, of course, the hunt for the unattainable perfection.” The show ran for two seasons before calling it quits but you can still catch the episodes for free. Even better news: you can binge watch the series.
city.ballet: Enter the graceful but competitive world of ballet through the eyes of executive producer, Sarah Jessica Parker (Parker currently sits on the board of NYCB). This behind-the-scenes docudrama reveals what it takes to perform on the ultimate stage, the New York City Ballet. 12 episodes plus a number of extras.
Big Ballet: A three-part series that chronicles the highs and lows of a plus-size amateur troupe mounting a production of Swan Lake. Led by ballet legend Wayne Sleep, who worked through his own size issues as the shortest dancer ever to debut on the Royal Ballet stage, and Prima Ballerina Monica Loughman, Big Ballet shows the world that it’s not about the size of the dancer, but the size of the dancer’s heart.
First Position: Every year, thousands of aspiring dancers enter one of the world’s largest ballet competitions, the Youth America Grand Prix. FIRST POSITION follows six extraordinary dancers as they prepare for the chance to enter the world of professional ballet, struggling through bloodied feet, near exhaustion and debilitating injuries, all while navigating the drama of adolescence.
Afternoon of a Faun: The Tanaquil Le Clercq story. Of the great ballerinas, Tanaquil Le Clercq may have been the most transcendent. She mesmerized viewers and choreographers alike – her elongated, race-horse physique became the new prototype for the great George Balanchine. The muse to both Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, they loved her as a dancer and a woman. Balanchine married her and Robbins created his famous Afternoon of a Faun for Tanny. She was the foremost dancer of her day until it suddenly all stopped. At age 27, Tanny was struck down by polio and paralyzed. She never danced again.
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.
January is always a great month for dance enthusiasts; a time (in between making and keeping resolutions) to peruse the best of the best dance critics’ “best moments in dance” recaps for the prior year… and then there’s DANCE Magazine’s 25 To Watch list. Here you’ll find the best and the brightest of the up-and-coming ranks of dancers and choreographers – those who have that certain something that sets them apart from the rest.
This year’s list included three Chicagoans:Hubbard Street’s Johnny McMillan, Hedwig dancer Victor Alexander and Luna Negra’s Monica Cervantes.If you want to see more, catch Hubbard Street’s danc(e)volve: New Works Festival at the MCA, June 13–16, where McMillan might follow up his precocious Path and Observations (now part of the Hubbard Street II repertoire) with something even better. Meanwhile, Cervantes, after premiering Requiem—her first, much-lauded work for Luna in the spring of 2012—sets a new piece for the company’s March 9 performance at the Harris Theater.
Johnny McMillan at work:
Blazing a trail for tall ballerinas everywhere, 5′ 10″ Emily Kikta of New York City Ballet, like other tall ballerinas, is hard to miss onstage. In less than two years as a corps de ballet member, she has already landed several featured roles—one of two towering Amazon Women in Peter Martins’ Ocean’s Kingdom, the whirling soloist in Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet’s first movement, and leading the final section of “Rubies” in the “tall girl” role at last fall’s gala.
2012 was a big year in dance: Paris Opera Ballet came to the U.S. for the first time in 16 years, the Royal Ballet went live online and dance went center stage in mainstream culture with shows like “So You Think You Can Dance,” “Dance Moms”, “America’s Best Dance Crew”, “Bunheads,” and “Breaking Pointe”. San Francisco Ballet principal Yuan Yuan Tan turned up in print ads for Gap, while American Ballet Theatre’s Puanani Brown showed off for Fruit of the Loom.