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New York City Ballet continues its first year without Peter Martins at the helm as our spring season opens tonight.
When he retired at the start of the new year, we plunged headfirst into unknown, murky waters. Who would the new director be? When would we know? Would we dancers get some say in the decision? Who would oversee the Balanchine ballets? Who would be in charge of casting? Would a new director bring along huge upheaval? Could some of us be out of a job?
When I was 9, my ballet teacher chose me to perform a solo in our end-of-year performance. I was quite young, and was chosen over many of the advanced students. But I wasn't fazed—I was excited.
Then, I overheard some of the older girls talking: “Abi shouldn't be doing that solo." “I can't believe she's doing it." I still remember the tone of disgust in one girl's voice.
Such chatter is unfortunately part of growing up, particularly in the competitive ballet world. But I was completely crushed. Prior to this, I had no reason to doubt my abilities. But those older girls didn't think I was good enough. A seed of self-doubt was planted in my psyche.
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.
I'm a shy person. Carrying on a conversation has never been my strong suit. When I started ballet lessons at 6, I didn't talk to many of the other kids. I worried that I would say the wrong thing and they would laugh at me. But as I learned ballet, I realized that dancing made me feel free. I didn't have to talk to anyone. I had a new way to communicate my feelings. No one expected me to do anything except dance—and that I could do. The studio became my comfort zone.
A couple years ago, I went through a terrible performance season. I was taken out of my roles because my body didn't look good. My confidence was taken and my comfort was gone. Even though dance was my rock in life, suddenly, I didn't want to dance anymore. It was causing me pain that penetrated into the deepest places of my soul. I almost quit. For about six months afterwards, every day I had to stop myself from marching into the staff offices and quitting on the spot. I absorbed every negative thing said to me about my body and my dancing. Worse yet, I lost my method of communicating. In order to pick myself back up, I had to explore the reasons why I loved to dance.
It turns out that I love many things about ballet. I love watching it, teaching it and, of course, I love dancing it. I love the way dancing feels on my body. Going over choreography in my mind is better than daydreaming about what I would buy if I won the lottery. I love trying to think of creative ways to make the movement my own. I'll often go into an empty studio with the lights dimmed when no one is around. Playing with the choreography feeds my creativity. It makes me feel like I am exactly where I am meant to be.
My favorite moment of a performance is the split second when I shift from standing in the wings as a normal person to being a ballerina on the stage. Sometimes I get goose bumps when I cross this threshold. These moments are not about the audience, the music or the choreography. They are about me—all my hard work and my belief in myself. Each time I step onto the stage, it means I have summoned my courage once again to share my dancing with an audience. I don't have to worry about stumbling over my words. I can just be. I'm so glad I didn't let my disappointment take away these moments—they are what I live for.