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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.
Dancers often dis their bodies—but the habit may be more harmful than you think.
During a Nutcracker warm-up class a few years ago, I fell into a typical conversation with a co-worker at Charlotte Ballet:
“Oh my gosh, how can I be working this hard as Sugar Plum Fairy and still be this fat?” I said.
“Yeah, I feel like a potato standing on two toothpicks,” she replied.
As our mindless banter continued, I noticed a student in the wings listening in. What kind of lesson were we teaching her with our casual self-loathing? When I was a student, I was constantly pulled in to the principal’s office to discuss the “problems” with my atypical dancer’s body. I left that school full of resentment. So why, after a decade of dancing professionally, was I continuing to have these same lectures with myself?
Negative self-talk has become all too common in dance. It would be difficult to take two steps into any dressing room without hearing a dancer speaking disparagingly about her body. And these comments can hurt us more than we realize. In the studio, they shift our focus away from the choreography and to “Why is my turnout so terrible? Is everybody looking at my thighs right now?” We become the dancer who misses out on notes because she’s glaring at her hips in the mirror, the one her director doesn’t think of for a role because she doesn’t seem as “tuned-in” at work. What was once our passion starts to turn into an exhausting job that we feel under-qualified for.
Why We Do It
The inclination to criticize ourselves frequently begins around adolescence. As my Charlotte Ballet colleague Jamie Dee Clifton puts it, “As we decide we want to be professionals, we start taking stock of our bodies and how they compare to others in the professional world.” Since our bodies are our instruments, any perceived flaws become threats to our success, and we can begin to obsess over them.
“When you’re speaking negatively of yourself to a friend, it feels like you’re bonding,” adds Ashlan Zay, a 16-year-old student at Charlotte Ballet Academy. Unfortunately, the habit doesn’t end after we graduate. When I first got a job, I had this strange sense that if I didn’t talk about my flaws, I was somehow implying that I felt superior. So I became the kind of dancer who, in so many ways, says, “Don’t worry, I know I’m not any good, you don’t have to tell me,” as if this would deflect judgment.
Break the Habit
So what’s the solution? Mindfulness: The practice of being fully present in each moment while calmly accepting the thoughts and feelings you have about it. Performance psychologist Dr. Charlie Brown explains, “The thought itself is not bad; it’s our relationship to that thought.” He encourages dancers to “accept the fact that we have negative thoughts and decide on actions that are consistent with the values we strive to have.” Dancers need to be able to take constructive criticism. But we also need to distinguish between a workable and unworkable thought. For example, if I see that my foot is sickled in arabesque, I will lift my pinky toe. However, if I see that my bum is looking bigger than I want it to, I let that thought float away and immerse myself back into the choreography. “Your thoughts are not who you are,” Brown adds. “They are simply mental events.”
Brown suggests that we plan a strategy. If you know you’re likely to obsess over your body, decide on what you will do when you’re faced with that first negative thought in the morning: Maybe you’ll focus on musicality or dive into the nuance of the steps. When you notice a friend dealing with a bout of self-loathing, encourage him or her back into a productive headspace by changing the subject. Or replace their negative comment with an honest compliment about their dancing. Dr. Brown even suggests kindly asking, “How’s that thought working out for you?”
I’ve vowed to never let a young student or co-worker hear me speak disparagingly about myself again. I also try to limit my compliments to my peers’ dancing ability, instead of their bodies. This is a work-in-progress, of course. But it’s our responsibility to take the focus away from waist size. Zay told me she likes to apply a suggestion from her teacher Jeanene Russell Perry: “Tell yourself one good thing about your dancing, and if you’re ever having negative feelings in class, go back to that positive thought.” If mantras like this aren’t enough to help you out of the negative funk, consider speaking to a professional in sports psychology like I did.
It makes all the difference when we can enjoy what our bodies can accomplish. You’re in this body for your entire career, so make the journey as sweet as possible.
The author partners Jordan Leeper in rehearsal for a creation by Jirí and Otto Bubenícek. Photo by Otto Bubenícek, Courtesy Charlotte Ballet.
Within an hour of my first day as a professional dancer, I remember thinking, Maybe I’m not cut out for this. Dwight Rhoden was creating a new Carmina Burana on BalletMet Columbus, and every company dancer, trainee and apprentice was packed into one studio to audition. Arms and legs were thrashing around me, forming dozens of different versions of what Rhoden and his assistant demonstrated at the front of the studio. As a 20-year-old apprentice, I thought Rhoden’s choreography was spectacular—and I couldn’t retain one phrase of it. I hid in the back to avoid getting in anyone’s way as I putzed around with whatever steps I gleaned from my peers. How could I possibly stand out among this sea of talented dancers? I’d later find out Rhoden would use the full company, so I’d get a chance to perform. But that night I went home and sobbed, humiliated.
