News

This Dance Couple Lost Their Home To a California Fire

Photo of the Woolsey fire via Instagram

A few days ago, a friend forwarded me the GoFundMe Campaign of Nikki and Ethan White, a dancerly wife and husband duo who escaped the California "Woolsey Fire" with their children but whose home burned to the ground. The couple had met while dancing for Smuin Ballet, and later were one of the top three finalists on Paula Abdul's TV show "Live to Dance." Today, they live in the Los Angeles area, where Ethan is researching how dance partnerships develop interpersonal trust at USC.

I spoke to Nikki about the fire, what comes next and how readers can help.


What warning did you have about the fire?

I woke at 6 am on Friday, November 9, turned on my phone and saw a flood of texts messages. I packed a suitcase and got the kids in the car. I didn't take nearly enough. I was in complete denial. Part of me kept thinking, "Of course I should take that!" while the other part thought, "Don't tell me I'm not coming back to my house, of course I'm coming back to my house."

Ethan stayed for a few more hours to pack the Nutcracker costumes—we had a show to put on in a week. We ended up getting separated by road closures with no power or cell reception. I took the kids (5 year old Dax and 2 year old Skye) to the Santa Barbara Zoo to keep them entertained.

What's the reality you're facing presently?

Our current reality is that we are not homeless, but we are displaced. Thankfully, we are surrounded by many families and friends that are willing to help.

The difficult part, of course, is losing our home. Every now and then I'll think of something I owned and I'll get a little pang in my heart knowing it's gone. That's where I rocked my babies to sleep, read them books, watched them play outside, watched them grow.

How are you managing the aftermath?

I initially didn't want to accept help, but with the encouragement of several friends I set up a GoFundMe campaign. I did not expect the outpouring of support that we have received, and can't look at it very often because it makes me cry. People from every facet of our lives have donated: school teachers, dance teachers, students, patrons, dancers, directors, comedians, friends and family near and far. I know that if and when someone is in need, I will be able to pay it forward because that is what so many people have done for us. We could not be more grateful.

What's next?

Honestly, I have no idea. We are still in shock. It feels like we might take some time to travel, teach, choreograph and reconnect with friends and colleagues. In the long term, we are going to rebuild our home, our neighborhood, and our community. It will take time, patience and a lot of perseverance, but dancers have these traits in spades.

How can readers help those affected by the fires?

Candidly, I would say that the most immediate way to help others in need is whatever monetary donation that you can give, as well as assurances that you are willing to be there throughout the recovery. Some feel a desire to give something tangible—clothing, toiletries, toys—and while a few of these are needed, getting too much is overwhelming. We just don't have anywhere to put all the things. If you have items you want folks to have, hang on to them! Especially bigger items that they'll need once they have a home. If you have space, offer to store things for people. But most importantly? Just be there. Even if those affected can't respond for a month, just reach out and say something kind. We need more kindness in the world.

Any other information you would like to share?

I have been building ballet "camps" where I teach classes, and at the end of the session we put on a condensed show. We were just about to perform a Gone Nutcracker show with over 60 local dancers, parents, 20 guest dancers and artists, and we have not given up on doing that show. The theater we were going to perform at is no longer accessible, but we will find another location. Art has always brought us closer to people, and it certainly bonded us to so many families in our Malibu community.

Have you or other dance colleagues been affected by the Camp and Woolsey fires? Share your stories in the comments below.

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Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

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2. Feel worthless and alone? You slump your shoulders, avoid eye contact with your teacher and fellow dancers, and wish to disappear.

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