culture shock

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At the ballet, Saturday is code for looooong rehearsals.  For me, right now Saturdays mean lots of sitting at the front of the studio, aka prime study time!  So today I read and read (and read) all about interpersonal communication for my human communications class and what I learned was, well, that I had already experienced so much of what the text was explaining…in that very ballet studio.

This sounds like the beginning of a really cheesy blog post about how much ballet has taught me and why dancing makes you smarter, but I promise it’s not.  This is about culture.

When people find out I dance with a professional ballet company, more often than not this question comes up within the first few minutes of conversation: So are all the guys, er, ballerinos, like, totally gay?  To which I reply, Well some are gay, some are foreign, some a little of both.  While there may be no complete black and white answer there, it’s all true.  In my daily life, many of my coworkers are gay (fitting the American stereotype of male ballet dancers all too well) and/or citizens of a country other than the US.  Just this morning in class, as I listened closely to today’s teacher giving the fondue combination at barre, I realized that not one of our artistic staff members is American- something that has always been true, but has taken me far too long to notice (I blame it on my blonde hair).

Chapter 2 of my textbook analyzes the challenges of  communicating across differing cultures, due to variations in social behaviors, values, and idioms.  Of course, being a straight American female, communicating with a gay Japanese man (as I do every single day) could be classified as having high risk of misinterpretation.  To me, it’s just a Tuesday afternoon rehearsal.  Being counted off with “5, 6, 7, H…”  from my Lithuanian ballet mistress is just the norm.

Up until this point, I have taken these cultural contrasts for granted, not understanding just how greatly being exposed to them has enriched my life and my world view.  I love the fact that communicating with a wide range of people so drastically outside of my own subculture has become second nature to me.  Who woulda thunk when I auditioned for my very first Nutcracker all those years ago, ballet would have affected my life so drastically?  Ah, the true definition of life lessons reveals itself…

tutu talk

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Oh hey, there, locker full of sweaty ballet shoes and rogue leg warmers.  Nice to see you again.  We’ve only been back at this thing for 2 1/2 days and already you’re in need of a good clean-out.  Seriously, you stink.  It’s only just the middle of the ballet week and somehow it feels like mid-November.  Of course, that may have something to do with the fact that our Nutcracker rehearsals started last night.  Yup.  Day two and we already get to hear those little flute trills as the first few snowflakes sauté onto the stage…but it’s 88 degrees outside!…too soon.  But hey, that’s the life of a ballet dancer, right?  Always working on what’s next…

Me, I’m doing a whole lot of this:image

Looks relaxing, doesn’t it?  I wish.  I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again; The hardest part of being an injured dancer is not dancing.

Growing up, I never missed a ballet class.  Save the occasional stomach ache or family commitment, I was dancing every day after school and you can bet your butt I woke up every damn Saturday morning to trade in cartoons for ballet combinations (with a little help from my mom, I admit).  Leaving class early and being MIA from rehearsal does not sit well with me, and yet neither does sitting out to watch.

I’ve been hearing this for a while now: Take care of yourself.  Go slowly.  You have the right to refuse anything.  Don’t push it.  You’ve come so far.  I know.  You’re right.  I should take my time.  Rest.  Slowly retrain my body.  This all makes sense.   But it has been so long.  My friends are all complaining about their sore hips, tight calves and bruised toenails, and I couldn’t be more jealous.  To keep myself from shedding a pathetic little tear as I tuck my pointe shoes a little deeper into the cozy bed dingy locker they’ve been living in all summer, I’m trying to look on the bright side of things.  I mean, this is a prime opportunity to tweak my problem areas (if I don’t come out of this recovery period with a relaxed neck and shoulders, so help me…) and enjoy the luxury of a slow-paced return to ballet, a concept that is about as unlikely as ordering clam chowder in Paris.

the man behind the camera

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I’ve posted before about the brilliant work of world renowned ballet photographer, Gene Schiavone (remember?).  Now the talented and always kind photographer is working on a new series whose setting is, well, not exactly the Mariinksy.  I found Huffington Post’s article covering Schiavone’s latest project, shooting (mostly) non-dancers in cemeteries, to be an exceedingly informative read.  Gene discusses his secrets to capturing that perfect ballet shot (hint: the music is very important!), and how his work has evolved over time.  Check it out and let me know what you think!

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All photos by Gene Schiavone, via his Facebook fan page.

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.  

my ballet family

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I am very proud to be part of a select group of people in this world who can say I miss my job when I’m away from it.

I miss ballet.  I miss rehearsal.  I miss learning choreography.  I miss taking class.  I miss sweating in the studio.  I miss tying up my pointe shoes.  I miss putting my hair in a bun.  I miss my routine.  I miss my friends.  I miss the company.  They are are so much more than merely the people I work with.  They are my family.  They are the people I spend my days with.  The people I laugh with- and sometimes at. ;) The people who hug me when I cry (or tell me to rub some dirt in it- classic ballerina lingo).  They are always there to pat me on the back when they are proud of me (not something you see in every ballet company), and boost me up when I’m feeling insecure.  These people are some of the best individuals I have ever had the privilege of sharing the studio and the stage with.

There is a certain type of relationship that exists between dancers in a ballet company that might be impossible for anyone on the outside to understand.  If you can imagine all friendships developing in a series of steps, ballet dancers race through these steps at a speed that is probably considered borderline unhealthy to most social psychologists.  From the first time we all meet we are already sweating together, stinking together, and touching each other.  We are often thrust into executing difficult choreography in perfect sync with dancers we’ve just met.  Sometimes we’re even forced to put all of our trust in a partner we’ve just seen for the first time.  We see each other all day, every day, share stressful experiences regularly and often see each other naked almost immediately after introducing ourselves.  I’ve seen some girls’ nude bums before I could even put a name to them.  But these nude bums quickly become family.  Strange, twisted family, yes, but family that could never be replaced, replicated or reproduced.  They are my ballet family, and I love them.