There's always that fateful day each year, usually in February or March, when ballet contracts are renewed. Dancers file into an office one by one, grab an envelope and sign their name on a nearby sheet of paper to signify the receipt of their fate. Inside that envelope is a contract for next season or a letter stating that their artistic contribution will no longer be needed. This yearly ritual is filled with anxiety and is usually followed by either celebratory frolicking or resumé writing.
Whenever I received my contract, I would throw up my hands joyfully knowing that I would get to spend one more year dancing. In 14 years at Boston Ballet, I never once looked at my pay rate when signing a contract. The thought of assessing my work through my salary never crossed my mind.
Dancers are physical communicators. It is both our profession and our passion. But what happens when the music stops and there is a break in rehearsals?
Our communication doesn't end when the choreography is completed. The truth is, the way you act at rest can make or break your career. Ballet masters, choreographers and artistic directors see meaning in all forms of body language, not just those that happen while the music is playing.
From their first moments in the studio, female ballet dancers are taught to hold themselves upright and control each movement of their body with intense precision. Yet in partnering, these rules of independent practice are challenged. Sasha Janes, Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music faculty member and partnering coach, offers some tips for how female dancers can navigate this change in approach.
(For tips for male ballet dancers, click here.)
In the ballet world, the phrase "going to college" is sometimes regarded as the musings of a dancer who's not really serious about their craft. Although schools like Juilliard and Bennington College have made degrees acceptable for modern dancers for decades, the competitive ballet world (which often follows a philosophy of "the younger the better") tends to discourage higher education.
But some ballet students just don't feel physically or emotionally ready to join a professional company at age 18, and others simply don't want to miss out on the college experience. So they choose to pursue an undergraduate dance degree to continue their ballet training in an academic atmosphere.
Entering the corps de ballet can be a shock for recent graduates: What's needed by your company is suddenly much different from what helped you succeed as a student. Dance Magazine recently spent a day with some corps members from Boston Ballet, so we asked a few of the dancers for their top tips for success.
Even before I began my 14th season with Boston Ballet last fall, I knew I wanted it to be my last. I had taken the summer layoff to analyze my career, weighing my casting heartaches with my performance successes. I noticed that as I watched my colleagues dance, I felt more inclined to spend time encouraging their artistic success than fighting for my own. Plus, the timing would be cinematically perfect: The Sleeping Beauty was the very first ballet I performed as a child in 1991, and it will be the last full-length of Boston Ballet's season in May 2017.
Photo courtesy Boston Ballet
I kept this decision a secret until my director called me in last September to inform me that he also thought this would be a good time to retire. I left his office unsure of whether I had finally communicated my feelings or just received notice that my career should end. Still, more relieved than sad, I now had the date of my final performance.
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The term "stage parent" carries some seriously bad energy in the dance world. We think of parents aggressively fighting for their children to get cast first, perform more and constantly be in the front of the studio.
A stage mom or dad can become so involved in their child's career that they develop a symbiotic state of nervousness and desire for perfection in every step.
But having a stage parent isn't all bad. There are major benefits to having your own cheerleader. In the competitive dance world, a loving, informed friend who is perpetually on your side is hard to come by and even harder to count on.
Some stage parents are the best: Daniil and Dmitrij Simkin.
When the relationship works, the child finds success doing what he or she truly loves to do as the proud parent looks on with genuine support. But when it doesn't, unexpressed emotions will lead to a massive level of resentment.
So what can you do?
Advice for Parents:
Photo by Rachel Papo for Pointe
-Check in with your son or daughter and make sure they love what they are doing before you push them to do more of it.
-Give them space to learn for themselves. Mistakes make us all grow. You will probably be right in the end (parents often are) but give them room to figure that out for themselves.
-If your child discovers dance is not for them, but they have chosen to participate in a show or signed up for a certain number of classes, discuss the value of following through with their commitments.
-Once they have a job and are of age to do so, let them live on their own. When a child begins intensely training for a dance career, it is hard to develop the social skills necessary to make lasting friendships, especially if their parent is such a powerful lifeline. You can still be there for them, but they need peers to thrive.
-If you have sound advice to give, share it—but do so realizing that you are their parent and not their teacher, partner or artistic director. They know what life is like in the studio every day; you do not.
-Encourage your dancer to be as well-rounded as possible. A full life leads to fuller dancing, not to mention providing a necessary back-up plan.
-Know that with every step they take, you are the source of their beautiful life. Also know that the more you experience your own life, the more you will have to talk about together.
