beyond the barre with shelby elsbree

The first time I met Shelby Elsbree was on a rooftop sipping rosé.   Throughout our short friendship she has been an unexpected source of light in my life, sharing tea and wisdom when I’ve needed those comforts most.  Currently in her first year at Columbia University, it appears the former Boston Ballet dancer embraces every new adventure with just as much spirit as the last…

shelby-2646.jpg

Hello beauty!  Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?  Tell us about studying at The School of American Ballet (SAB) in New York City.  Was it always a dream of yours? 

I moved to SAB when I was 13 years old, after having attended their summer intensive program in 2004. In all honesty I hadn’t known about the school prior to auditioning, coming from a small ballet studio in Sarasota, Fl. Needless to say, training at SAB was a dream I didn’t even know I had until it became a fast reality…and I never looked back. My time in those beautiful studios, going to high school in New York City, skipping across the plaza to watch my dream company perform every other night…it was surreal in every sense of the word. Balanchine training is neo-classical, sporty and fast-footed. Having come from a Vaganova background, I relished in the opportunity to grow in this dynamic way. Experiencing this new language of technique was invigorating, aesthetically inspiring and inevitably challenging. I soaked up every minute.  

216836_1009843890902_7528_n.jpg

After graduating from SAB, you moved to Denmark to dance with the Royal Danish Ballet.  What was your first impression of Copenhagen?

My very first impression of Copenhagen was that of a European Disney world. The city sparkles. It’s so colorful on the outside, flourished with copper domes and dreamy, historical stories. Scandinavia is known for their simplicity in design; Every apartment is white, streamlined and clutter-free. Simple and beautiful, much like Danish culture itself. Danes also speak perfect English, which certainly eased any culture shock an 18 year old living alone in a foreign country might experience. 

Wow, sounds incredible.  In terms of ballet, did you have to make any adjustments in your technique when you moved to Denmark?

I did have to make a huge technique adjustment when I moved to Denmark. I held on to my straight legged turns and general movement aesthetic, but I certainly had to become more sensitive to stylistic changes of Bournonville repertoire.

Those straight-legged pirouettes are giving me grief in Allegro these days!  But speaking of stylistic changes, you originated the title role in Alexei Ratmansky’s The Golden Cockerel.  What was that like?  

Alexei is one of a kind. Working with him on Golden Cockerel pushed me to my every limit as a dancer and an artist. The story originates in old Russian folklore and the privilege of re-telling it through such an innovative narrative was unlike anything I’ve experienced before. Definitely a career highlight! 

dkt_4152.jpg

Did you bring any aspect of Danish culture back with you when you moved to Boston?  What was that transition like?

When I moved back to America, I promised myself that I would bring as much Danish culture as I could possibly carry back with me. The reverse culture shock was actually extremely entertaining. I vowed to maintain a clutter-free apartment, invested in mid-century furniture and sprinkled tea-light candles everywhere to bring back the “hygge” elements of life Danes are famous for creating. The work load was certainly more intense in Boston, longer rehearsal hours, more performances. I was closer to my family though, and their proximity of support and love certainly helped with the adjustment. 

I’ve always loved the concept of “hygge”.  A cozy life is very important to me!  Ha.  Do you feel that you have been affected as an artist by the different environments in which you have worked?

I have no doubts that my journey as an artist, a dancer, a person have all been affected by the diverse settings I’ve had the privilege of working in. Training in New York City instilled within me a tireless work ethic I maintain today, it ingrained an insatiable curiosity and a contagious energy that I’m proud to share. Beginning my career in Copenhagen provided me with the most humbling, fulfilling platform from which my entire perspective as a dancer, and more importantly a person, grew. My career in Boston Ballet gave me the opportunity to sew my New York roots into a more balanced, Scandinavian approach towards hard work. The styles, cultures, and histories of these ballet companies merged in the most complimentary way for me as a professional dancer, and in the most fulfilling way for me as a person.  

the_lesson_03_shelbye.jpg

You are a talented photographer and also write a really lovely blog, Tutus & Tea.  How did you become interested in these sort of “extra curricular activities”, and where did you find the time to pursue them while juggling such a busy work schedule?

