en{joy}

Today I am so excited to share some thoughts from the bright ball of sunshine that is Miss Shelby Elsbree.  In perfect sync with Tchaikovsky’s return to the studios and the migration of cloves towards the front of my spice rack, the ever charming Boston Ballet dancer muses on spreading joy- both to yourself and to others- throughout the holiday season.
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Happiness.
 
There are so many opportunities to seek it throughout our long days…shorter now with a shy winter sun. In the dance world, most of us are preparing to dive head first into our annual Nutcracker marathons, a sugar-coated race to New Years Eve during which Tchaikovsky melodies float endlessly in and out of our minds and bodies. The thing that I hold onto each December, the thing that re-energizes my soul and ignites my daily motivation is that solitary concept of spreading joy. The holiday season is so much about generosity.. giving of your time, your resources, your gifts, your love…all in the name of sharing happiness. This is what each performance of the yuletide classic gives us the opportunity to do. 
 
The luxury of happiness lies in the reality that it can manifest itself in so many different ways, unique to your own pleasures and pursuits. Perhaps your morning playlist puts the pep in your step, an afternoon coffee with a good friend, or phone call to your family…The light of a new day, the nourishment of a lovely meal, the pairing of a great wine/cheese…the most excited greeting home from your new puppy (…his name is Oliver :)
 
The thing about happiness is that it remains a choice we have to make – the old adage we’ve heard many a time could not ring truer this time of year, when summer sun is long gone and chilly days stake their claim. We can decide to harness positive energy, to share/spread light wherever our days might take us, to fixate on the good things (which inevitably sheds a healthier light on the not so good things). We can find moments in our day, or cadences in our conversation that not only strengthen our own perspective, but that inspire the motives of those we speak to as well…this forms a generous cycle of perpetuated happiness! 
 
This past season I’ve been contemplating the idea of meditation. The thought of finding silent moments to receive stillness, to allow thoughts to flow freely in and out of my conscious, to sink into the present, to find happiness…To be honest, I’ve never been one to indulge this discipline successfully — until that is, I realized my meditation comes in a different form than a cross-legged posture. Nearly every morning, dancers all over the world start their day with a class. A gentle barre to warm up the bones, to encourage the body, followed by a more liberating center. This, I realized, is how and when I set the pace of my day. 
 
Be it a more successful start (physically/mentally), or a day I feel faced with challenges, I strive to see the light in my steps, my words, my thoughts…Not every day is going to be perfect needless to say, but it will offer the choice to seek and share the one thing we all hope to find at the start, middle and end of each day, each week, month, year, season…a daily decision, a hopeful, contagious, incandescent choice to be happy. 

 

For more from Shelby, check out peeks of her life as a ballet dancer/experimental chef/budding photographer on her inspiring blog, Tutus & Tea.  Thank you Shelby!
xx

jitters & rituals

Before an especially nerve-wracking performance, I listen to Eminem’s Lose Yourself.  I’m not proud of it, but when I first began competing at Youth America Grand Prix in 2004, Hailie was 8 years old, 8 Mile was still (sort of) relevant, and the rap anthem’s carpe minutam memorandum wound my nerves into sanction.  What can I say?  Slim Shady did and does provide my chill.  Everyone has their rituals, and today we’re peeking into the pre-show mind of The Joffrey Ballet’s Mahallia Ward to spy on hers…IMG_2950

MW: Before my first performance of the season, as I was reacquainting myself with pre-show rituals and jitters, I became highly aware of the annoying and almost comical amount of nervous chatter occupying my mind. I alternated between fruitless attempts at calm, and moments of amused observation:

“It’ll feel so good to be on stage again. Dress rehearsal was bad so…that’s good right? Whatever, don’t think about it…What to eat…? Just relax, you got this. You’re a pro…yeah right…no you are. Shut up.

“Ugh! Adrenaline my old friend, I don’t like you. What use are my legs in a fight or flight situation if they have melted into puddles of jelly??! C’mon, strength, energy…Just breathe…ahh yes…oh this would make a cool blog post! This is what you love. This is the fun part! Enjoy it! Just rip up the stage! But take it easy. No stress. But it’s normal to stress, everyone’s stressing inside. So don’t worry. You should probably reinforce the ribbons on your shoes one more time though, just to be sure…

Ok these shoes only have to last one. more. show. Crap they’re buckling. Grrr. Time to plank…60, 59, 58, 57… Nice. Remember just breathe…this is no. big. deal. Just pretend you do this all the time, like you have something way harder to do tomorrow. This is nothing. A breeze! A breezy breeze. Should I pee one more time?