Advice for Dancers:
Photo by Rachel Papo for Pointe
-Frequently assess whether or not you love what you do. If the only times you think about dancing are when you are in the studio or theater, it's possible that a career in the field is just not right for you.
-Be honest with your feelings. If you're no longer passionate about dancing, sit down to talk about it with your parents. Listen to their response and be honest and true to your feelings.
-Do not send your parents in to fight your battles for you with your director. Not only are you missing a valuable learning opportunity, but you are developing a dependency that could prove to be detrimental later on.
-Tell your parents you are grateful for the sacrifices they made for your career. Don't let your dancing represent your thanks. Speaking your thanks will free your dancing to exist on its own.
-As you get older, seek out the space you need to grow. These conversations are always hard. Perhaps you need to take a break from constant communication or limit the scope of information you share. Make time to talk about your parent's life, and keep your work to yourself for a while.
-Remember that love is behind every push and shove, and that parental love will always be there no matter what.
Is it time to break away? PC Thinkstock
Every dancer's career comes with disappointments. Maybe you're not getting cast in the roles you crave. Maybe you realize the promotion you're dreaming of will never come. Maybe you simply don't feel like you're living up to your potential.
But there has to be some balance to our labor of love. How can you know if you're just in a slump, or if it's time to change companies? How do you know if the negatives are outweighing the positives? Here are seven signs that you should possibly consider looking for a new dance job.
1. You're no longer receiving corrections or feedback on your performances. Every artist—in every field—needs feedback to progress. If you're not being pushed, or the artistic staff isn't responding to questions about your personal performance, there might be a bigger problem.
2. Your rank is ruining your relationship with dance. Are all your peers soaring ahead of you? If you know you are truly working your hardest and still feel like you're getting left behind, you might not be in the right environment. A different company could be a better fit for your strengths.
An outside project might be all it takes to feel fulfilled again. PC StockSnap
3. Extracurricular projects no longer fill the casting void. Sometimes when our dance career is in a slow phase, we can fill our time with outside projects like guestings, choreography, workshops, teaching, taking extra classes, etc. But if these activities aren't enough to satisfy you artistically or help you grow, you might need a bigger change than just another new side gig.
4. You can't talk to artistic staff. There are communication failings in every industry, but you shouldn't feel like you are constantly at odds with an "us verses them" mentality. Dancers need to be able to raise concerns about their needs, physical pains and career goals in a safe and empathetic environment.
Find a company that offers you tools to be your healthiest self. PC StockSnap
5. You can't be your healthiest physical self. Every company has its own dynamic when it comes to unspoken expectations for physical health and well-being. You know your body better than anyone—it's your instrument. If your current company is demanding more than you can physically offer, find one that will provide you with the tools you need to create your longest, healthiest career possible.
6. You no longer believe in the artistic direction of the company. Every company goes through changes in artistic vision, whether it's due to finances, artistic leadership or societal influences. Find out the planned repertoire for next season and figure out how your dancing fits into that vision. If you feel like it's no longer a good match for you, don't stay just out of complacency.
7. You realize there is no clear path forward. Artistic leaders are not mind readers. Carve out appropriate opportunities to share your career goals with your director. Assess whether or not your vision for yourself aligns with theirs. Your director should be able to articulate their plan for your career's trajectory. Ask what you can work on to improve and never turn down an opportunity to learn a role that will stretch you artistically. But if your director doesn't see your career headed in the direction you want, take the reins into your own hands.
Ballet and scoliosis might seem incompatible. But Boston Ballet principal Anaïs Chalendard, who was diagnosed with severe scoliosis at age 14, says this is a misconception: “Quality strength comes from ballet," she argues. “The doctors were so amazed at the way ballet was such a good balance of work and freedom."
Instead of undergoing surgery as a teenager, she chose to spend 22 hours a day in a full torso brace for five years, just so that she could spend two hours a day dancing at Roland Petit's Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Danse in Marseille. “Ballet was my therapy," she says. “Scoliosis also influenced my way of dancing because, in ballet, I felt so free."
During those years, Chalendard regularly trained in the Mézières Method for breathing and posture. Practitioners hold a series of precise postures while segments of the body are mobilized into alignment. Tight muscle chains are stretched to allow for the greater strengthening of the core and leg muscles. The approach helped Chalendard learn how to relax the muscles around her rib cage, allowing her body to adapt to her unique spinal structure.
Although she was unable to find a Mézières practitioner in the U.S., she still incorporates Mézières principles into her dancing today. She also practices Pilates daily. The emphasis on deep lateral breathing while mobilizing the spine and rib cage has improved her spinal strength, and helps her find her center of balance more easily.
