It’s only a few days after the end of another grueling season for Smuin Ballet, and you’d think a company mainstay like Erin Yarbrough-Stewart would look exhausted. Instead, she’s still buzzing with restless energy. Onstage, the petite, titian-haired dancer can play serene or sassy. Offstage, she has a down-to-earth wit and an inviting sense of humor.
The 16-member Smuin Ballet is one of the hardest-working companies in the San Francisco Bay Area, employing its dancers for 37 weeks that include a busy touring schedule and a strenuous home season in which each dancer appears in nearly every piece. How does Yarbrough-Stewart make it through? DM talked with the dancer about her personal approach to staying fit.
Now in her ninth season with Smuin, Yarbrough-Stewart has performed in everything from Jirí Kylián to slinky sambas. She’s played a doomed Japanese wife, an all-American sweetheart, and a sultry tango dancer. But she’s not one to put her feet up on layoff.
“For three days after the season ends, I have to plan a lot of things to do,” she confides. “You’d think I’d want to just lie on the beach, but I’ve been working for so long. It’s been exciting, and I’ve been generating so much adrenaline. When the season ends, I still have all that energy, but there’s nowhere for it to go. For me, there’s the potential for a big letdown.”
To combat feeling listless or even depressed on her break, Yarbrough-Stewart lines up a schedule of physical activity—and lots of it. “I walk everywhere. I go to the gym, lift weights, do Pilates, yoga.” She admits that she does try to avoid dancing, “because I need to get away from it a little.”
Summer is also a time when Yarbrough-Stewart can address any weaknesses or injuries she’s acquired during the season. “For instance, I have an ankle that doesn’t really work anymore,” she says only half-jokingly. “So when we’re working, I kind of tape my foot onto the end of my leg and just keep going. But in the summer, I can spend a lot of time carefully and slowly strengthening it. We have access to Pilates training through the company, even on our break, so I do some work on the jumpboard, which is great because you don’t have the pressure of gravity and you can really focus on your alignment. I like to think of all the work in the summer as money in the bank for the next season.”
Planning ahead is a theme for Yarbrough-Stewart, who likes to start off her day with protein to fortify herself for Smuin’s demanding schedule.
“I have to have eggs every morning to get through the day,” she says adamantly. “If I miss dinner it’s not tragic, but if I don’t have a fairly substantial breakfast, I can’t function.”
And, of course, daily class is a must.
“I can’t just take class going through the motions—that’s uninspiring,” she declares. “I always want to be focusing on something. For me I’m always working on improving my jumps. Now, of course, by the end of the season I’m just trying to limp through and not hurt myself doing a tendu!”
Plan A and...Plan A
“Smuin is a small company, which is great, because there’s such a family feeling,” says Yarbrough-Stewart. “But there’s also not a Plan B if you get hurt. There’s a lot of pressure to just make it through.”
In a single night’s performance, she notes, there’s barely time to take a deep breath in between pieces. “You’ll do a big hair change, go from bare feet to tap shoes to pointe shoes—there’s no time to think,” she says. “So you have to have done all your mental preparation in rehearsal and then just be ready to go. It’s like a freight train once it gets going. Actually, once I get onstage, I sometimes think, Ah, now I can rest!”
Smuin takes good care of its dancers, offering them health insurance and access to an acupuncturist, chiropractor, and physical therapist (who is also a Pilates instructor). Yarbrough-Stewart believes that dancers should use these resources as much as possible. “Maybe because I’m over 30, I think you need to utilize all of the support that you can,” she advises. “Take advantage of physical therapy, and be proactive about taking care of small things before they become big. Don’t let it go because you’re tired. Preventive measures—those are things you don’t want to be lazy about.
“Contrast baths in the evenings are a big help—ice baths, and I’m such a baby about those,” she adds, biting her finger in mock anguish. “But you have to do it. If you don’t, you’re the only one to blame.”
Mary Ellen Hunt writes about dance and the arts for the San Francisco Chronicle.
To strengthen her back and activate her hamstrings, Erin Yarbrough-Stewart likes to use a Pilates mat exercise that resembles swimming. “You can do it pretty much anywhere,” she says.
• To begin, lie flat on your stomach with your arms stretched forward in front of you and your legs parallel behind you.
• Reaching out to full length, lift your right arm and left leg, and then switch to raise your left arm and right leg.
• Continue alternating in small pulses, as if you were kicking while swimming.
• Be sure to keep the line of your neck long, facing downward to the floor (forehead lifted slightly off the ground) and lengthening your spine.
Erin Yarbrough-Stewart rehearses with fellow company member John Speed Orr in Smuin Ballet’s studio. Photo by Kevin Sutter, Courtesy Smuin.