Never mind the “It’s-opening-night-and-I-forgot-to-rehearse” nightmare. What haunts dancers most is the specter of having to leave their art behind. There comes a day when all dancers must relinquish, in some form, the thing they love most, because they can no longer meet the rigors of the professional world or they have to reconcile themselves to the demands outside of it. Injury, age, family life, and economics are the biggest factors that drive dancers away, and there is never a shortage of ambitious dancers to replace them. In such a competitive climate, it’s hard to imagine coming back after leaving for any length of time.
But people have done it, and for some, leaving dance—whether by someone else’s choosing or by their own—was not only possible, it changed their thinking, and their dancing, for the better.
, the celebrated New York City Ballet principal-turned-artistic director of Miami City Ballet, has a story that will sound familiar to anyone who has ever battled with their parents over a dance career. At 10, he entered the School of American Ballet, but interrupted his dance training at age 16 to attend the Bronx-based New York Maritime Academy. Villella hadn’t wanted to go, but his father, who wasn’t comfortable with his son being a ballet dancer, insisted. “To give you an idea,” he says, “my father’s two best friends were former professional prizefighters.”
He earned a BS in marine transportation from the academy, where he lettered in baseball and became a championship welterweight boxer. But his senior year, when he was given leave at the school, he went into the city and began studying dance again. “I told my father, ‘I did this for you. Now I’m going to do something for myself.’ ” He returned to SAB following graduation in 1955, and in 1957, was offered a job with New York City Ballet, where he became a star in the Balanchine firmament.
He describes returning to dance after a long absence as “unbelievable,” both physically and mentally. “I had the conditioning of an athlete, not a dancer—that’s very different,” he says. He had to start all over again. He knew how to jump but not how to land, and he had to learn partnering on the fly. He rushed, and traumatized his muscles. He broke eight toes, and has suffered from a bad back and hip replacements. To this day, he counsels dancers who want to take time off to think long and hard about maintaining their conditioning, and to be guided by their own desires, not those of others.
However, although the choice was made for him, going to college did have its merits in the end. “I got discipline from it, and I wasn’t just buried in dance,” Villella said. “That was helpful, because dance can be so insular. It made me more mature, more aware of things. College is about learning to learn.”
, a dancer with Pennsylvania Ballet II, also took time off for college, but it was her decision, not her parents’. She had applied to colleges and auditioned for Pennsylvania Ballet her final year at SAB. When PBII offered her a job, she took it, although she initially wavered. “I feel that having a strong liberal arts degree can open a lot of doors,” she says. Some of her peers at SAB couldn’t understand why she’d think about turning down a job that other people would kill for. Luckily, she says, her parents agreed to back her up no matter what she decided, although they did suggest that she could defer college, since dance jobs don’t always come along readily.
After a year at PBII, she took time off to attend Providence College in Rhode Island, where she took class but didn’t perform. While she enjoyed school, it was there that she realized how much she missed dancing and how much she wanted to be a dancer. “I’m glad I took the time off,” she says. “I really needed a year to figure out what I wanted to do.” She returned to PBII with some trepidation, but director William DeGregory was supportive, and after readjusting to the rigorous pace, she felt at home. She’s now dancing full-time, with the long-term goals of starting an apprenticeship with Pennsylvania Ballet next year and dancing for as long as she can. She’s also taking a night class at the University of Pennsylvania, earning a history degree gradually so she has something to fall back on when she hangs up her pointe shoes.
The time off, she says, opened her eyes to a world beyond dance, and gave her a new perspective. “I’m not so concerned with other people’s careers and with jealousy issues,” she says. “I don’t let the little things get to me as much as I used to.” Being able to study and dance at the same time makes her happy, she can affirm. “Sometimes you need to step away and reevaluate your life.”
That’s what San Francisco Ballet principal Kristin Long did when two incidents sidelined her from the company. She broke her foot in November of 1996, took six weeks to heal, then discovered she was pregnant. At age 24, seemingly at the top of her game, she took an entire year off, aided by what she describes as a good relationship with artistic director Helgi Tomasson and her company contract. Though the decision must have looked like career suicide for some, Long actually felt it was well-timed.
“I was a little burned out—I had gotten to a place where I was being pushed to a new level, but I had some weight issues,” she says. “I still looked like a young girl. I was dancing to be thin rather than enjoying the art that I love so much.”
During the break, Long studied yoga, developed an interest in midwifery, caught up on her reading, and did the things she didn’t have time to do before. “I didn’t have fears. It’s odd, but I think I really needed it,” she says. “I was in New York at the time, so I wasn’t going to see the company and wondering about getting my job back. I had to let go of it.”
Her son Kai was born in August 1997. Three weeks later, she returned to class, and to her surprise, felt rejuvenated. “It was like starting fresh, getting rid of old injuries and discovering new things,” she says. “I went from being a mother to a young girl—it added a new dimension to my dancing.”
She acknowledges that taking time off isn’t easy, but says, “If you’re struggling or feeling burned out, it’s good. If you can do it in a way that you feel you can get your job back, I think it’s healthy, physically and mentally.”
That was Festival Ballet Providence’s Mark Harootian’s experience, despite the initial panic he felt when, last April, he broke an ankle rehearsing the Gypsy King role for Don Quixote. When it happened, “I was in denial,” he says. “I thought it was sprained, and I didn’t go to the doctor for two days. I’m a worker, a fighter.” When the news set in, “At first I was a little shocked. I thought, ‘Oh no, there goes that role.’ It was my kind of role. And then I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to get so out of shape. How can I stay in shape? Where can I take class? What about worker’s comp? What am I going to do financially?’ ”
He was out for five months and immobile until the end of June, after which he did physical therapy and cross-training exercises—the elliptical machine, jumping rope, and swimming. He’d already had two stress fractures when he was younger, along with the typical strains and tears, but he kept dancing on them, and recuperated during breaks. “You get kinda used to it,” he admitted. “I can’t remember a day without pain since I was 12.”
But this time—at age 24, after 16 years of dancing— Harootian said he tried to be a more conscientious patient. “Once you’re injured, all you can do is think about gaining weight, your job, all of that,” he says. “But I had the support of friends—I talked with them, and it helped me to go to the studio to watch, even though I wasn’t dancing.”
Festival Ballet is treated as an all-star company, he says, without the traditional hierarchy. Dancers are, theoretically, taken for their uniqueness. “But the truth is,” he says, “we can all be replaced.” Afraid that he wouldn’t be able to return at the level he once had, Harootian spent some of his time away considering other entertainment-related jobs, or becoming a physical therapist. But he also gained perspective on how much he loved to dance. “At first I was like ‘I don’t have to work? I’m going to watch all the Seinfeld reruns.’ But then it was like, ‘What do I do with myself?’ ”
About trying to rebound physically, he said, “It was terrible. It hurt. But mentally, I was all for it. I was going to the studio early, thinking about correcting my mistakes.” Best of all, being forcefully separated from dance reignited his passion for it: “I was like a little kid again,” he says, “like, ‘I can’t wait, I can’t wait, I can’t wait.’ ”
Heather Wisner, a former associate editor with
Dance Magazine, works for the Statesman Journal in Salem, OR.