2.02.2014

Emotional Training in Ballet

After writing about the challenges of success last week, I've had a handful of conversations about success and failure. The world of dance, and beyond, idolizes a story of failure and adversity that opens up unknown doors, eventually leading to hard-won success. Who doesn't love a good cinematic happy ending? Unfortunately, for students in training and professionals with big goals, things don't always turn out that way. For this reason, there are many former and current dancers living jaded with emotional pain, regret, and without closure from the wounds that often go along with such a challenging, strenuous, and personal effort.

Valeska Mosich-Miller in Clara Magazine
While out in Los Angeles prepping to perform for one of my many Nutcracker gigs, I found myself in a conversation consoling a former dancer about her training years. I was staying with my friend and the woman, who was subletting her brother's room while he is out of town working on an FX series, just happened to be a dancer that was in Pacific Northwest Ballet's school during my first few years with the company. Valeska Mosich-Miller and I knew each other from that time, but didn't really interact much. In most schools attached to a company, there is a clear delineation between company talking to school and school talking to company (school students rarely approach company members). Although we had little interaction during that time, I surely remembered her. The reason being that I, and most other company members, recognized that she had stunning looks and a beautiful, tall stature. Many dancers would comment that she should find an agent and become a model. Apparently, we weren't the only ones that felt that way.

Valeska Mosich-Miller in Marie Claire
Valeska left PNB's school to train elsewhere for a short period of time. After a handful of unsuccessful auditions, she stopped searching for a company to call home because she started getting picked up by multiple modeling agencies across the world in places like Brazil, South Africa, London, and Los Angeles. While spending a week living with Valeska and catching up on where we are in our lives, we went out to dinner and had a very striking conversation. While Valeska has had great successes that most people could only dream of having, she was still struggling with the loss of her ballet career and her perception of wasted effort that was put into so many years of training.

I could tell that nearly 5 years of time away from ballet had not healed the emotional trauma and wounds of rejection that the ballet world can place upon dancers. Being that I am very interested in teaching future generations of dance artists, I have put a lot of thought into the whats and whys of a ballet career and how training affects young dancers. And what I have determined is that ballet training is essentially survival of the fittest.

Classical ballet instruction is extremely harsh on the body. Aside from the physical requirements of natural flexibility, accurate proportions, strength, and aesthetic; a dancer needs emotional fortitude to truly make it in this career. How is a dancer going to cope with casting that isn't in their favor? Will a dancer be able to continue with a performance after receiving bad news? What does a dancer do if they mess up onstage? Each one of these items can really challenge a dancer's ability to handle the stresses of a dance career. The physical demands of training will prepare one to execute the most difficult of feats with ease. While the emotional aspects of training ensure that a dancer doesn't fall apart in high stress situations. Unfortunately, the concept of emotional training is rarely revealed to students throughout their studies.  Perhaps, because teachers aren't even aware that they are teaching it.

Very few of my teachers really explained much about the emotional challenges of dancing other than saying, "Ballet is hard," "People get injured," or, "You don't want to be stuck in the corps."  That is until I started training under Jock Soto at the School of American Ballet. One day I particularly remember, Jock had stopped class after a student was having a mini-breakdown over the failed execution of a partnering combination. Trying to calm the student down and keep their head in the game, he stated, "Your grandfather just passed away and you got a phone call minutes before you step onstage to premiere the lead in Theme and Variations. That gray-haired lady seated in the orchestra paid $200 for her ticket and has no idea about your troubles. No matter what happens you must always perform to your best abilities because all the audience knows is that they paid a lot of money to see a good show." This comment seemed utterly heartless having never heard anything like it before. I remember many conversations after class where we tried to validate that what he had been saying was just downright heartless. But I can now tell you from experience, I have watched this exact story happen. I've experienced traumas and performed while reeling through an emotional life experience. It is a part of the job and our training helps us deal with this. Now, if only, as teenagers and young adults, we knew that a handful of the comments and experiences we have on the road to success are a part of the training, and not always teachers and directors playing mind games.

It is very common for students who never become professionals and professionals who never become principals to focus their anger and bitterness towards the last organization or two that they feel let them down or kept them from achieving their dream. I don't think this is avoidable and, sometimes, agree with these dancer's feelings. Unfortunately, though, these dancers got weeded out by ballet's survival of the fittest training. If your body is too weak, it will break down often. If your body doesn't fit the aesthetic, and dancers go to dangerous lengths to fit the mold, they will not make it through the training. I am always asked about anorexic and bulimic dancers, as is every professional in the field. I typically respond that there were some sick dancers while I was training. But for the most part, the career is too challenging to maintain that lifestyle and those dancers with eating problems fall apart before they finish their training or within a year of obtaining a job. If a dancer's technique isn't strong enough and they audition for years and years and eventually give up, they have been weeded out. If a dancer had everything going for them and obtains a job, but quits a year or two in because they didn't have a fairytale rise to the top, they have again been weeded out. There are so many challenges that ballet presents to dancers that make sure that the last dancers standing are those onstage and selling tickets.