Thank you! My journey creating Tutus&Tea is one I’m forever grateful for. It all started one summer when my sister teased me for “not having a creative hobby (pilates/yoga doesn’t count!)”.  At the time she and my father were getting really into SLR cameras and there was one sitting on the counter. I picked it up, began researching, and invested in what would become one of my most favorite hobbies, photography. This was the summer before my first full season with Royal Danish Ballet, and when I returned to Copenhagen, my camera came with me.

Tutus&Tea came to me one sleepless night when I was contemplating the whole “blog trend.” What started as a creative outlet for me to chronicle my days of dancing, eating, traveling abroad turned into an enthusiastic pursuit of passions of stage that in turn, fueled my artistic perspectives on dance in exciting new ways.

As for time, there never seems to be enough of it right? I guess we all make time for things that bring us joy, and for me, Tutus&Tea was surely one of those things. 

photo-1.jpg

That is so true.  So let’s talk about what life looks like right now.  You recently retired from ballet and moved to New York City to attend Columbia University.  What provoked this change and how did you know the timing was right?

So timing is one of these funny things to honestly reflect on. I’ve come to believe that we’ll never really know if timing is ever right. When I considered the idea of “transitioning,” I actually wrote down my thought trains in a rather lengthy post on my blog that ended up being more of a letter to myself. Professional careers in dance are finite. They are precious, yet sacrificial. They are glamorous, yet exhausting. I told myself I would make Ballet a career as long as I felt fulfilled, as long as I truly enjoyed it. Otherwise it’s just too hard.

Columbia University has a unique undergrad program that was created for “non-traditional” students who have been separated from their education for some interesting reason. Think military veterans, professional athletes, parents, and a whole lot of dancers…Writing my application essay alone was an opportunity to converse with myself honestly- to reflect on my career and what it has brought me, to question my present career commitment, and to entertain ideas of change. It was cathartic and it was necessary. 00342v5a0818

How is it going so far?  Here you can just tell us a bit about what life is like lately, what you’re majoring in, any interested courses you’re enjoying or struggling with, etc.

It’s a whirlwind! I am currently enrolled full time, entertaining the idea of a major in Cultural Anthropology and potentially Journalism. I’m taking four classes, my favorite of which is Philosophy of Art where we are mostly learning how to question questions…so compelling! I’m struggling with the insane amounts of reading, and the challenge of prioritizing copious amounts of homework over enticing invitations that living in this city presents. I am LOVING being intellectually challenged and inspired on a daily basis. I am loving the change so far, and giving back to my body and mind in ways that I haven’t been able to for the last 16 years of my life focused primarily on dance. 

That’s wonderful!  I’m so happy for you. What advice do you have for dancers who are interested in pursuing other interests outside the studio?

I would strongly suggest that all dancers should find and pursue passions outside of the studio. Not only will this provide healthy perspective and space away from your days on stage, it will sculpt your perspective and approach towards your dancing that absolutely benefit your dancing! 

Find something that inspires or interests you beyond dance and take the time to indulge it. Pursue friendships and relationships outside of the theater and relish opportunities to balance your life outside of the ballet world. 

img_4902.jpg

Okay time for a little lightning Round:

Go-to breakfast? Gooooood coffee with cream, always. If there’s not a worthy blueberry muffin nearby, I do love a greek yogurt, granola, banana, honey situation.

Favorite ballet? Always a hard one. Tie between Serenade, Dances at a Gathering, West Side Story and Jewels…but let’s be honest, it depends on the day ;) 

Career highlight? I think I have too many career highlights to choose just one (insert monkey hidden face emoji) but on the top of my mind might be my first performance as Blue Girl in Dances at a Gathering, my premiere of Flemming Flindt’s The Lesson, Flower Festival in Genzano for Erik Bruhn, and Serenade for the Night of Stars in Boston….

Favorite restaurant in Boston? Wholy Grain and Tatte for Breakfast, Flour for lunch, Metropolis and Barcelona for Dinner

Favorite Danish meal/food? Mmmm….. I have to go with desserts. Aebleskiver and Gløgg during Christmas time are the best. They’re a type of pancake “holes” filled with warm, lemon zest flavored pancake filling that you role in powdered sugar and jam, accompanied by strong, mulled wine. It’s a magical combination. 

