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.

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.