Nine years later, I was dancing for Charlotte Ballet, and Rhoden, our resident choreographer, auditioned us in the same style as before. Since he’d last seen me, I’d worked tirelessly to improve my technique, deepen my artistic abilities, build my confidence and to observe my peers, teachers, choreographers, conductors—anyone who could show me what was “good” and why. This time, I approached the audition with calm determination and a touch of abandon. As I left the studio, I caught bits of conversation among the younger dancers. They were frustrated, disappointed, embarrassed—everything I was at their age. I couldn’t help but tell them that I understood exactly how they felt.
Whether you’re a wide-eyed apprentice or a seasoned veteran, catching the eye of a guest choreographer goes beyond what we’ve been taught in ballet class. Over my career I’ve worked closely with hundreds of talented artists, and even had the opportunity to speak with choreographers about the kinds of dancers they’re captivated by. Applying these seven strategies has helped me become a more successful dancer than I ever thought possible.
Don’t Expect a Certain Outcome
Too often I hear dancers say, “I won’t be in the piece—there are only four spots, and I’m in the corps.” Or even worse, “Of course I’ll be in it, I’m a principal!” Realistically, guest choreographers don’t typically consider ranks during casting; they are simply looking for the best artist for the role. Whether you’re aware of it or not, your inner monologue will show on your face and in your body. Don’t sell yourself short by focusing on what you think is going to happen.
Be a Blank Slate
Do the work as it is presented, without affectations that may overwhelm new movement. Houston Ballet artistic director and choreographer Stanton Welch explains, “If a dancer’s body doesn’t naturally make a shape, I can change it; but if their brain doesn’t absorb what the shape should be, that can be very frustrating.” Pay attention to the choreographer’s top priorities, whether he or she is stressing the full height of 180-degree penchée or the pedestrian quality of a walk across the stage. That way, whatever artistic choices you make later will be relevant to the choreographer’s original idea.
Watch for Style Clues
“Pay attention to ‘how,’ not ‘what,’ ” says Rhoden. You may have done a thousand arabesques in ballet class, but how does this choreographer want you to do this arabesque? Observing how the choreographer moves will inform your approach. Are the steps rooted in clean, classical vocabulary, or more grounded? Does he or she start movements from deep within the core, or are they initiated by the extremities? Also pay attention to the words and sounds the choreographer uses: Most tend to describe their steps with verbs like “melt,” “carve,” “glide” or “slither,” which build a vivid mental picture of the images being created.
Look and listen for style clues, says Rhoden (here with Wendy Whelan). Photo by Jim Lafferty.
Show Your Intention
Once you’ve learned what’s most important to the choreographer, let your nuance and personality shine through. “Choosing dancers is more about who they are and what they convey than the shape of their body or how many pirouettes they can do,” says Canadian choreographer Peter Quanz. Dancemakers are looking for a glimpse of what will eventually be performed onstage—technique, emotion, musicality, artistry. Throw yourself into the work. Don’t be embarrassed to take movements to the extreme or make artistic choices in a room full of people. “Even if you forget some steps, just go for it!” Quanz urges. “Try it. Fall! Fall gloriously!”
There’s no need to push everybody out of the way—this usually comes off as more inconsiderate than eager. Instead, find a place in the studio where you can move freely, then give it all you’ve got. It won’t matter where you’re standing if you’re doing an exceptional job.
Accept your limits
There’s no way to know exactly what each choreographer is looking for beyond obvious qualities, like solid technique. I’ve been chosen for some roles because I’m curvy, and left out of others for that same reason. I’ve been cast for my grand allégro, or for being a brunette. There’s no reason to waste energy pretending to be anyone you’re not. “Perfection is overrated,” says Rhoden. Or, as Oscar Wilde put it, “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”
Use Your Losses
It’s convenient to say, “Of course she got the part instead of me...the director loves her!” But it’s a mistake to write off your peers’ accomplishments like that. Instead, pinpoint why you weren’t chosen, and get to work on fixing it if it’s something you can improve. One year I was cast as a second understudy for one of my dream roles. When I asked why I wasn’t chosen to perform, my director told me that the choreographer (who had cast the ballet using his memory of us from years before) “couldn’t imagine me” for the role. I used the rejection as fuel. The choreographer would be visiting one week before opening night, and I was determined to dance so well that he’d regret not casting me. I rehearsed earnestly by myself in the background for weeks. Finally in my first run-through for the choreographer, I danced my smaller soloist role with as much passion and conviction as I could muster. I was asked to do the principal role for the next run-through, danced it with everything I had—and was rewarded with two performances! When you take full advantage of your losses, success will always be around the corner.
Emily Ramirez is a dancer with Charlotte Ballet.