Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Auf Wiedersehen, SB!

     I started these blogs by writing an entry about the most commonly asked questions I tend to receive as a ballet dancer. It's a glamorous world on the outside. People always want to know what its like on the inside. Looking in as an outsider all you see are beautiful people everywhere with incredible bodies, performing in stunning costumes with perfect hair, dancing to harmonious music, and bringing audiences to tears. We are a wonderful breed; wonderfully weird. Always laughing and joking around yet when it comes to our work, our bodies, our craft, we take it very seriously. We are individuals coming from foreign countries. Yet we all share the same passion and roughly the same story of how we came to achieve our successes. We understand one another like no one else does. Not even our parents (unless they were dancers themselves) truly understand what we go through and why we go through it. I remember as a teenager, being in the car with my mom and crying over something ballet related. I probably messed up a pirouette or something insignificant like that, but I was so deeply and genuinely upset about it. She hated seeing me so distraught over something so small, and she said to me, "You know Daisy, you can always quit. You don't HAVE to do this." In between sobs I replied, "You don't understand Mom! I CAN'T just quit!"
     I was right. I couldn't just quit. I didn't want to "just quit". Something kept me going. The little successes here and there, the feeling of accomplishment, all out-weighed so many of the cons against ballet that I kept going. I kept going all the way to Germany and then all the way into a professional ballet company. I made it. I made it to one of the most prestigious companies in the world. What an amazing feeling that was. I'll never forget that meeting, the day I found out I got a Corps de Ballet contract with the Stuttgart Ballet. My director, Reid Anderson, called me in to his office. I walked into his cold, air-conditioned office filled with anticipation and anxiety but before I even sat down he said to me, "You got the job!" I started jumping up and down and replied, "Are you serious?!" It was such a happy day. All my hard work finally paid off. All the tears were worth it in that moment. I had no idea what was yet to come, but I remained hopeful. Toni Bentley puts it best in her book "Winter Season", describing her acceptance into the New York City Ballet, "That was a great day, the day my future was decided... I did not realize what a deeply sad day it actually was- the end of a dream and the beginning of reality."
     Company life is as hard as they say it is. I tried to brush many things off but there is only so much you can take. The physical demands took a toll on my body and the mental demands weren't worth it to me in my mind. Reality definitely hit hard and the fairy-tale story of what I thought my ballet career would look like started to slowly die, as I accepted my place in the company.
     I decided I needed to make a change. I don't blame anyone else for my dissatisfaction but myself. I put this pressure on myself, telling myself I wasn't good enough or skinny enough that eventually it went from being a mere paranoia to a harsh reality. It's like I started subconsciously self-sabotaging my own career. I told myself I didn't care if I wasn't cast in ballets, that I wasn't bothered by it. I have my "outside life" and "outside friends". My life doesn't revolve around ballet anymore. It hurt less that way when cast lists came out and my name was nowhere to be found.
     The life of a professional ballet dancer is short. Mine I simply chose to make even shorter. I know that when I look back on my time in Stuttgart Ballet I'll have nothing but fond memories. There were plenty of downs and moments of doubt, but there were also so many amazing and positive experiences that I'll treasure always. I got to travel the world with my friends, dance beautiful ballets, wear gorgeous costumes. I got to act like a slut, a princess, a virgin, a ghost, and a swan. I danced at the friggen Bolshoi! When asked if I'd do it all again, I'd answer without a shadow of a doubt, Hell yea! I'm a dancer at heart, and I always will be.

