Pointe shoe brand Gaynor Minden recently welcomed 32 young dancers to its coveted roster of Gaynor Girls. But this year, the company included two applicants who push the boundaries of what it means to dance on pointe. While both Mason Simon Underwood and Colleen Werner are longtime GM wearers, they stand out from the rest of this year's group: Underwood is the first ever Gaynor Guy, and Werner is a body-positivity activist.
Mason Simon Underwood<p>Mason Simon Underwood's favorite variation is Aurora Act III, from <em>The Sleeping Beauty</em>. Last month <a href="https://www.instagram.com/p/CD-E14vASJ7/" target="_blank">on Instagram</a>, he shared a video of himself rehearsing it in his family's living room. His lines are long and clear as he moves confidently on pointe. Underwood, age 16, started dancing when he was 12, and like many of his peers at the School of Nashville Ballet, he got his first pair of pointe shoes two years ago, at 14. "I was in the level where all my friends were starting, and I thought it was really cool," he says. "I saw some guys on Instagram doing it, so I thought I might as well try."</p><p>While Underwood was the only guy in his school interested in pointe classes, his teachers were supportive. "They encouraged it, and said it would be good for strength and expressiveness," he says. And his hard work has paid off. Having attended virtual intensives at Nashville Ballet School, American Ballet Theatre and San Francisco Ballet School over the summer, Underwood is now moving to California to start full-time training at SFB in October.</p>
Mason Simon Underwood practices his pointework at home
Colleen Werner<p>Colleen Werner is not your typical Gaynor Girl. While most are on a pre-professional ballet track, Werner, age 23, is getting her master's in clinical mental health counseling at Trevecca Nazarene University. "One of my overarching career goals is to create an eating disorder treatment program for dancers, because dance was a huge contributing factor to my eating disorder," says Werner.</p><p>Originally from Long Island, New York, Werner began dancing when she was 3. She started on pointe at 13, and attended intensives with the Joffrey Ballet and Eglevsky Ballet before entering New York City's Hunter College as a dance major. But while recovering from an eating disorder, she switched her major to psychology. "I realized that as much as I loved dance, it was coming from a toxic place," she says. After a healthy period of distance from ballet, Werner got back into the studio two years ago. Since moving to Nashville last summer to start graduate school, Werner has made taking classes with Nashville Ballet's Community Division and performing with <a href="https://www.thedancerproject.com/" target="_blank">The Dancer Project</a> a central part of her life. </p>
A new training program at Festival Ballet Providence called Leap Year is welcoming pre-professional and professional dancers who don't have a studio or company to dance for this season.
The endeavor is the brainchild of Kathleen Breen Combes, FBP's executive and artistic director. "I kept getting these emails of dancers saying they just need a place to train this year," says Combes. "I thought, What if we could provide a space for dancers to get stronger, experiment and try new things in a nonjudgmental and no-pressure environment?"
Yury Yanowsky (left), shown here teaching class at Festival Ballet Providence, will head FBP's new Leap Year Program.
Dylan Giles, Courtesy Festival Ballet Providence<p>What makes Leap Year different from typical trainee programs is the schedule. "We'll come in for three hours in the morning, five days per week [plus an hour and a half on Saturday], and work super hard, but then the rest of the day will be free," says Combes. The goal is to accommodate those who need to work or do other things in the afternoon and evenings.</p><p>The program, which is tuition-based and open to dancers ages 18 to 24, will run in three 10-week sessions, beginning in October. Dancers have the flexibility to attend one or multiple sessions depending on their schedules, budgets and goals. Registration is rolling, and interested dancers can apply by sending in a video reel, headshot and resumé.</p>
For dancers dealing with eczema and skin sensitivity, ballet poses some unique challenges. I have struggled with both my whole life, and sometimes my eczema is all I can see when I look in the mirror. The condition causes dry, irritated, rash-like patches on the skin. American Midwest Ballet dancer Rachel Smith, who also suffers from eczema, can relate. "It's hard to feel confident in yourself or your dancing when you have itchy red spots all over your body that you should leave uncovered so they can heal quickly."
Dry, sensitive skin and eczema are very common—according to the National Eczema Association, about 10.1 percent of Americans have some form of the skin condition. Sweating all day, tight-fitting dancewear and high levels of stress make dancers with eczema more likely to experience bad flare-ups and daily symptoms. While treatments vary, below are some simple steps dancers can take to ease raw, itchy skin.