And on and on…
IMG_2915IMG_2947The nerves come with the gig, but I find performing much more enjoyable when I am able to relax and quieten this high strung inner dialogue. 

Here are some ideas to help de-stress and prepare mentally for the stage.

1) Take a nap. During the break between rehearsals and show time, one can find a number of Joffrey’s dancers sprawled out beneath their dressing tables, zipped to the chin in warmups, refueling with some zzz’s.

2) Get out of the building. After rehearsing in a dark theater all day, a dose of fresh air and natural light help me clear my mind and feel energized.

3) Pull out your favorite mindless craft. During our run of The Nutcracker one can find dancers sitting on the pt room floor, make-up half finished, surrounded by crayons and Nutcracker themed coloring pages. Sometimes it helps to focus on staying within the lines rather than worry about (enter favorite performance nightmare here). Crocheting also does the trick. And these coloring books are awesome.

4. Take a shower. A hot shower before a show is like magic. It’s warming, relaxing and makes hair easier to twist. It’s a great way to “reset” and freshen up before going on stage.

5) Give yourself lots of makeup time. For me, putting on my stage makeup is like a meditation. Doing a clean job helps me feel prepared and beautiful and centered in my character. Allowing lots of time minimizes smudges and spills and the stress of sticky eyelash situations.

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For more tips and tricks, head over here.

all photos by Mahallia Ward.

retirement.

10934042_10153086286417766_273383222011537771_nOne of my favorite ballet blogger friends, Jill Krutzkamp (aka the sculpted beauty who makes you want to buy alllllll of the elevé), did something rather momentous last Spring: she danced the very last show of her professional career.

Ballet by its very nature, all physical and mental demand, offers only a very short career to its dedicated practicers.  Despite those notoriously romantic, creative dispositions, dancers really are quite the realists, aren’t we?  Though most nondancers won’t need to consider retirement until much later in life, the knowledge of a fairly early- sometimes even unplanned- final curtain call is apparent in the mind of a dancer from the moment they sign that first professional contract.   But what happens when that curtain actually hits the stage?  Read on for some perspective from Jill…

Here I am looking out to a sunny summer Kansas City day. It’s just about 5 o’clock so I feel the energy of folks anxiously taking one step further away from their workplace, buses dropping off kids after their first week back from school, and doggies with full tummies wailing their tails, tongue out walking the town. I’m in a coffee shop, presumably as a “normal person” – quotation marks consciously bolded – doing my best to fit in the “real world.” I always imagined what these days would feel like. I wondered what it would be like to no longer put professional dancer on the occupation line of an application. Mostly, I wondered what it would feel like to not have the constant night after night of my cognitive mind reminding my body that I had get up and do it again.

I decided for a culmination of reasons to retire after a 15-year dance career with Pittsburgh Ballet Theater, Cincinnati Ballet and most recently Kansas City Ballet. Honestly, it wasn’t a sudden decision because of a bad day, a bad season, or any one thing in particular. Actually it was nothing like that. It was a well thought out decision, with many days in between, saying “I can’t imagine my life without it,” “how will I possibly stay active,” and/or “will I ever be as happy?” The last question was the hardest to think about. My ballet career was good to me. I never thought in a million years when I was a 16 year old, that at 32 years old I would still be dancing. Now here I am, in the middle of America, all because of one thing. That one thing being my greatest passion, my first love, and cliché as it sounds – born to do – dance.

At age five, I was rip-roaring and ready to dance, all caked up in my blue eye shadow; fluffy green ruffled tap skirt, and curled up ponytail (imagine 1987 and you’ve got the picture). When I head the devastating news that my performance had been rained out, I was genuinely devastated. Perhaps my first sad memory taught me for the first time what I needed to do to move forward. Luckily this one wasn’t a tough one. I danced in my driveway instead.

