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Ache, Throb, Hurt
New York City Ballet principal Abi Stafford opens up about the frustrating, but unavoidable role of pain in a dance career.
Soaring through “Flower Festival in Genzano," from Bournonville Divertissements. PC Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB
My lower back went into spasm during a three-week tour to Paris with New York City Ballet this summer. I was dancing Sanguinic in The Four Temperaments, a role that requires the hips to be pushed forward in an exaggerated manner. Because of the raked stage, I was forced to dance with my shoulders placed even farther back than normal, and I could feel the extreme position compressing my lower spine. Yet with the excitement of performing in Paris, I pushed my hips forward with all my might, even though I sensed danger as each tiny back muscle slowly seized up. It felt like fingernails were pressing hard into each nerve. As I danced, I imagined each muscle turning red and gripping furiously. The spasm worked its way up, eventually taking over most of my back.
At the risk of sounding bleak, pain is simply a fact of life for dancers. Of course, not all pain is created equal. It varies from niggling bruised toenails to crippling torn ligaments. There is temporary pain from pulled muscles and chronic pain from tendonitis. Nerves make stomachs hurt. Performances make lungs burn, leg muscles cramp and arms tingle. And at the end of the day, exhaustion can bring on all-encompassing suffering.
Yet there is pain one can dance with, and pain that one can't. For me, lower back pain is nothing new. My first foray into back pain came after executing an overenthusiastic tour jeté, sending my back out of alignment while I was still a student at the School of American Ballet.
This time, as a 30-something, the pain was different. Earlier times when my back went out, the hurt was superficial. It would vanish after a quick adjustment from a chiropractor. Now, it was deep and muscular. I had a sense that my poor, angry muscles needed time to calm down. But I still hoped to get back to normal quickly. I diligently signed up for physical therapy appointments. I applied heating pads and ice packs. I popped Advil. I visited chiropractors and massage therapists. I bent from my knees to pick up my 1-year-old baby, keeping my back straight. (Unfortunately, that didn't make my back better but did split my favorite pair of shorts.)
Confidence gave Stafford more freedom onstage. Here, in Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream. PC Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB
Despite my best efforts, the pain didn't improve. I knew this wasn't the type of pain I should dance through. I was awfully close to looking injured onstage. But I continued to rehearse for my remaining performances anyway. It's not easy to admit you're unable to dance. I didn't want to feel like a failure. Others were managing to perform with injuries, so why couldn't I? I felt like I should have been able to prevent my injury, which was, of course, impossible.
By the end of the finale of Symphony in C during the last week of tour, it was clear that I had made my back much worse. After Paris, the company headed straight to a summer residency in Saratoga, New York. When we got there, I couldn't physically make myself dance. My body rejected ballet. All dance steps hurt, from tendu derrière to fourth position, and even simply running. So I finally gave in and let myself stop, rest and heal. About three and a half weeks later, the deep muscle pain finally subsided.
If I had rested sooner, I could've healed faster and danced more in the end—which is all I want in the first place. But since this career is so short, we all want to squeeze in as much dancing as we can muster before the final curtain comes down. Often the fear of not being able to dance when it counts feels worse than the actual injury. And perhaps somewhere deep down we know that physical pain is temporary, but the memories and the rewards of dancing will last forever. So, this type of existence isn't all bad. Although the pain is ever present, it becomes a badge of honor. An aching body post-performance signals tangible proof of a job well done. Sore muscles mean that stronger muscles are merely days away. Dancers hope that today's pain might help their work feel a bit easier tomorrow. It gives us confidence to trust that our bodies are strong and capable of performing difficult choreography each night. The pain reminds us that we continue to grow—and that hard work is never in vain.
A Deeper Pain
As much as our bodies can hurt, emotional pain can be much harder to handle. For me, paralyzing self-doubt set in after reading online ballet message boards early in my career. Some people cited the many different ways that I wasn't good enough. Others discussed how I shouldn't have been given the roles I was dancing. Unfortunately, I believed them—and I carried their words onstage with me. I imagined them in the audience and pictured what they would later write about me. I desperately wanted to prove them wrong, yet I was afraid that they were right. I performed accordingly: My lack of confidence translated to the audience, continuing the cycle of vicious comments.
Feelings of inadequacy are normal in this career. But I've realized that I can make my skin as thick as I want. People using anonymous handles are not experts on ballet. The critiques to listen to are the ones from those who have my best interests at heart, like my artistic director, ballet masters and teachers. At the end of the day, I can only be me. And if I don't like my own dancing, who will? Rather than trying to perfect my technique at this stage of my career, I plan to perfect my confidence. Instead of seeking out fans on the internet, I've decided to become my own biggest fan.
Never did I think I'd see the day when I'd outgrow dance. Sure, I knew my life would have to evolve. In fact, my dance career had already taken me through seasons of being a performer, a choreographer, a business owner and even a dance professor. Evolution was a given. Evolving past dancing for a living, however, was not.
Transitioning from a dance career involved just as much of a process as building one did. But after I overcame the initial identity crisis, I realized that my dance career had helped me develop strengths that could be put to use in other careers. For instance, my work as a dance professor allowed me to discover my knack for connecting with students and helping them with their careers, skills that ultimately opened the door for a pivot into college career services.