Guilty pleasure?  Ice cream always. And I don’t feel guilty about it. :) 

Thank you so much, Shelby! xx

the {whole} dancer

but-julie-kent-says-that-her-3-copyOne of the topics I spend a lot of time complaining about discussing here on Setting The Barre is the mental strength required in professional ballet.  Dancers are faced with a bevy of intellectual choices every day, the results of which will effect them physically and emotionally- both long and short term.  As time goes on and ballet evolves, more and more is being expected of young dancers, from seemingly unattainable technique to tear-provoking artistry.  But, with the increasing of the years (I see you, 2016), comes an increase in resources available to us in the ballet world.  Can you imagine a ballet career supported by a community of artists all experiencing a similar lifestyle, led by an informed and caring coach?  Jessica Spinner, creator of The Whole Dancer, can, and today she’s here to share that vision with us…

9968C322-923A-46D9-9A38-E5B3E9EB666A

The Whole Dancer coach and creator, Jessica Spinner, in her dancing days

Kirsten:  Hi Jess! Thanks so much for taking the time to share your exciting new program with us. First could you tell us a bit about yourself and your dance background?

Jess:  I started dancing late, around age 12, at The American Theatre Dance Workshop, the official school of the Eglevsky Ballet. I spent summers at the Kirov Academy, Boston Ballet, NCSA, ABT in New York, and Orlando Ballet on scholarship. I went on to study Dance and Arts Administration at Butler University. Upon graduation, I started dancing with the Louisville Ballet, but after a few years, missed being on the east coast so much I moved to Boston and started freelancing. During my time in Boston, a severe Sesamoid injury ultimately ended my professional dancing career.

K:  So you transitioned.  What inspired you to start this unique community for dancers?

J:  I started Health Coaching in 2013 as a generalist. It was really wonderful helping women of varying backgrounds find health and balance, but something was missing.

There was this inkling in the back of my mind that I should be working with dancers because I so deeply understood what they deal each day. Looking back, my years dancing were profoundly imbalanced and unhealthy and I did not deal well with the pressure I was putting on myself or feeling from artistic directors.

I decided to reach out to friends who are still in the dance world or those who have recently retired just to make absolutely sure I was not alone in struggling with major insecurities as a dancer. The overwhelming response was that my colleagues could have benefitted so greatly from a coaching program. And so, The Whole Dancer was founded.

amberperf1

TWD member Amber Ray, professional level student at the John Cranko Schule in Stuttgart, Germany

K:  What exactly is The Whole Dancer program?

J:  The Whole Dancer is an 8–week group program created to help dancers learn skills outside the studio (that can be applied inside the studio) to help them have healthier, more balanced careers. The information is divided into 6 modules including vision and goal setting, eating well, cross–training, personal assessment, self love/care and career development.

I have found that these are areas where dancers could use more guidance and they don’t often get it in the school or company setting. Unless they have a dedicated mentor or coach with a dance background, dancers must navigate a lot of stress alone.

AbbyZ

TWD member Abby Zinsser, professional level student at Richmond Ballet

K:  Being enrolled in the fall session of TWD, I really loved listening to your webinars. The discussions felt so relatable and specific to the needs of a ballet dancer. Which aspect of the program has been the most rewarding in your opinion? 

J:  So much of TWD Program has been so rewarding – I would say my favorite thing has been getting to know each dancer personally. Hearing from them that a worksheet or call opened their eyes to something new and how helpful it was fills my heart with joy.  Staying in touch with TWD Program participants and celebrating their successes together or coaching them through rejections gives me a great sense of purpose.

Teaming up with other dancers and hearing how supportive they are of The Whole Dancer’s objectives is also incredibly inspiring. I have had the pleasure of collaborating with Shelby Elsbree of Boston Ballet, former Colorado ballet dancer Casey Dalton, and Lauren King, Soloist with NYCBallet- to name a few.

Shelby-2727

TWD mentor and Boston Ballet dancer Shelby Elsbree, shot by Kenneth B Edwards

K: I’m such a big Shelby fan.  A lovely person both inside and out, her contributions have been so spot on.  What else can dancers expect to get out of this program?

J: Through The Whole Dancer Program, dancers can expect to find greater confidence and assuredness in their abilities and futures.

They will learn skills that will be valuable throughout their careers and even into life after dance. I hope for participants to feel supported not only by me as their coach and Shelby as a mentor, but also by the strong community of their fellow dancers participating in the program.

AmberStudio

TWD member Amber Ray

K: That’s pretty exciting!  How can dancers get involved?