27 years later, I can recount many times that dance drove me forward thinking to my next decision. Already looking back I can recount a number of times that dance led me to bigger and better things. Whether it was my grades, my attention span, my self-esteem, body awareness new things, beautiful lands, magnificent stages, wonderful people, delicious food, and most importantly meeting my husband. Dance led me down the road that shaped me into the person I am today.

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Of course it is important to be honest that my journey training more than 30 hours a week since age 12 (which was the necessary path), WAS absolutely not an easy feat. The mental and physical wear and tear could sometimes be too stressful to deal with, but like the time I was 5, dance taught me how to keep forging forward. 2 months post retirement, I had to get a clean out surgery of my cranky left ankle, which poor thing, took a lot of beating. I had an “enormous amount of massive scar tissue,” which adhered and literally moved my tibial nerve away from its comfortable home. So let’s just say, I have some healing to do. However, I sure am on my way.

In some ways, at age 32, I feel like a kid again, exploring myself without the title ballerina. For those who do know me, I bet you would say that I always balanced myself out by getting a Bachelors Degree while dancing professionally, attending my high-school prom (which so many dancers don’t get to do), and it’s true. However, nothing quite will be the same now that dancing isn’t my main priority.

This leads me to a great point, perhaps the most important one of this whole post. The best thing I can do for myself at this point is to be grateful, go with the flow and ACCEPT my retirement. So far, not so bad!

Like anything, time heals, patience is a virtue and everyday is different. I am on my way down a new road with great things coming. Whoever made up the saying, “Once a dancer, always a dancer,” is absolutely 100% true. It’s an indescribable feeling but I’ll do my best to explain. For me dance is a part of my heart, a part of my inner-being a part of my soul. So I’ll still be dancing. Perhaps at a wedding, maybe with my friends and family, but absolutely I’ll be dancing in my driveway. 

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Jill after her final show with KCB Artistic Director Devon Carney, KCB Ballet Mistress and best friend Kristi Capps, Jill’s husband (how proud does he look?!) and Dimitry Truchanov.

A big thank you to Jill for sharing this perspective with us!  Hopefully we will hear from her again to see how her “new life” is treating her.  For more from Jill, check out her lovely blog, dancehealthier.

on ballence with mahallia ward

I first discovered Ms. Mahallia‘s lovely blog through Instagram (oh, the joys of social media) earlier this week, and fell hard and fast for her clean photography and unrelenting positivity.  Mahallia, a dancer with the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago, writes her blog as a means to keeping “on ballence“, and her honest approach to life- both in and out of the studio- is totally refreshing.  A complete willingness to share and quick composition only impressed me further, as I happily introduce this guest post from Ms. Ward herself, just days after (cyber)meeting her (thanks again, internet!).  Read on for her 10 tips to a balanced summer…studio 1

“During the second act of the twenty-fifth show of The Nutcracker, I dream of summer. I long for it on tour, when I’ve had a bit too much of my close-like-family coworkers. I ache for it as I trudge through the slushy streets of Chicago in February. Summer can be warmth and rest and hope. But for a dancer, it is also a balancing act. Here are my thoughts on making the most of both work and rest during the off-season.

