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.
The desire to pursue a dance career hit me for real when I was ten and I got my first opportunity to dance (and get paid!) in a local theater production. The show ran for twelve weeks and got me all sorts of cool perks, like a paycheck and getting out of school early on the days we had matinees. I loved every minute of it.
But that love got lost somewhere in the middle of the realities of pursuing a professional dance career. There were so many responsibilities and pressure clamoring for attention in my head and next to no time to dream or relax. There was a constant push to follow directions, stay in line, look like the person next to you… to do better, do more, get ahead. All too often life as a dancer felt like all work and no play.
There isn’t a career on the planet that comes without stress and/or challenges. But whether you are a dancer, dentist or dishwasher, this is my reminder to you to remember to play, to keep the love for what you are doing alive.
Dancers have good balance, don’t you think? Balance is what it’s all about.
It’s not always easy to know where you stand as a dancer. Trying to figure it all out is a guessing game at the best of times. Teachers and administrators are not forthcoming with feedback – instead the best one can usually hope for is any kind of comment at all. In the (mostly) silent land of dance, if a teacher gives a dancer a correction in class, it indicates caring and/or interest on their part …. which leaves most dancers pining for corrections.
But corrections don’t always make sense. Over the years I’ve heard and received a few that left me scratching my head, wondering what the devil did that mean? Here, then, for your reading pleasure is a collection of the top head-scratchers.
Big toe. This comment was given by a pipe-smoking male teacher who could be counted on for always wearing the same clothing ensemble (white button-down shirt/khaki pants) and for random, completely obtuse comments like this one. However, this particular comment was said with much enthusiasm, so he really meant it. Whatever it was.
Make it more organic. Ummm. Even today, decades after this comment was first made, I am at a loss. Did he expect us to undulate like jellyfish? Let our hair down, tear off our pointe shoes and dance as if possessed? Spin around like leaves in a windstorm?
Don’t fall. Why state the obvious? Seriously.
What you make me? I thought I was doing what you told me to do. Was it not obvious?
Easy life. This from a hardcore, old-school Russian who scared me more than a little on a good day. He trotted out this comment whenever the combination he’d given didn’t result in bringing the class to its knees.
Disclaimer: This list is meant to entertain and does not take into account the years of helpful comments that shaped my dance career.