Every day, her center is in a different place. Finding it is crucial for avoiding spasms. She assesses her spine before she even gets out of bed in the morning, but most important is warming up properly at barre. “If I don't have enough port de bras and balances at the barre, it's fatal," she says.
Yet Chalendard insists that scoliosis is not a restriction. “Scoliosis is something I need to be aware of, but thinking about it constantly is not a solution," she says. “I actually ignore it on purpose. Yes, it affects me, but it is also a choice to let it be a part of me. All dancers have a way of working around their limits—that is what makes your movement unique."
Keep your body strong through pregnancy for a faster recovery.
During the first weeks of Boston Ballet's 2014–15 season, I began preparing for the most challenging role I could imagine: I was going to be a mother. To stay in the best shape possible, I took class every day, working on all the elements of technique that my changing silhouette would allow (mainly, footwork and port de bras), and kept up a schedule of low-intensity cardio. Even on the day I went into labor, I gave myself a barre in the kitchen and did 30 minutes on the elliptical.
There was a time in the ballet world when pregnancy and dance were mutually exclusive, one virtually mandating the absence of the other. That day is gone. The understanding of the dancer body is evolving, careers are getting longer and audiences and dancers alike now appreciate the artistry that develops through the process of motherhood.
Photo by Igor Burlak.
But it's not easy. “Pregnancy is a time of tremendous anatomic and physiologic changes," says Dr. Bridget Quinn, one of the physicians on Boston Ballet's medical team. Your ligaments get looser. Your center of gravity changes. You become short of breath more easily. Your body needs more nutrients and requires more rest after physical activity. It's a lot for a dancer. But with diligent training, you can prepare for both a healthy labor and a quick recovery.
Cross-training While Pregnant
“Dancers are so used to pushing through physical issues like fatigue and pain, but pregnancy is a time to listen to your body," says Heather Southwick, director of physical therapy at Boston Ballet. She suggests pregnant dancers take up swimming for its low-impact cardiovascular benefits and its ability to increase circulation, muscle tone and endurance. She also tells dancers to practice ballet steps in the weightless pool environment. On drier ground, she recommends side-lying exercises to work hip abduction and gluteal strength, allowing for greater hip stability during recovery.
As the weight of the baby shifts your postural alignment, the spine can begin to sway painfully. For this reason, Marika Molnar, director of physical therapy for New York City Ballet, suggests practicing prenatal Pilates to help maintain proper spinal alignment and pelvic placement.
Mostly, dancers need to be aware of what their changing bodies can handle. I was told I could largely keep my pre-pregnancy routine as long as I was working within my limits. As I took class, I remained mindful of my shifting center of balance, my turns gradually became relevés and I stopped jumping after 20 weeks as directed by my PT. I also drastically slowed the pace of cardio workouts, and made sure to stretch my hip flexors and psoas to maintain flexibility and take pressure off my lower back.
After the baby is delivered, Southwick suggests dancers pay extra attention to the muscles in their pelvic floor. These muscles, important for balance, stability and continence, undergo significant stress during the carrying and delivery of a baby—the area can become weak and stretched as early as 12 weeks into your pregnancy. Prolonged contractions of these muscles as well as quick pulses while sitting or walking will help strengthen them. I made a point to do at least 10 quick and 10 slow pelvic contractions every breastfeeding session—this paced out the work and ensured consistent daily improvement.
While traditional core work is discouraged for the first six weeks postpartum, the knitting together of the abdominals can begin almost immediately following most pregnancies. Starting three weeks after my labor, I began each morning by doing a modified Pilates 100s while lying flat on my back, with my feet, legs and head on the floor. I used only my breath to engage my abs as they gradually regained their ability to function. By the time my son was six months old, they felt stronger than ever before.
Today, I also feel like I am a better dancer than ever before. It took me three months to recover to full rehearsal duty at Boston Ballet, and after two more, I was back onstage as our season opened, feeling so excited to perform. Having my son has given me a fuller arsenal of life experience to draw from, plus a new awareness of the physical work involved in making a ballet body.
A focus on strengthening the shoulder girdle (the muscles between your shoulder blades) is paramount for preparing the body for the not-so-balletic postures of breastfeeding. As I began walking on the treadmill during my recovery, I would engage my traps and parascapular muscles by doing a five-minute series of arm and back exercises—it not only improved my posture but kept me entertained on the treadmill.
Tip: Marika Molnar also suggests adapting your breastfeeding posture by supporting your arms with pillows, for example, to improve your upper-body placement.