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When life calls for a Plan B: Guest post by Terez Mertes Rose

When life calls for a Plan B

By Terez Mertes Rose

plan-b

There is a certain line of thinking in an ultra-competitive, high-stakes career like ballet or gymnastics, that mandates one to focus on the shining goal alone, and not the what-ifs. “Don’t ever make a Plan B for your life,” more than one elite coach or teacher has told their pre-professional student. “If you do, it’s as if you’re saying, ‘it’s okay if this doesn’t work out.’ Give this your all, and then give more. And more.” It’s an intense philosophy that nonetheless breeds winners, those who will rise to the top of the top and stay there. But the laws of physics are clear: what goes up must come down.

I recently published a novel, Outside the Limelight, which chronicles the journey two professional dance sisters take when life and career don’t turn out quite as planned. For the elder sister, lack of a promotion has meant nine years in the corps, that have increasingly debilitated her body. For the younger, a swift rise through the ranks is halted by a devastating medical diagnosis: a brain tumor. Sidelined in the aftermath of complications from the extraction surgery, her life is no longer at risk, but her career is. Which, to her, feels like one in the same.

Both sisters now grapple with the question that few young elite athletes want to face: what comes next, when the career you’ve trained your entire life for, devoted all your attention and energy to, tries to nudge you out?

I had the opportunity to explore real-life scenarios in conversations with former New York City Ballet dancer sisters Romy and Zippora Karz. Like my younger character Dena, Zippora, a soloist, had to struggle with a challenging medical diagnosis—Type 1 diabetes—that put her health and career at risk every day. “From the moment I first learned how to inject insulin, I questioned how realistic it was for me to continue with the NYCB,” she said. “It was just my third year with the company, but I had already been dancing leading roles. Through the years, as the reality of life with insulin dependent diabetes took its toll on me, and consequently affected my dancing, it became a daily question. Each day I would go to bed thinking that was my last, and each morning I would wake up thinking, just one more show.” (Her journey is eloquently chronicled in a memoir, The Sugarless Plum, published in 2009.)

Love for her art prevailed and she danced for sixteen years with the NYCB, thirteen after her diagnosis. Finally it came time to transition to a Plan B, and with it, a pleasant surprise.

photo by Mark Harmel

photo by Mark Harmel

“I wasn’t really looking to be a teacher. I never wanted to impose or perpetuate the perfectionism I struggled with so much. But as I taught and staged Balanchine ballets, I was brought back to my early years, before my illness, before the stress and pressures of being a professional. I re-experienced the magic and purity of dance, the innocence. I fell in love all over again, but this time it was about giving back. It was a huge relief to be able to focus on others and not always be preoccupied with my own body and how to manage my disease.”

For Romy Karz, a plan B followed nine years in the corps de ballet, with injuries sustained throughout her career. (The NYCB is renowned for its long seasons, high-powered dancing and extensive number of performances, especially rough on its corps dancers.) She was offered a soloist position in a new company, so she left New York for her native California and the newly revived Los Angeles Ballet, a move that backfired when the company failed to take off. Which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. While pursuing freelance opportunities, a pregnancy caught Romy by surprise, as did the sudden realization that motherhood was something with the potential to be even bigger than dance. She found the experience of childbirth to be so profound, so empowering, that a Plan B unfolded beneath her effortlessly. This was her second calling, then: an advocate for a positive birth experience, as a childbirth educator and later as a doula, and a lactation specialist. It is what she happily devotes her time to now, along with teaching ballet and educating young dancers on how to pursue the craft from a healthier, more holistic point of view than she and her own era had.

For more than one professional ballet dancer (including Rebecca, my fictional older sister dancer), Plan B involves taking college classes. Fortunately, that’s become easier these days, thanks to the help of institutions like St. Mary’s College in San Francisco, which offers a bachelor of arts degree program that caters to dance and other performing arts professionals. Fittingly called LEAP (Liberal Education for Arts Professionals), it gives its students the opportunity to work classes into busy performing weeks and seasons. LEAP extension programs can be found in New York and Los Angeles now, as well. New York City’s Fordham University, too, offers close proximity to Lincoln Center and reduced tuition for dancers, and American Ballet Theater affiliates with Long Island University, just as Boston Ballet does with Northeastern University.

Social media, too, has become an avenue allowing dancers, sidelined or otherwise, to engage with the “outside world” in a way that profits everyone. Former New York City Ballet soloist, Kathryn Morgan, has built a veritable social media empire with her website and YouTube channels, with views in the hundreds of thousands, as well as her posts on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook that share the ballet world with countless eager, interested ballet aspirants. The Kathryn Morgan Show is her podcast on the Premier Dancers Network, and she offers advice as “Dear Katie,” an advice column in Dance Spirit magazine. Fans can’t get enough of her.