Understanding Eczema<p>Eczema is a term that encompasses different kinds of reactionary rashes. Dr. Mona Shahriari, a board-certified dermatologist and an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Yale University, breaks it down into five categories:</p><ul><li><strong>Atopic dermatitis</strong>: The classic form of eczema, rooted in genetics</li><li><strong>Xerosis:</strong> Caused by dryness and inadequate moisture; anyone can get this form of eczema</li><li><strong>Allergic contact dermatitis: </strong>A rash that develops when skin comes into contact with an allergen</li><li><strong>Irritant dermatitis:</strong> Similar to allergic contact dermatitis, but triggered when something that comes in contact with the skin (like scratchy or unfamiliar fabrics) temporarily causes irritation</li><li><strong>Chronic eczematous eruption of the elderly:</strong> Dry-skin issues related to aging</li></ul><p>Due to the variety of ways eczema can show up, getting to the root of the problem can be tricky. The first thing that Dr. Debra Pruzan-Clain, a board-certified dermatologist at the Dermatology Center of Stamford in Connecticut, recommends to her patients is changing shower routines and using a heavier moisturizing cream. "Keep showers short and lukewarm, and moisturize right after—I usually say within four minutes of toweling off," says Pruzan-Clain. "Use a heavier cream as opposed to a lotion, because lotion is just cream that they've added water to."</p>
Applying a heavy moisturizing cream right after showering can help ease eczema symptoms.
Getty Images<p>Other easy tips include changing your dancewear often throughout the day to stay dry. Sweat trapped in your leotard and tights can further irritate dryness, especially patches of eczema. "I love fashion in the dance world, and I always try to create a fun look every day," says Smith. "But sometimes less is more, and I'll go back to basics so my skin doesn't get too irritated." Consider leotards or shirts without sleeves, and made of either cotton or moisture-wicking fabric. Additionally, Shahriari suggests, either shower at the studio immediately after class or wet a towel and wipe sweat and dirt off before leaving, to allow the skin to breathe.</p>
Targeting Skin Triggers<p>If you have persistent problems with eczema and sensitive skin, consider the products you use. Pruzan-Clain urges dancers with eczema to use soaps, creams, laundry detergents and other products labeled "fragrance-free"—meaning no fragrances have been added—instead of "unscented." "Oftentimes, products will say they're unscented, but that's not the same thing as fragrance-free," she says. "Unscented can mean that there is a scent, but there is also a masking scent. Fragrance-free is preferable."</p><p>Additionally, some doctors, including my own, recommend daily allergy medication, either over-the-counter or prescription. For those who find this helpful, allergy testing is sometimes recommended<strong>. </strong>(While I've seen major improvement, I never would have tried allergy medication without going to my doctor first, since not all eczema is related to allergies.) Topical prescription medications are used to treat mild to moderate eczema, while oral and injectable options are usually reserved for moderate to severe cases after trying other treatments, says Shahriari.</p>
The Holistic Approach<p>Although most suggested eczema treatments are topical, managing symptoms can also include focusing inward. "Your skin is like a mirror of what's happening inside your body," says holistic nutritionist Kristi Acuña, owner of the Holistic Nutrition Center in Newport Beach, California. When she sees a client for skin concerns (she's guided several dancers), she examines their diet and personal products to get to the root of the problem. "The body is like an onion, and the skin is only the top layer," she says.</p><p>Smith notes that stress has a big effect on her flare-ups, which Shahriari, Pruzan-Clain and Acuña say is common among patients and clients. "Being a professional dancer comes with its share of stressors," says Smith. "When I get stressed-out, I find myself itching a lot more, which, of course, leaves me with bigger patches of eczema."</p>
American Midwest Ballet dancer Rachel Smith takes a moment to roll out and de-stress.
Courtesy American Midwest Ballet<p>Practicing mindfulness and breathing techniques, and setting up a regular calming ritual, can help reduce the effects of stress. At the studio, says Acuña, "keep snacks on hand so you're balancing your blood sugars throughout the day." Staying hydrated and getting, ideally, eight hours of sleep are additional ways to support effective body function by lowering stress levels.</p>