  1. Gather inspiration: Be inspired by the sun, the ocean, by fresh summer meals, and music in the park. See as much art and dance as possible. Take advantage of YouTube. Look up the repertoire for next season and get excited. Remind yourself what a beautiful thing it is to be a dancer.
  2. Be your own boss: It can be easy to bail on yourself in the summer. You plan on taking class, but the weather’s too gorgeous to be inside. You plan to eat healthfully, but it’s ice cream season and what does life evenmean without ice cream in the summer? You’ve got to be your own boss. Decide what you would like to accomplish with your time, and accomplish it.
  3. Be reasonable: My husband and I are going on a two week adventure in Iceland soon (!!!). These are my goals for the trip: climb a glacier, soak in a hot spring, take in the views, find an Icelandic cow and milk it. You know, achievablegoals.
  4. Don’t sweat the small stuff: I usually put on a little weight in the summer. There it is. As dancers, we are so tuned in to our bodies that “a little weight” can feel like the end of the world. Ironically, it can make you want to avoid class, training, and even thinking about the beginning of next season. But really,it’s no. big. deal. Please don’t fixate. You’ll feel great in no time. Stay happy, keep working.
  5. Cross train: Trying different forms of exercise is a great way to maintain your fitness while allowing injuries to heal. Swimming is fun and low impact, a great summery workout. Yoga is helpful for maintaining flexibility and placement. And I love a light run for cardio, muscle toning, and the endorphin boost.
  6. Give yourself class: Depending on where you’ll be spending your layoff, classes can be hard to find. You may not have a sprung floor or full mirrors, but learn to give yourself barre anywhere. It might not feel like you’re doing enough, but daily check-ins make all the difference.
  7. Approach training in a new way: Pick an area of technique to focus on over the summer. It could be taking barre on pointe, or pulling up under your bum (all the time), or refining your port de bras. Don’t try to improve everything at once. I usually don’t feel like I’m progressing at all over the summer, but once the season gets underway, I start to notice a difference (however small) in the area that I’ve worked on.
  8. Give your time to others: I boarded at a ballet conservatory in high school. Every summer I would come home only to spend most of the break wrapped up in my own head. I would stress about staying in shape to the point of missing out on valuable experiences with my family. Instead of obsessing over my body and my professional future, I should have been bonding with my baby brother and four younger sisters. During a layoff you have more time to love your loved ones. Be careful not to use it all up on yourself.
  9. Do not compare your summer or yourself to others: When you see your friends doing guestings, intensives, traveling, or otherwise succeeding at summer, don’t let that take away from your own experiences. You do you.
  10. Shake negativity: It doesn’t matter what it’s about. It doesn’t matter if it’s justified. Negativity is always useless. I have to constantly remind myself that I am separate from my negative thoughts and feelings. I imagine my self-doubt and criticism as little demons who get inside my head and cling to me- who attack my vulnerabilities and bring me down. As soon as I recognize these feelings as separate from myself, it becomes easy to banish them. I literally tell my demons (sometimes out loud), “Get away from me! I don’t need you!” Yes, it sounds ridiculous. Yes, I crack myself up a little in the process. This is what works for me. Find your way.

Ultimately, everyone is different. I’ve gathered these bits of advice from my own mistakes and triumphs. Every summer is an opportunity to learn something about yourself. Have fun with it.”

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all photos by Mahallia Ward.

Guest Post: A Day In The Shoes of a Ballerina

Today I have a special treat for you all:  a guest post from a fellow dance blogger turned online buddy, Jill Krutzkamp, of the blog dancehealthier.  For any of you who may be missing the ballet-related posts around here (I know I am!), you’re in luck!.  In this post, Jill, who is currently a dancer with Kansas City Ballet, gives us an inside look at the exhausting and rewarding day of a dancer.  Enjoy!

The alarming chime of the miramba precedes an awakening jolt, a weight shift of my head deepening into the pillow, and a deep sigh from my bed.  The darkness of the winter morning doesn’t help me want to lift my head off the ever so comfy pillow.  It just feels so nice.  A foggy mind becomes more and more conscious by the second until finally I’m conscious enough to ask myself, “What day is today?”  Soon my mind starts racing.  Yes, I have to work today.  Yes, I have to run the pas de deux. Yes, I have to run the corps of Serenade (hypothetically speaking of course).

I think, “Oh, I hope my body can do it.” 29832313-PM_CBFire_2011_A_363

I decide to hit the snooze button. 

Then more sets in like; An AGMA union meeting at lunch, a costume fitting, and how could I forget the run of Ma Cong’s, Angeli at the end of the day. Oh, and today is Monday so that means 3 hours of teaching once work is all over. 

YIKES! I better get out of bed.  I can’t help but think, “It’s a good thing I slept well.”

The healthier foot subconsciously escapes the bed and onto the floor first.  Here comes the second foot . . . “Ouch,” I say.  My ankle is a little crunchy.  I decide to take a second and whirl it around a few good times.  I think, “The shower will help it warm up a bit.”  But, first of course must come some coffee!  Oh and right, food too!  I ponder at the taste of a hard-boiled egg, a poached egg, some yogurt and granola, a blended juice, or a bagel with peanut butter and banana. I think back to my day ahead again.  A couple of hard-boiled eggs seem to be a good choice. 

I shower up, grab my bobby pins, put up my hair into a secured French twist (I’m known for my hair falling out), grab my computer bag and my tights from where they were hanging out to dry and I run to my car. 

