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.
The coming weeks see not one, but two companies that can best be described as French cultural mash-ups landing at New York City's Joyce Theater.
It was a Christmas Eve that The Lion King dancer India Bolds will never forget.
Exhausted from a long week of performances, Bolds was clueless when she saw her cast mates randomly dancing in Broadway's Minskoff Theater lobby, and even more confused when they morphed into a choreographed flash mob. But when her boyfriend of four years, Dale Browne, popped up in the mob wearing a beautiful blue suit, she realized what was coming.
Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.
"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.
After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.
Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org
In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."
She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."
Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.
Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.
Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."
Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.
But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.
Back in the 80s, Molissa Fenley introduced a luscious, almost Eastern-feeling torque in the body that made her work compelling to watch. Her sculptural shapes and fierce momentum showed a different kind of female strength than we had seen. Now, as part of The Kitchen's series on composer Julius Eastman, Fenley has remounted her 1986 Geologic Moments, the second half of which she had developed with Eastman. The result, which premiered at Brooklyn Academy of Music, is a richly textured piece in both music and dance. (The first half has music by Philip Glass.)
When Paul Taylor created Beloved Renegade on Laura Halzack in 2008, he gave unequivocal instructions. She was the figure, sometimes referred to as the angel of death, who circles dancer Michael Trusnovec in a compassionate, yet emphatic way.
"He choreographed every single step for me," she says. "He showed it to me—do this développé, reach here, turn here, a very specific idea," she says. His guidance was that she be cool and sweet. Then, she says, "he just let me become her. That's where I really earned Paul's trust."
From the minute my journey as a dancer began at age 4, there were no other options of what I might do with my life.
Sure, I tried other "after-school activities." I tried desperately to master The Phantom of the Opera with my squeaky violin rental—a headache for my parents who paid for private Suzuki method lessons at our house. Constantly attempting famous show tunes on my violin, the effort was completely futile. I actually remember thinking, 'Surely this sheet music is wrong, this sounds nothing like the Phantom of the Opera.'
I even tried my hand at gymnastics. But when my mom's brilliant bribery of $100 for my first mastery of a kip or a back handspring didn't produce any results, we quickly threw in the towel.
When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."
But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.
From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.
New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.
A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.
Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.
In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.
When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series