From Sautés to Smokejumping: How Dance Preps Martha Schoppe to Fight Wildfires
Martha Schoppe likes to joke that ballet set her up well to enjoy activities that hurt your feet. “But it’s not really a joke,” she admits with a laugh.
Growing up, Schoppe learned to smile through the pain of pointe shoes. Today, her feet get trashed in fire boots: The Maine native is one of about 400 smokejumpers in the U.S.—and, she estimates, one of fewer than a dozen women in the job. These elite skydiving firefighters parachute into remote areas not accessible by roads in order to manage wildfires, hiking with 100-plus–pound packs on their backs through rugged terrain to reach their assignments.
“I guess you could say I’ve always been into things that require tedious training,” she says.
Schoppe began taking ballet and tap when she was 5 years old at a local studio. “It was based on Vaganova, so it was all fun and games when we were little, then around age 10 we started doing 16-count pliés on each side, at the barre and then in the center,” she says.
Schoppe fell in love with the discipline that the technique required, and the predictability of the combinations in each class. She spent her teenage years at the studio, performing with the youth company and assisting with children’s classes.
She continued dancing at Oberlin College where she majored in environmental studies. The modern-based dance program there introduced her to contact improv; she also took dance history and joined the school’s student tap company, though she fell one class short of earning a dance minor.
Along the way, she also tried other activities: In high school, she’d dabbled in cross-country running, and on a summer break from college, she began competing in timber sports, like logrolling. “That was kind of a fun translation because it’s about balance and being nimble and fast. My ballet teacher actually came over to a show,” she says.
After graduation, she knew she wanted to work in the outdoor industry, and found a job in a wilderness therapy program in Utah. There she was introduced to wildfires. During a season working on wilderness trails, she was trained in firefighting in case fire crews needed assistance over the summer. “I wasn’t attracted to it initially,” she says. “There is a lot of waiting around for those fires.”
But she was intrigued by the physical challenge, and tried firefighting for a season. She then realized that with all the overtime hours, she could support herself on six or seven months of work per year. “You kind of just give yourself to the work all summer—it’s nice not to have to try to balance out work and play, because it’s just all work,” she says. “And then in the winter, you have as much time off as you want.”
She began working on a district engine fighting local wildfires in Colorado, then joined a “hotshot” crew of 20 firefighters who travel together to major fires. She was eventually drawn to smokejumping because of the additional challenges of the highly selective position, plus the leadership opportunities and the freedom it offered (instead of being tied to a crew, you can take on assignments independently, and have more flexibility to set your own schedule).
Getting to parachute through the sky was a major bonus. “I’d never jumped out of an airplane before,” she says.
As she racked up experience, she stopped dancing for about 10 years. Then, one December, she ended up at a local Nutcracker performance, and afterwards she met the teacher who’d put on the production. She began taking the school’s adult classes, including a tap class “with a bunch of retired ladies who just wanted glitter and props for the recitals,” she says. “We had a grand old time.”
Schoppe believes that the mental fortitude that’s required on the job is something she’s built through both dance and trail running. (She’s completed several ultramarathons, including one that was 350 miles.) “In dance, you have to be so focused all the time. And on trails, you have to watch every step or you’re gonna be flat on your face. So everything else just kind of disappears. I love that.”
It’s something that’s come in handy when tackling the grueling tasks of her job. After smokejumpers land, their tools, food and water are dropped to them by parachute, and then it’s up to them to be completely self-sufficient for two days. On rare occasions, they’ll land in trees, or their cargo will, so they’ll have to climb up to retrieve it. When a call comes, smokejumpers try to be suited up and on the plane in less than five minutes. “You go from zero to 100 really fast. All of a sudden you’re jumping out of a plane and carrying 100 pounds with all the bags and the parachute and your gear and protection.”
Schoppe, who’s constantly cross-training to be as fast and strong and healthy as possible, still takes adult ballet classes when she has time—including a handful of masked, socially distanced classes during the pandemic. She finds that ballet continues to help her with body awareness. Recently, she noticed that when balancing on relevé, she had to pull up out of her leg more to keep her hips from hurting. Shortly after, she ran a 100-kilometer race and found that giving herself the same cue made it one of the most pain-free races she’s ever done. “Dancers have such good posture—it sets them up well for other kinds of movement,” she says.
Schoppe’s also not shy about breaking stereotypes. Though dance doesn’t often come up as a topic of conversation among her co-workers, she recently set straight a rookie who feared that his 7-year-old daughter wouldn’t be into the outdoor activities he enjoys because she loves her ballet classes so much.
“I was like, ‘I did 16 years of ballet,’ ” she says. “He lit up, so excited. Dance just opens up a whole window of possibilities.”