Class starts in 20 minutes.  Good thing I only live 2 minutes away. 

“Good morning, Nadia.”  “Hey, Charlie.  How’s your back feeling today?” I check the schedule for the day again just to be sure I have it all down correctly in my head.  There never seems to be a dull moment at the ballet even if it’s merely a walk down the hall to the dressing room.  I chuckle as I’m putting in the code to the dressing room when I hear my good friend loudly saying to the girls, “Can you believe that craziness?”

15 minutes until class starts. 

I need to stretch and warm up so I change with the challenge of making it up to the ballet studio in 3 minutes.  I hunt through my friend’s locker for a leotard.  Quite frankly, I’m sick of all of mine, and maybe someone else’s leotard will make me dance better that day!

Bam!  3 minutes later and I’m placing my bag next to my barre spot.  Dancers are known to identify themselves with the comfort zone of their very own barre spot.  No one else dares to stand in another dancer’s spot.  It would be like trespassing on another person’s property.  Sounds so silly, right?  But, it’s just how it goes in a ballet dancer’s world.  It’s like the ballet barre is our foundation.  Cliché I know, but it feels like home. 

Quickly, I get in the moment.  My mind shuts off the rest of the world and dancing becomes central. Ballet class begins. The teacher gives the combinations sometimes from the chair, with their hands and occasionally full out, and I have to respond quickly and automatically. Part of our training enables us to do this precisely, quickly and technically.  The hard part comes with the burden over perfection.  A dancer will tell you that perfection doesn’t exist, but ironically we still seek it everyday.

“Jill, get your leg behind you.” 

“Matt, you know not to do that.”

“Sarah, you have to go in for Jessica today in Seranade.”

These are the kind of things we hear from our coaches all day long.  In ballet, we refer to our coaches as either our ballet master or ballet mistress.  Another funny sounding thing, I know.  Their jobs are centered on the idea of investing in us, guiding us and getting us ready to be on stage to perform our best.  The dancer’s job is to fix the problems, take in, apply corrections, and be in tip-top shape.  To do these things, I realize that I have to give 100% of myself throughout the day.  So I listen, nod my head yes and do what they say (well majority of the time).   In my mind, working to my max is a requirement.  Without it, I wouldn’t perform my best and the whole purpose of dancing is to perform and move an audience. 

15 minutes until rehearsal begins. photo-5

I’m past the point of learning the steps.  Let me put it this way.  Rehearsal periods are grouped into stages: The learning stage (learn a minute long phrase in 20 minutes), the rehearsal stage (do the same step over and over and over again), and the running stage.  The running stage happens about a week (give or take) before we hit the stage.  It’s a time to make mistakes, build stamina, and practice performing.  It’s not usually the time where you change things.  It’s the time of making it work no matter what happens. 

My heart beats faster as my ballet master sets up 6 chairs in front of the room.  One for him, one for the ballet mistress, one for the lighting designer, one for the artistic director, one for the wardrobe mistress, one for the board president.  The dancers trickle in and I think, “Oh gosh, no one has seen this yet.”  Sometimes our worst critics are the people that really know ballet.  I breathe and remind myself that it’s all in my body.  The ballet master asks if I’m ready and I say yes.  The music begins and I’m on my way. 

6 hours of rehearsal, with 5-minute breaks at every 55 minutes, and an hour lunch later my ballet day is done.  Well I should say the active part of it anyway.

To be a ballet dancer is tough work.  To be quite honest, it’s no joke!  However, it is worth every second of aches, pains, bloody tears, critiques, judgments, low pay, and short longevity.  As people in this world, I believe we constantly search for being fully present in the moment of something because it brings feelings of happiness, fulfillment, control, focus, and peace into our lives.  Dance does that for me.  Yes, naturally there are the days when people ask me, why do you do this to yourself, and I want to say, “I HAVE NO IDEA!” Thankfully, that thought never sustains or embeds itself into my inner me.  Run-throughs of Serenade come and go.  Performances come and go.  And when they go, the sudden realization that the rest of the world exists becomes clear just like the sudden awakening jolt from the alarm in the morning.

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Dancing is a lot like a drug.  It’s addicting.  So everyday as my day comes to an end, I lay on my couch watching TV with one foot up above my heart and the other in an ice bath feeling like the luckiest gal in the world.