J:  Sign up for The Whole Dancer Program!  Or, for dancers who are already at a balanced, established and happy place in their dance careers and would like to share how they got there with a younger generation, reach out. If you would like to share what you’ve learned in a blog post or webinar I would LOVE to collaborate.

K: So, what’s next for The Whole Dancer?

J: On January 5 there will be a no – cost webinar on “Fearless Auditioning”. Whether dancers are going out for summer program auditions or company spots I hope to touch on some important ways to make this a successful and fun audition season!

The next 8-week session of The Whole Dancer Program begins on January 20. Enrollment is ongoing through January 17, 2016. The program can also be purchased as a gift for your dancer friends through December 23!

The second round of The Whole Dancer Program features a couple of new options for additional one–on–one coaching support. The BASIC program includes all community information and group seminar calls. The PRO option includes basic features plus feedback on all worksheets and the ELITE option includes basic and pro features as well as 2 one on one coaching calls. This option is a great way to have additional support in implementing the feedback you receive and finding major success in a short amount of time.

One of the elements of the January 16’ session that I am most jazzed about is the participation of Shelby Elsbree. Miss Elsbree will serve as an additional coach and mentor during the career module. Every time I’ve worked with Shelby, her insights have been profound and I am thrilled to team up with her for this upcoming program.

The Whole Dancer is constantly evolving and my ultimate goal is to serve the needs of dancers to the best of my ability. Future offerings will always reflect the feedback I receive from program participants and one on one coaching clients.

Thanks again, Jess!  If you’d like more information on The Whole Dancer, head on over to the website here.

Register for the January 2016

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.
FullSizeRender

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

striking a balance

Shelby-2649

Earlier this summer, I hopped a bus to NYC to visit a friend temporarily in town from the Royal Danish Ballet. Seven years had passed since our bonding at Jacob’s Pillow but! thanks to the joys of social media, there was a strong sense of uninterrupted connection between us.  If not in a multi-paragraph message framed in Facebook Blue, than through the remarkably vivid  612×612-pixel window of good old Instagram, over the years we shared in our adventuring.  We watched each other grow.  Separate, but together.

At long last on a rooftop above Brooklyn, pocketed by twinkle lights, we reunited.  The alfresco table was beset with blondes, some faces familiar and some new.  Among those whose acquaintance I’d only just made was the delightful Miss Shelby Elsbree.

Shelby-1872

As the sun slipped away, we loaded up on fresh mussels, al dente pasta, and July-ripened artichokes.  Basketballs abounded, flirtatious chefs offered shots and the rosé seemed to reappear endlessly.  We discussed Copenhagen, Boston, Providence, Bournonville, Forsythe and Balanchine.  Collectively reliving old romances, mulling over the merits of dating apps and fantasizing future travels we filled the gaps between our cities with easy communication and the breaking of bread.

The notoriously small nature of the ballet world felt tangible on that breezy New York evening and again this past weekend, when Jessica Spinner of The Whole Dancer reached out to me about her webinar on eating and injury prevention for dancers.  The internet seminar, live on August 27th at 8 pm (or whenever it hits your inbox- all who register will receive a copy of the discussion via email) is completely free and features none other than, that’s right, Boston Ballet Corps Member, Shelby Elsbree.

Shelby-1888

Balancing strength and artistry seems a fitting topic for Miss Elsbree, a spirited pint of a person whose energy supersedes her.  The collection of “culinary curiosities” and bits of ballerina life comprising her blog, Tutus & Tea, showcases her unique ability to maintain a harmony between the two.  Here, in her lovely little corner of the web, Shelby proves she has as much grace and power in the kitchen as she does in the studio.

A6576845

Avoiding injury as a professional dancer is hard.  Cultivating a healthy relationship with food can be, too.  That essential, deeply personal balance between dance and life often alludes us.  To steal Shelby’s secrets, register for the free webinar (live one week from tonight), and join as she and holistic health coach, Jessica Spinner, navigate the twisting road towards a protective and empowering dancer diet.  Learn how to decipher primary and secondary foods, choose superfoods when recovering from an injury, and experiment with an eating plan to reach your ideal dancer’s body.  Nourish your body and mind.  Your tastebuds (and injury-free bod!) will thank you.

photos by Kenneth B. Edwards.