Friday, November 29, 2013

The naked family

      As I've mentioned before we dancers can be very open. We say what we think and how we feel with intimate detail. We touch each other in places usually reserved for couples in the privacy of their own homes. But where is the line exactly? If the conversations at the breakfast table about bowel movements, or the vagina lift first impression I give to guys in bars isn't enough, there's more. I believe there are two types of families. Naked families and non-naked families. The naked family is the family that is totally comfortable with being naked around each other. "Morning son!" says the father as he strolls into the kitchen ever so comfortably in his birthday suit to start making his breakfast of bacon, eggs, and sausage? Then there's the other type of family, more conservative. You saw your moms boobs when you were still young enough to call them dinner, but that's about as far as it went. In the ballet family, ours is definitely the former.
     With quick changes and costume malfunctions galore there's really no time for shame. All there is to do is strip off and hop on board. As a newbie this can be a bit intimidating. But the longer you're in the company the more open and comfortable you get with being naked around your colleagues in the dressing room. I'll never forget my first season, I was hiding in the corner in the girls changing room with a towel wrapped around my body as I tried to awkwardly with one hand hold the towel up and with the other pull down my leotard to my ankles and shimmy out of it. Meanwhile, this girl who'd been in the company for ages already, is chatting away about her taxes or the weather or whatever she was talking about, completely au naturel. As I struggled to remain covered up, I kept intense eye contact with her as to show that I was totally cool with it and was in no way going to look down south. She kept going, and as she gets more and more into her story she starts demonstrating exactly what she's talking about with grand gestures, jumps, and twirls. Still wondering where that line is? Yea, I was too.
     I got over the naked charade stories fast and embraced the nudist lifestyle in the changing room. We've all seen it before, we all have the same things. No big deal. I started to like this free spirit feeling. Until of course, the line was in fact crossed. I don't mind seeing naked girls walk around the changing room, hell, if you want to sew your pointe shoes and try them on stark-naked, be my guest (that actually happened too). But I really do not need to see ANYONE pee. Yep, one girl claiming that she's "too lazy to close the toilet stall door" decided that it was somehow OK to pee with the door wide open. I walked in on her a couple times and all she'd say was "Opps, sorry!" and look up at me like an innocent little puppy that just peed on your carpet and has no idea that it did anything remotely wrong. What are you supposed to do in that situation? There's no "code of conduct" for accidentally walking in on your work mate peeing, is there? I know we're open, artsy types of people but the line has definitely been crossed and I have now seen things that I cannot un-see!
     In a world where our bodies are our art form, where real men wear white tights instead of suits, and women pee in front of one another, the lines are blurry. But that's what makes the best stories and keeps life interesting. And gives me more material to write about. 

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Tour Life

     Tours are fun*. They can also be stressful. Traveling in a huge group one tends to expect and accept a certain amount of chaos. Even within a German ballet company. The chaos may be already factored into the schedule, but its definitely still there. There are so many things to organize and so many people to keep track of, its nearly impossible for things to run seamlessly.
     We definitely don't travel light. We have our director, his assistants, our ballet masters, our technicians, our "maske", a select few from the press department, our set, our costumes, make-up, and a ton of pointe shoes that all travel with us. Traveling together is part of the fun. We are such a wonderfully weird group of individuals, when put together we forget how to conduct ourselves in the real world. Walking down the aisle of the plane you'll see legs flying in the air, feet twirling in circular motions. Dancers congregating and stretching at the back of the plane, a free drink in hand (thank you Lufthansa), and the stewardesses yelling at us to "Please return to your seats!".
     Yes, tours are definitely fun. The second we all get to a new hotel and get our assigned rooms we get out our phones and take down each others room numbers. You know, because God forbid we should get separated from each other for a few hours! The hotels we stay in are usually pretty nice. Breakfast is a big deal, if the breakfast is good we love the hotel. If the breakfast is shit, we hate the hotel. If breakfast isn't included, just don't talk to me, I'm that upset about it and will continue to be for the rest of the tour.
     It always takes a certain amount of time before you really settle into a place and get your head around things. It's like traveling anywhere, it takes time to get your bearings. Once one person in the company discovers a cool cafe or restaurant, suddenly everyone's all over it. "Did you hear? There's a really good sushi restaurant right around the corner from the hotel. It's so good, and cheap!". Suddenly that "really good sushi restaurant" becomes our canteen. It's funny because we all pretend like we don't want to be around each other all the time. We complain about being sick of each other, but I think deep down we know that we'd actually really hate to be completely separated and alone. Especially on tour. Correction: Especially on tours to Asia.
     Asian tours are always the greatest, well, they make for the best stories anyways. "Lost in Translation" doesn't even begin to describe the looks that some people have on their faces the first time they get off the plane and arrive in China. It's definitely another world from the one we're used to. We've done class in some interesting studios. Some have been massive, so big we could fit three of our companies in one room. While others have been so teeny tiny that one can't even bend forward without hitting the person in front of them in the butt. The floors have been too hard, too slippery, too sticky. Some stages are tiny, others HUGE. The biggest thing about tour is learning how to suck it up and do your job regardless of the circumstances. Easier said than done.
     Food poisoning is always a big scandal on tours. Sorry, "on tours to Asia". There's always someone that eats the mystery beef stew and suffers the consequences later. I've actually never gotten sick on tour, I think it's probably due to my iron stomach. It seems I can eat anything. Although I tend to steer clear of the mysterious yet hilariously translated dishes that you find on some menus. "Meat muscle stupid bean sprouts" or "Meat fried cat ear/the plate" or my personal favorite "Big dump in vegetable and fork".    
     This last tour we went on was awesome. In London not much can go too terribly wrong. Besides the fact that the stage was the size of a postage stamp, the floor was too hard, and we didn't have barres for our first class in the studio and had to use a prop horse instead, it was great! There weren't any complaints about the food, no need for suggestions on places to visit. People seemed happy. I think the fact that there wasn't a language barrier helped too. No having to mime the type of animal you'd like to eat to your waiter. "Chicken. Chicken? You know? Cluck! Cluck! (insert chicken dance here)".