Here's how five dance skills can land you a new job—and help you thrive in it:
When you spend as much time on the road as The Royal Ballet's Steven McRae, getting access to a proper gym can be a hassle. To stay fit, the Australian-born principal turns to calisthenics—the old-school art of developing aerobic ability and strength with little to no equipment.
"It's basically just using your own body weight," McRae explains. "In terms of partnering, I'm not going to dance with a ballerina who is bigger than me, so if I can sustain my own body weight, then in my head I should be fine."
I always knew my ballet career would eventually end. It was implied from the very start that at some point I would be too old and decrepit to take morning ballet class, followed by six hours of intense rehearsals.
What I never imagined was that I would experience a time when I couldn't walk at all.
In rehearsal for Nutcracker in 2013, I slipped while pushing off for a fouetté sauté, instantly rupturing the ACL in my right knee. In that moment my dance life flashed before my eyes.
Last week in a piece I wrote about the drama at English National Ballet, I pointed out that many of the accusations against artistic director Tamara Rojo—screaming at dancers, giving them the silent treatment, taking away roles without explanation—were, unfortunately, pretty standard practice in the ballet world:
If it's a conversation we're going to have, we can't only point the finger at ENB.
The line provoked a pretty strong response. Professional dancers, students and administrators reached out to me, making it clear that it's a conversation they want to have. Several shared their personal stories of experiencing abusive behavior.
Christopher Hampson, artistic director of the Scottish Ballet, wrote his thoughts about the issue on his company's website on Monday:
We all know that companies too often take dancers for granted. When I wrote last week about a few common ways in which dancers are mistreated—routine screaming, humiliation, being pressured to perform injured and be stick-thin—I knew I was only scratching the surface.
So I put out a call to readers asking for your perspective on the most pressing issues that need to be addressed first, and what positive changes we might be able to make to achieve those goals.
The bottom line: Readers agree it's time to hold directors accountable, particularly to make sure that dancers are being paid fairly. But the good news is that change is already happening. Here are some of the most intriguing ideas you shared via comments, email and social media:
With dancer and choreographer credits that cover everything from touring with Beyoncé to music videos and even feature films, Tricia Miranda knows more than a thing or two about what it takes to make it. And aspiring dancers are well aware. We caught up with the commercial dance queen last weekend at the Brooklyn Funk convention, where she taught a ballroom full of dancers classes in hip-hop and dancing for film and video.
How To Land An Agency
"At times with the agencies, they already have someone that looks like you or you're just not ready to work. Look has to do with a lot of it, work ethic and also just the type of person you are. Do you have personality? Do people want to work with you? Because you can be the greatest dancer, but if you're not someone that gives off this energy of wanting to get to know you, then it doesn't matter how dope you are because people want to work with who they want to be around. I learned that by later transitioning into a choreographer because now that I'm hiring people, I want to hire the people that I want to be around for 12 or 14 hours a day.
You also have to understand that class dancers are different from working commercial dancers. A lot of class dancers and what you see in these YouTube videos are people who stand out because they're doing what they want and remixing choreography. They're kind of stars in their own right, which is great for class, but when it comes to a job, you have to do the choreography how it's taught."
Houston's METdance and the Dallas-based Bruce Wood Dance have teamed up to commission a new work from Dallas native (and former Dallas Black Dance Theatre artistic director) Bridget L. Moore. The two contemporary companies will take the stage together in Dallas at Moody Performance Hall on March 16 and at Houston's Hobby Center for the Performing Arts on April 13–15. Visit brucewooddance.org and metdance.org for details on the respective engagements.
Onstage, Clifton Brown is a force of nature. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater dancer joined the celebrated company at 19, in 1999. In 2011, he left to dance with Jessica Lang Dance and Lar Lubovitch Dance Company before returning to Ailey last year. Brown has been trying his hand at choreography on the side, but this week his first larger work—a commission from The Washington Ballet artistic director Julie Kent—premieres on a program of new works by choreographers who still perform.
Brown will take a day or two away from the Ailey company's rigorous tour schedule to see TWB dancers perform his Menagerie, danced to Rossini's Duet for Cello and Double Bass in D Major, at Washington, D.C.'s Harman Center for the Arts. We caught up with him last week in Chicago.
Once Adriana Pierce caught the choreography bug as a teenager, dancemaking came naturally. More difficult was navigating the tricky situations that would arise when choreographing on classmates and friends. "If a rehearsal didn't go well, I'd worry that people didn't respect me or didn't like my work," says Pierce, who went on to participate in the School of American Ballet's Student Choreography Workshop twice, at 17 and 18. "I had a lot to learn: how not to take things personally, how to express what I wanted, when to push and when to back off."
Choreographing on your peers can feel intimidating. How can you be a leader in your own rehearsals when you're dancing at the same level the rest of the time? How can you critique your cast without hurting feelings? Avoiding pitfalls takes commitment and care, but the payoff is worth it.
Ever since we heard that Michaela DePrince's memoir, Taking Flight, was going to be a movie, we've been on the edge of our seats waiting for more info. Almost three years later, it's been worth the wait—we just learned that the Queen of Pop herself will be directing DePrince's biopic.
"Michaela's journey resonated with me deeply as both an artist and an activist who understands adversity," Madonna said in a statement. "We have a unique opportunity to shed light on Sierra Leone and let Michaela be the voice for all the orphaned children she grew up beside."