Was any of this part of her original plan? Decidedly not. While dancing with the New York City Ballet, Kathryn suffered a debilitating illness, an autoimmune thyroid disorder, during a time that should have otherwise been reserved for flexing her considerable talent and growing ever more accomplished. Instead, after two difficult years of fighting against her illness, she headed back to her hometown to heal, a long, long process, as it turned out. Initially, she told me, it felt like the end of the world. But ballet dancers are tough, and their talent and persistence don’t stop easily at a “no.” Plan Bs can incorporate whatever you need, and for Kathryn, this meant staying right there in the midst of the dance world.

Linda Hamilton, in her book Advice for Dancers; Emotional Counsel and Practical Strategies, offers tips on preparation for that inevitable transition, to avoid that rug-pulled-from-beneath-you feeling. “Start early,” she counsels. “It’s better to make a gradual transition than to switch to something new out of the blue.” She encourages dancers to develop their skills through hobbies, or internships. “The sooner you begin, the more prepared you’ll be for your next career,” she says.

Prudent advice. Because there will, some day, be a need for a Plan B. The good news, as the above dancers have revealed, is that your Plan B might pleasantly surprise you.

About the Author

Terez Mertes Rose is a writer and former ballet dancer whose work has appeared in the Crab Orchard Review, Women Who Eat (Seal Press), A Woman’s Europe (Travelers’ Tales), the Philadelphia Inquirer and the San Jose Mercury News. She is the author of Off Balance and Outside the Limelight, Books 1 and 2 of the Ballet Theatre Chronicles (Classical Girl Press) respectively. She reviews dance performances for Bachtrack.com and blogs about ballet and classical music at The Classical Girl (www.theclassicalgirl.com). She makes her home in the Santa Cruz Mountains with her husband and son.

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New Ballet Fiction: OFF BALANCE by Terez Mertes Rose

If you are one of those people who feels a flutter in their heart when a new book is released–especially if it’s a book about ballet–then you’ve come to the right place. I’m pleased to share the news of this brand-new, hot-off-the-press novel from Terez Mertes Rose: OFF BALANCE.

Terez Mertes Rose is a writer and former ballet dancer whose work has appeared in the Crab Orchard Review, Literary Mama, Women Who Eat (Seal Press), A Woman’s Europe (Travelers’ Tales), the Philadelphia Inquirer and the San Jose Mercury News. She reviews dance performances for Bachtrack.com and blogs about ballet and classical music at The Classical Girl. She makes her home in the Santa Cruz Mountains with her husband, son and too many cats. She loves good food, good wine, great books, and a good (but not too hard) adult ballet class. She also publishes under the name Terez Rose.

Isn't the cover gorgeous?

Isn’t the cover gorgeous?

About the Book:

Alice thinks she’s accepted the loss of her ballet career, injury having forced her to trade in pointe shoes onstage for spreadsheets upstairs. That is, until the day Alice’s boss asks her to befriend Lana, a pretty new company member he’s got his eye on. Lana represents all Alice has lost, not just as a ballet dancer, but as a motherless daughter. It’s pain she’s kept hidden, even from herself, as every good ballet dancer knows to do.

Lana, lonely and unmoored, desperately needs some help, and her mother, back home, vows eternal support. But when Lana begins to profit from Alice’s advice and help, her mother’s constant attention curdles into something more sinister.

Together, both women must embark on a journey of painful rediscoveries, not just about career opportunities won and lost, but the mothers they thought they knew.

OFF BALANCE takes the reader beyond the glitter of the stage to expose the sweat and struggle, amid the mandate to sustain the illusion at all cost.

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AUTHOR Q&A

1. Where did you get the idea for your most recent book?

That’s a trick question, because it’s my third novel of six that’s heading out into the world this month. But we’ll go ahead and call this novel both “my first” and “my most recent,” to keep life uncomplicated. Sound okay? So. Where did I get the idea? This is going way, way back. I wrote my first novel in 2002 about a ballet dancer who runs off to Africa to escape her problems, only to encounter thornier ones there. I spent over two years on it, lovingly crafting it, and while it didn’t earn me an agent, it impressed one enough to say “great stuff but a tough sell. Please keep me in mind, though, for the next one.” Well, two years and a polished manuscript later, turns out she hated the next one, but she still liked my writing enough to chat with me, discuss what she felt my strengths were as a writer. “Why not a ballet novel for the next one?” she suggested. “I loved what you wrote about ballet in your Africa novel. It’s a fresh topic [particularly back in 2006] and I think editors would take interest.” The conversation took place on a Friday afternoon, and I told her, with a confidence I didn’t feel, that “sure, I can make this happen! Let me tootle around with some ideas over the weekend and I’ll touch base early next week.”

