Why I Became a Dancing "Super Commuter"
What lengths would you go to in order to further your dance career? For some of us, we're willing to build our life and work in two separate cities to make our wildest dreams come true.
I recently learned that there is a term for people like me who travel between two major metropolitan areas. We "super commuters" make the choice to ride regional buses and trains up to six hours round-trip, multiple times a week, in hopes of furthering our careers while maintaining our lifestyles and affordable rents.
This ambitious career style is not for the faint of heart.
I moved to Philadelphia to dance with BalletX in 2011, after seven seasons with Pacific Northwest Ballet. After an injury, the company released me from my contract mid-season. My husband had just started an organizational business after I uprooted him 3,000 miles for this job, so I felt pressure to remain in the city that had only recently become our home. But a lack of opportunity in Philadelphia pushed me to seek work elsewhere. I turned my gaze two hours north to the capital of the dance world, New York City.
I began commuting between the two cities up to five times a week. While this has required a great deal of dedication and caused a fair amount of back pain, the rewards have come back to me ten-fold.
In my first six months of commuting, I was hired at Steps on Broadway and Broadway Dance Center as guest faculty. I also became head of the contemporary dance department at Greenwich Ballet Academy (a 50-minute train ride north of New York). Additional opportunities have come in the form of choreography commissions for the Columbia Ballet Collaborative at Columbia University and chamber ballet company CelloPointe, plus master classes for the Second Avenue Dance Company at New York University, and speaking engagements for the Actors Fund|Dancers Resource, Gibney Dance's D.E.E.P. series and Hunter College.
Rehearsing Columbia Ballet Collaborative. Photo by Eduardo Patino, courtesy Kerollis.
In 14 months of super commuting, I've gained new inspiration that I wasn't finding in my home dance scene.
I've also found that I'm not the only dance artist who does this. After months of sharing the same barre in Nancy Bielski's morning pro ballet class at Steps with a lovely dancer named Catherine Gurr, we ran into each other on my regular 8 a.m. Bolt Bus. She has also been making the trek to stay in shape for auditions while studying comparative literature at the University of Pennsylvania.
"I wasn't, and still am not, sure what the future would hold, so this is a good way to prepare for a life outside of dancing while also preparing for a dance career," says the former Ballet West trainee. By super commuting, she's gained connections in New York, received greater feedback at auditions and even obtained a few freelance performance opportunities along her way. This summer, she will travel across the country to dance with a regional ballet company where she is being considered for an apprenticeship.
The author and Catherine Gurr after morning ballet class with Nancy Bielski
One common thread found among super commuters is how keen we are in using our time in transit strategically. You are actually more productive when confined to a seat without distraction for hours on end. I use the bus ride to catch up on lost sleep and work on my podcast, Pas de Chát: Talking Dance, and blog, Life of a Freelance Dancer. In fact, I wrote this story while traveling.
Dancers are best known for their physical endurance. It should come as no surprise that our kind also possesses impressive emotional drive as well. Many artists are willing to do most anything to live out their dreams. Though it takes a special kind to travel far and wide.
It's no secret that affording college is a challenge for many students. And for dancers, there are added complications, like the relative lack of merit scholarships that take artistic talent into consideration and the improbability of a stable salary to pay off loans post-graduation. But no matter your budget, a smart approach to the application process can help you focus less on money and more on your training.
According to Drexel University performing arts department head Miriam Giguere, figuring out the kind of financial assistance a school offers is just as important as navigating what kind of dance program you want. Here's how to incorporate finances into your decision-making process:
When dancers get injured, they often think they should eat less. The thought process goes something like, Since I'm not able to move as much as I usually do, I'm not burning enough calories to justify the portions I'm used to.
But the truth is, scaling back your meals could actually be detrimental to your healing process.
With her fearless demeanor onstage, it's easy to see how Washington Ballet apprentice Sarah Steele attracted the keen eye of former American Ballet Theatre stars Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel. Promoted mid-season from the studio company by artistic director Kent, Steele was cast by Stiefel as the lead in Frontier, his world premiere for The Washington Ballet, this past spring. For the space-themed piece, Steele donned a black-and-white "space suit" onstage, exhibiting dual qualities of strength and grace. Most evocative about Steele's dancing might be her innate intelligence—she was accepted to Harvard on early admission, and plans to resume her studies there in the future. But first, she'll dance.
Lots of college groups do stepping—a form of body percussion based on slapping, tapping and stomping—but Step Afrika! is the first professional dance company to do it. They are currently at New York City's New Victory Theater, presenting The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence, a show based on the painting series by Harlem Renaissance artist Jacob Lawrence about The Great Migration of the 1900s, when millions of African Americans fled the Jim Crow South and traveled by train to the North for a better life. The Great Migration transformed the demographics of the country, and Jacob Lawrence's paintings became famous for their bold color and evocative power.
We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.
But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.
A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.
Efficient movement is easy to recognize—we all know when we see a dancer whose every action seems essential and unmannered. Understanding how to create this effect, however, is far more elusive. From a practical perspective, dancing with efficiency helps you to conserve your energy and minimize wear and tear on the body; from an artistic point of view, it allows you to make big impressions out of little moments, and lasting memories for those watching.
So much struggle and determination goes into your training that it can be difficult for early-career dancers to recalibrate their priorities toward simplicity and ease, says Laurel Jenkins, freelance performer and Trisha Brown Dance Company staging artist. "Your aesthetic might shift, and you might have to find new things beautiful." Mastering the art of effortless movement requires a new perspective and a smart strategy—on- and offstage.
As we approach Thanksgiving, there's much to be grateful for. Perhaps one of the most important things on your list is dance. Whether you're a full-time company member, an aspiring professional, an audience member, or you simply delight in dancing in your daydreams, this art form is a creative escape.
That's not to say that being a dancer is easy: Pursuing such a competitive career can be heartbreaking, especially when you're faced with rejection.
La Folía, a short dance film by director Adam Grannick that was recently released online, echoes these sentiments in under 12 minutes.
It took two years of intense nutrition counseling and psychotherapy to pull me out of being anorexic. My problem now is that I've gained too much weight from eating normally. Is there no middle ground? I can't fit into my clothes, but I don't want to go back to being sick.
—Former Anorexic, Weston, CT
Whatever your feelings about Wayne McGregor's heady, hyper-physical choreography, we can all probably agree on one thing: We'd really, really love to pick his brain. And tomorrow, Dance Umbrella, a UK-based dance festival, is giving everyone the chance to do exactly that.
"Women are often presented as soft, fragile little creatures in ballet," says Léonore Baulac. "We're not." The Paris Opéra Ballet's newest female étoile is discussing her unease at some of the 19th-century narratives she portrays. "It was real acting," she says with a laugh of La Sylphide. "James kills her by taking away her wings, yet she tells him not to worry and goes to die elsewhere onstage!"
Sitting in the canteen of the Palais Garnier, Baulac embodies some of ballet's contradictions in the 21st century. With her fair curls and dainty features, she could easily pass for a little girl's fantasy princess. As Juliet, she exuded a girlish ardor that felt entirely natural; her reservations notwithstanding, her Sylphide was committed and carefully Romantic in style.
Yet the 27-year-old is no ingénue. At Garnier that day, her sweater reads "I can't believe I still have to protest this s**t," a feminist slogan; last winter, Baulac proudly wore it over a Kitri tutu on Instagram. And her repertoire is as thoroughly modern as she is offstage. A versatile performer even by Parisian standards, she is equally at home in Nutcracker as she is in the works of Pina Bausch and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.