*What a revolutionary sentence. I realize, I'm quite the genius aren't I? ...Maybe I should just stick to ballet.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Snap, Crackle, Pop!

     Warming up is a big part of our daily routine. Every morning as I walk through the studio I see dancers sprawled in the splits stretching or throwing their legs around the air violently, all anticipating that huge pop! That hip release, that means they're ready for class to start. As I walk to my usual spot at the barre I hear a symphony of different body parts cracking away. You have The Staccato Ankle Cracks, that are usually light, rhythmic, and quite whimsical. Then you have The Deep Hip-Pops (which are usually followed by a slightly sexual "Oh yea!" and maybe a "Nice one" comment from a fellow dancer). You can achieve the same type of deep crack with The Tailbone Roll. The Tailbone Roll is the best one ever. Sometimes if you roll your tailbone on the hardwood floor you get a nice, deep spinal crack that's just orgasmic. You also have The Twisting Back Crack, which for me, starts at the top of the spine and makes a beautiful domino affect of cracks all the way down to the lower back. A spinoff of The Twisting Back Crack is The Neck Snap. Not as violent as it sounds, this crack entails simply rolling your head around in a circular motion a couple of times. Or simply taking your two hands and physically yanking your head to one side, bringing it up slowly and and then yanking it to the other. Totally normal. Totally fine. I think.
     I wish I could say that the cracking symphony only happens in the mornings but we have to warm ourselves up several times a day! In fact, if I'm sitting in one position for more than 15 minutes I start to get stiff and feel the urge to twist my back and crack my neck. The hip-pop happens once, maybe twice a day if I'm lucky. The Tailbone Roll even more rare than a solar eclipse. But the Staccato Ankle Cracks are non-stop. All day everyday. It's almost like a tick, I don't even notice that I'm doing it until someone (usually a non-dancer) points it out.
     I love seeing people's reactions to the cracking. Non-dancers are always so grossed out! I love it. That probably makes me really weird and creepy but I just find it hilarious to see people freak out at the cracking sounds. Once I get a tiny reaction from my ankle twisting cracks that's it. I take it and run. I'm like, "Oh that's nothing. Listen to this..." and then I go through the whole series of cracks, each one getting more and more intense and more gross until the person is screaming at me to make it stop! ...Love it. I know, even just typing it out now I sound like a total psycho with some freaky body cracking fetishes, but I promise I have it under control. I totally do.