Well. I am simply not that talented a creative writer. Essays, I can whip off in a few days’ time, but novels? Even the core idea? Yikes. I finished the call, wandered outside to my front yard, and began walking in small circles, thinking, shit – what have I done?” Because every aspiring novelist really, really wants an agent, and this was an agent I’d targeted as someone I wanted to work with, over two years earlier. I went to bed that night, mind blank, in a mild panic. Saturday, all day, I cast about for ideas with little success. And then, on Sunday in yoga class, it all came to me, spilling out like a tipped over jar of honey. An ex-dancer (like me). A rising star dancer (never like me, but ah, every dance student’s fantasy, right?). Romance (always my favorite writing topic). The struggle to actualize not just professionally but internally. The struggle to face the difficult things in life you keep running from (a recurring theme in all my novels). The way friendships can both nourish and challenge you. All amid the glorious backdrop of the ballet world, where I’d devoted so much of my time, energy, love and attention, through my adolescence and young adulthood.

In the course of one afternoon, OFF BALANCE was born. I tore out of that yoga class, hurried home, hastily sat down in front of my desktop and stopped writing only to make meals for my family, get some sleep, get my son off to elementary school and various mandated afterschool activities, but my mind was always, always, inside my story. Three months later I had it, the first draft of OFF BALANCE.

 2. What are you currently working on?

I’m tweaking Outside the Limelight, Book 2 of the Ballet Theatre Chronicles. It goes out for an edit in July, formatting in August, and its own pretty little cover in early September. Then it’s off for pre-pub marketing for a Nov 10th release date. After that, I get to pull out Black Ivory Tango, for some of my readers the novel they love the most. I think because it reads like a cross between Bridget Jones’ Diary and Out of Africa. Well. Probably a bad analogy. But you get that it’s set in Africa, right? White woman stumbles along in this new culture and ultimately embraces it [and the gorgeous African man she can’t stop thinking of]. It’s much more romance-based, in my mind, than the others. It was my first novel. I didn’t know what was happening as I wrote and wrote and wrote, about this African guy named Christophe, and Fiona, my main character, was just hopelessly, impossibly infatuated with him. I was, too. Never has a fictional character had so much hold on me. It’s not a well-formed novel, but everyone who’s picked it up has gobbled it down. It seems like my readers enjoy its honesty, its organic nature. (And, I’m going to guess, the sex scenes.) Christophe, as a character, is sexy and compelling, and Africa is such a weird place to live and write about. Working on that novel was like entering another dimension. So. Less ballet world, there, although Fiona is a ballet dancer, which is a curious vocation in provincial Africa. But I digress. Well, you asked, I told you. I’m working on making those two novels ready for market, for their late 2015 and 2016 releases, respectively.

3. What’s your advice for aspiring writers?

If you don’t love the process, really love to write, well, don’t do it. If you can’t not write, well, there you go. Write. The reward is in the journey, and journeys don’t pay well. I am okay with the fact that I’ve devoted an astonishing number of hours over the past twenty years to project after project, with very, very little income generated. We’re talking something like $2.00 a week for a thirty hour work week. But what do I get instead of money? Oh, wow. My spirit, soul and heart all sing when I’m engrossed in my work, or when I look over a finished product. It’s a good feeling like nothing else on earth. Over the years, I’ve tried the 9a-5p route, the sales representative route, the hotel and food/beverage industry route, the teacher route, and nothing, nothing, came close to nourishing me like my writing has. If that’s the way you feel, too, well, WRITE. But do this, too: try those other worlds, those other jobs. Bump along in the wrong place for a while. Nothing makes the right place resonate more than finding it after living in the wrong place/space for a while. And besides, if you’re going to be a writer, you have to have something to write about. Don’t go immersing yourself in your ivory tower, away from the real world, all the time. That’s escaping life. Writing shouldn’t be about escaping life. It should be about taking what’s tough, what’s unutterably beautiful, what’s baffling or enraging, and using your skills as a sensitive, thinking person, to craft prose that reflects how you feel about the world. Or that shines a new light on an issue, a problem.

Feel free to give a shout out to Terez! You can find here here:

http://www.terezrose.com

http://www.theclassicalgirl.com

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