It is rare to find a teacher or director that is so especially harsh that they seek to destroy a dancer's love for ballet. There are exceptions to the rule, but it isn't common. Most leaders want a dancer to succeed at what they are doing. The misinterpretation of emotional training is often the downfall of many potential dance careers. When one is involved in a school or institution, that one place becomes the dancer's entire world. My favorite example of this takes place at the dance academy where I was raised. Every year when Nutcracker casting is posted, parents call the director shouting, "WHY DIDN'T MY DAUGHTER GET CLARA." In a fair-sized school in the suburbs of Philadelphia, like clockwork, parents freak out because their child wasn't handed a role just for showing up and paying their tuition. Within days, studio gossip ensues and one small performance becomes a big ordeal, as if it is the make it or break it moment of their child's life. People forget that somebody is always going to be at the top and somebody is always going to be at the bottom. It is like this in school and it is like this in a company. It can become difficult to remember that there are hundreds of schools and companies across the country. And if a dancer is truly unhappy, they can always look elsewhere for an improved situation. Rejection and disappointment tend to be one of ballet's first emotional lessons.

If a dancer is truly talented and being overlooked, it may be time to try somewhere new or to understand that sometimes you are the best and sometimes you are the worst. And sometimes it is all a matter of needs and timing. Dancers often forget, like Valeska did, that ballet is based purely on opinion. Casting decisions and class placement often upset people because there is no formal basis to judge technique, artistry, and performance. Maybe a director put a dancer onstage for a specific role because they thought big eyes would look good in that role. Perhaps, she doesn't have the best technique, but she is intriguing to look at and intrigue sells more tickets than technique. And if the same group of dancers travel from state to state, school to school, or company to company whilst performing the same work, different opinions and choices may put completely different dancers onstage at every institution. There is no best dancer. There is, instead, I prefer this dancer.

What it comes down to is that ballet is often full of political opinion. The end goal of an institution is to put productions onstage as best they can and to please its' patrons and donors. Dancers are just pieces of a puzzle that need to be fit together. If a dancer doesn't fit in a certain part of the puzzle, then they don't fit. A company can't be so concerned about hurting a dancer's feelings that the quality of a production becomes a secondary priority. While dancer's feelings may get hurt, it is rarely personal. Ballet doesn't remember that dancers are human beings with emotions. But people do (and should). For this reason, it is the human side, or artistic staff, of an organization that is responsible in ensuring that there is still humane treatment towards a dancer who may be disappointed by casting or has been left out of a performance during their integral final years of training. This is often where emotional training fails. Instead of having a hard, potentially disappointing conversation, many company and school directors prefer to keep quiet about their reasoning. This leaves dancers to make assumptions that may be far from the truth. Maybe staff feels that they don't owe the dancer an explanation for putting them in the second cast of the corps after giving them a leading role in the last production. Or perhaps, that corps member isn't being cast well to test and see if they can handle performing less, which often occurs during the first years after promotion to soloist. Why can't a dancer just be told that they are being tested, instead of creating circumstances and sitting back to watch their reaction. Directors owe the human being, not the dancer, a reason for casting disappointments, frustrating circumstances, and mixed signals.

A great amount of emotional training happens every day in dance. I have found that, more often than not, the higher powers of dance organizations don't even realize that they are taking part in this important aspect of training. Since ballet is passed on by oral tradition, there is no text book on the exact way to train a dancer. My teachers taught me what their teachers taught them and so on and so on. Every generation tries to take the best part of their training and pass it on, while attempting to avoid passing on the worst parts of their training. But, sometimes, the harshest parts of their training were to make sure that they could survive in our stressful profession. Unfortunately, there are often better ways to go about things and those with power aren't even aware that they are doing more than just training the physicality of a dancer. If students are more aware of the emotional tests that they will be put through, they may have greater lasting power. It is really confusing for a teenager to understand that there are tests in our training, beyond how high one can developpe or how many pirouettes one can execute, if they are not made aware of it. Emotional strength is just as important a factor as technique in becoming a successful dancer.

Valeska Mosich-Miller (Photo: Patrick Fraser)
I felt for Valeska while we talked out her training trauma over tasty pork bao at a trendy L.A. eatery. And at the end of our conversation, she was shocked that she may have been ignored in school as a test to see if she could handle being ignored in a company. Or maybe she just didn't fit into the intricate puzzle of the school that year. Years and years of resentment didn't disappear, but she seemed more at ease with what was a very disheartening and hurtful time of her life. Over the last decade there has been a greater push to help preserve the bodies of dancers through proper maintenance, cross training, and better body awareness. Today, I would like to call upon the dance world to do the same thing with the dancer's mind. We need to start treating dancers with respect, openness, and honesty. There needs to be more support for teenagers who are working as high-level adults, often living on their own, and dealing with insane amounts of pressure. Bringing awareness and structure to the emotional training that is necessary to have a successful career will be the next step in extending the life of a dance career.

What do you think we can do to improve the emotional struggles that dancers experience in their training?

7 comments:

  1. Well, written, Barry! I hope a lot of dancers, young and old, read this.

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  2. I always thought I knew the struggles of a freelancer, but not to the depths which you have so eloquently stated. Thank you very much for that.

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  3. Thank you both of you for your responses. I can see how much traffic I get every day, but don't get much personal feedback. It is gratifying and heartwarming to know that people appreciate the content I put out :-)

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  4. What a wonderful essay! Thank you.

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  5. Thank you! I really hope this post inspires better emotional support in dance.

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  6. We are looking for male stripper in Maryland and you are perfect candidate for this.

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  7. Many dance companies today use free labor as trainees and apprentices,these dancers
    are as good as company members,but now companies just use them for free.They
    then replace them a year or two later and get a new free batch, good for companies bad for dancers. You have to have wealthy parents to support this. Remember the line from the movie Turning Pointe, I give them hope, they give me money, sad, but true.

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