DD: The 6 Step Program

     Dance has always been a huge part of my life. Training to become a professional dancer was like training for the Olympics, all the time. There really wasn't much time for anything else. I've never had a "normal" job. The closest thing to a job I ever had was babysitting for our neighbors. Which I did a total of two whole times. Usually after school I'd run straight to ballet class and wouldn't finish until late at night. By that time I'd be too tired and hungry to do anything besides eat and sleep. Sometimes I feel like I missed out on a few iconic childhood moments, but looking back at what experiences dance gave me instead, I don't regret it at all. 
     When you start something so unique at such a young age and continue to purse it as an adult you sometimes loose track of what's "normal" and what's really not. The life of a ballet dancer is a very short lived career. Regardless of injuries or not, it doesn't last forever and a lot of dancers struggle with what to do after dance. Life after dance seems so far away, until you blink and you're suddenly 15 years older trying to find a new career that's equally as fulfilling. It's hard because after so many years of doing something so special and so specific, you have no idea what it's like to work in a more "conventional" work environment. That's why I think there should be a "12 6 Step De-Dance Program" or "DD". Six essential steps that help dancers integrate into the normal world.
     Step 1. Admit that you were a dancer. If you can't work the cash register at your new job that's ok! You've been busy twirling around on your toes or lifting girls in the air. You probably don't know how to count past 8. Just admit that you haven't been to school in 100 years and therefore forgot all possible mathematical skills. No one will judge you. To your face. 
     Step 2. Recognize that you aren't alone. There are plenty of other dancers out there just like you struggling to make it in the "real world", expecting a round of applause every time they turn in an assignment on time*.
     Step 3. Examining past errors with the help of a sponsor. Oh shit, sorry. That's from another program...The next step is accepting the fact that you are not allowed to be naked in front of your work colleagues anymore. I know it took a while for you to get comfy enough in your skin to strip down in front of everyone for that quick costume change in the first place. Especially when you came to the company as a modest little apprentice. But now it's time to retire your inner nudist and accept the life of a fully clothed "normal" human being.
     Step 4. It's not going to be ok to crack your hip while you're talking to someone (see previous blog post titled "Snap, Crackle, Pop!"). Yea, none of that anymore. That's considered weird and creepy and people might mistake the cracking noise for a fart and then you'd just be known as the office farter and no one would want to talk to you anymore.
     Step 5. Accept the fact that you're going to have to learn a new set of skills. Dropping into the splits is only appropriate before ballet class or as a cool party trick, not at job interviews. Vagina lifts are now a sexual harassment lawsuit waiting to happen. The sooner you accept this the better off you'll be.
     Step 6. The final step. Always try to concentrate on the positives in life. You don't have to shave your armpits as often! None of your work mates will (hopefully!) be touching them, so there's no need to worry about your partner talking about how hairy and sweaty your armpits are behind your back. Isn't that a relief? Just make sure to wear long sleeved shirts at all times and I'm telling you, you'll have a mighty fine life after your ballet career. You're welcome.

*We dancers applaud for everything and we constantly receive massive applause for our work from an audience. In class if someone does something well, we all applaud. If someone does something funny, we applaud. If someone does the combination alone, we clap with the beat of the music while that person is dancing. If someone falls (and they haven't injured themselves) we will most likely applaud them on their klumsyness. Newsflash: in the real world no one is going to applaud you for doing your job. "Bravo! Let's give a round of applause to Jenny who just sold a T-shirt to some random lady here at H&M. Standing ovation! She also sold some earrings!"


