Every dancer hits a proverbial wall from time to time. (non-dancers do too). This recently happened to me and I’ve had an ongoing internal dialogue about what to do about it ever since. It isn’t easy or comfortable to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and keep trying after a failed attempt… plus ignore those nasty inner critics that insist you’d be better off if you packed it all in and went home to do something nice and safe. Like basket weaving.
Feeling bad about things like an audition gone wrong or a job offer that fell through is understandable. You might also be tempted to allow yourself to fall into the dumps or have a pity party. We’ve all been there. But how do you climb back out of that hole?
I randomly came across this sign the other day and it summed the issue up perfectly. Happiness and success are an inside job. Whether your goal is to dance with New York City Ballet or twirl fire-laden hoops on Brooklyn rooftops, ultimate success begins with unwavering (aside from the occasional blip of the blues) passion and belief about what you are doing. Everything else is peripheral. The more you keep your focus on what you are doing and your vision of where you want to go with it, the more likely you are to get there.
This is not to say that there won’t be human moments–disappointments and fears–but there is always the option to rise above these and keep going no matter what.
There’s a saying in the writing business that the difference between published and unpublished writers is persistence. Those who don’t give up– who let their attitude determine their altitude– are the ones who take flight.
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 comes 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.
Here are a few tips about fitness straight from the dancers themselves:
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.
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.
Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet is not your typical ballet company for so many reasons. At the top of that list of reasons is mastery of fluid, flawless movement. The dancers are polished, amazingly capable athletes and artists. They are the closest thing to perfection I’ve ever witnessed.
At intermission my daughter noticed that I was crying (yes, they were that good. I’ve never cried at a dance performance before). “Why are you crying, Mom?” she asked.
“Because they are the most beautiful dancers I’ve ever seen,” I said.
I’ve never seen such a breathtaking and unusual array of dancers: wild-haired Spaniards, tall, lithe Amazonian pixies, long, willowy African American men and women; incredible athletes of every size, shape and race. This is not a company where each dancer is supposed to be a perfect carbon copy of the next. Instead, every individual’s strengths and style are encouraged and showcased.
King’s choreography is fine-tuned for each dancer; it is expressive and progressive. “It was ballet but not really,” according to my daughter. It is ballet, but it is so much more. King takes ballet and gives it modern-day relevance. The dance vocabulary is all his own, but it’s a language that today’s audience can understand and relate to. His collaborations with other master artists such as Zakir Hussain and Pharoah Sanders add further vitality to his work.
King’s choreography is demanding!! There were times that it was hard to believe that I was seeing what I was seeing. Yet the dancers pulled it all off seamlessly. Watching them move with an understanding of how much energy is involved is awe-inspiring… and the dancers were on fire! Every one of them worked to their limit to “bring it”.
Many years (okay, decades) ago, a friend brought me to one of Alonzo King’s classes. I’d been studying classical ballet for more than 13 years at the time, 6 of them at the prestigious School of American Ballet and San Francisco Ballet School. I distinctly remember how difficult I found his class- mostly because the moves were so foreign- I couldn’t make my body do what was being asked. It was ballet, but not exactly… or rather, it was contemporary ballet as opposed to classical… something else entirely.
Those of us who live in the Bay Area are fortunate to have such an amazing gem in our midst. I plan to partake of that good fortune as often as possible.
My first ballet teacher always said, “If you are satisfied with your dancing, then you’re in the wrong field” which meant that as far as she was concerned there was always room for improvement. Perfection, or the closest thing to it, is a dancer’s job description. Over time we improve through intention and practice. But many of us still wrestle with the question of whether or not we are good dancers.
It’s common to feel pressure to get ahead, to be more, to do more. I certainly felt this way when I was dancing in professional ballet companies. Every career holds hundreds of performances with each one (hopefully) being the best that it can be.There were times when I asked myself am I any good at all? It can be difficult to pinpoint exactly where you stand in the dance world, because feedback is often minimal, if it exists at all.
It was only after a well-known musician/composer friend introduced the idea of “good enough” that I found any resolution. “Generally, I don’t read reviews of my work,” she said. “They are simply one person’s opinion. I know with every project that I have given my personal best and that is all that I can do. I find peace knowing that.”
The same thing applies to dance. There will always be some dancers who are better… and some that are not as good. There is a wide spectrum of talent and every dancer’s career is a personal journey with a distinct starting point and an ending point. How we get from point A to point B can vary, but somewhere within all the hard work we need to enjoy the ride. If you know you’ve done your best, then let go and relax. Just a little.
Further recommended reading:
School of American Ballet’s master teacher Suki Schorer’s book offers advice and affirmations to young dancers.