     I wanted to write a helpful guide for any "outsider" that might one day find themselves watching a ballet class and wondering what the hell the teacher is talking about, and how the hell all the dancers seem to understand. So I've created a list of ballet related phrases to help out those in need:
     1. "Think up to go down". This usually refers to when a dancer basically just bends their knees. There's no such thing as just bending your knees in any given position "einfach so". Once you're in a position and you are ready to descend you have to think of pulling up, then, and only then can you bend your knees. Oh and every ballet teacher knows if you're thinking it or not. It's a super power. There's no bull shitting them with this one.
     2. "Feel the floor" and "the floor is your friend". Because no one else is. No, that's not true. This usually means that you need to keep your heels on the floor while you're dancing and use your pliĆ© (the up-to-go-down knee bend thing). Not to be confused with physically lying on the floor and stroking it mid exercise. The floor isn't actually your friend. No need to feel it up. That would be weird. 
     3. "Energy! Presence!" I think these are pretty obvious. No one likes a dead face or a limp corpse dancing around the room.
     4. "Finish up." Finish the combination with your stomach in and chin up.
     5. "Feel the music". Just listen to the music and be on the friggen counts. It's really not that hard. Just do it.
     6. "Head, head, head. Yes." The dancer probably just did 3 turns in a row and landed it, hence the "Yes". The "head, head" thing is just a reminder to spot as you turn.
     7. "Opposition". I guess this goes back to the up-to-go-down thing. Opposition. Opposites. Get it?
     8. "Lengthen through the knee". Stretch your knee. It's probably bent. Simple as that.
     9. "No sickles. Fish the foot". I don't even know how to explain this. Ask me to demonstrate next time you're watching class. It has something to do with the correct positioning of the foot.
     10. "Soft arms". Make your arms less tense looking. I know you're probably tensing every single muscle in your body just to get through the exercise but make your arms look like your frolicing through a meadow of flowers. It's all about smoke and mirrors.  
     11. "Shit off the shoe". This one might just be a Stuttgart Ballet original but it basically just means "push the floor really hard with your foot as if you're wiping a piece of shit off your shoe". Others might say "strike a match on the ground", see where I'm going with this? No? Me either.
     12. "Slice it." "Work it." "Feel it". No this is not a Daft Punk song, its a ballet-ism.
     13. "Don't throw it away!" Meaning; finish the combination well. Don't just fall out of it and give up. Try to save what you can out of the spazzy movement you just did because on stage there are no "do-overs".
     14. "Articulate the feet". The way we use our feet is a huge part of dance and especially ballet. We have to always have them under control and strong to support all of the movement we do. "Articulating the feet" means being in total control of your feet and using them thoroughly.
     15. "Get out of the mirror." This one refers to how we shouldn't constantly be watching ourselves in the mirror as we dance. Dancers love to watch themselves in the mirror. But it's mostly because we are constantly correcting ourselves and finding things that we don't like and need to correct. It's less in a narcissistic kind of way and more in a self-loathing kind of way. You know, the healthy kind.
      There are many other "Ballet-isms" or corrections that we hear all the time. We all know what we have to do but sometimes we just need a little reminder, and sometimes that reminder can make all the difference. Sometimes a simple "fish the foot" is all it takes.  

Sunday, November 3, 2013

"Gimme the one!"

     Backstage. Oh the drama of backstage. Combine uncomfortable costumes with bright lights, a bundle of nerves mixed with that weighing feeling of pressure, ballet dancers with a bad conductor, and you have a recipe for disaster. The audience has no idea what's actually going on backstage during a show. It's stressful! Timing is everything and everything is set on counts. If you miss an entrance you're screwed. There are quick changes, wardrobe malfunctions, set adjustments, musical ques and tons of other things to worry about.
     Knowing counts helps a lot with entrances. It's really obvious if a dancer comes on stage way too early or too late. The "Oh Shit!" expression on their face says it all. It's such a bad feeling. One dancer was so paranoid that she would miss her entrance, she asked everyone around her to count out loud backstage. "Gimme the one ok? GIMME THE ONE!" I'm sure even the technicians backstage knew the counts by the end of run of shows, but she still needed the "ONE". Stress makes people crazy. There's a lot of yelling and cursing behind the scenes. A lot of which is directed at the conductor. If the music is too slow or too fast it can really screw you up as a dancer. I think its more mental because I remember once complaining about how "slow the music was" one night, only to have another dancer point out that we were dancing to a CD for this specific production. So yea. That was awkward. But other times it IS actually the conductors fault and it's infuriating. Sometimes if the music is really off, mid variation the ballerina might turn her back to the audience for a second and let out a little, "Seriously?!". We all know what she's talking about, and we all feel her pain.
     It's really important for a dancer to be musical. Music and dance go hand in hand. But sometimes we need little "cheats" that help us to hear the counts of the music. If a big group of dancers are dancing together and have to be in perfect unison, there might be one or more dancers in the group that are in charge of quietly singing out the number of the counts for everyone else to follow. It usually sounds like, "One.....four.........seven!". The more people aren't following, the more aggressive the numbers sound. "FIVE!......EIGHT!.....TWO!....UGH!". Hey, we've all fallen victim to counts, sometimes the music can be really tricky and hard to hear. For me, I don't actually like dancing with counts, I prefer to just listen to the music. "Feel the music". Usually I can hear it, but then sometimes I can be completely tone deaf. Actually, you know what, you should probably just gimme the 'one' just in case.