Ballet Stars
Antonio Carmena (right) coaches a Barnard College student. Photo by Marcus Salazar, courtesy Carmena.

Some ballet dancers, the lucky ones at least, get to enjoy long, successful careers. Yet their dancing schedule usually allows little time for anything else. At New York City Ballet, for instance, most dancers don't have secondary jobs on the side, although layoffs between seasons provide short opportunities to flex new muscles, like teaching. But performance careers inevitably come to an end, and dancers must then "become" something else.

When former NYCB soloist Antonio Carmena retired from the company in 2017, he realized he wasn't quite prepared for the next step. His retirement uncovered an insecurity buried deep within him—that without dance, he wasn't "good" at anything anymore. It's taken two years for Carmena to develop more work experience as he searches for a new place for himself in the dance world. And while he admits it's an ongoing journey, the pieces are finally starting to come together.

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Viral Videos
Still via YouTube

The ballet Sylvia has undergone many reincarnations since its 1876 premier by the Paris Opéra Ballet. Some of the past two centuries' most notable choreographers—Sir Frederick Ashton, George Balanchine, Mark Morris and John Neumeier—have seemed inescapably drawn to creating their own versions of this ballet, as if it was an artistic scratch they simply had to itch. In this 2005 clip, Darcey Bussell dances the title role in Ashton's revived version for The Royal Ballet.

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Everything Nutcracker
Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB

My first year at New York City Ballet, I was brought onboard three days before the "Nutcracker" season opened to replace injured dancers in the “Snow" scene, “Hot Chocolate" and the “Waltz of the Flowers." Even though I suddenly had 48 performances ahead, I had grown up dancing George Balanchine's "The Nutcracker," so I thought I could happily revel in my first moments as an NYCB apprentice without worry.

My first onstage rehearsal for the “Snow" scene, in costume, with the snow falling, brought me back down to earth. The stages I had grown up on paled in comparison to the David H. Koch Theater, and I lacked the extra stamina required for covering large stages. By the end, I felt like a sloppy, ugly dancer. How would I be able to perform “Snow" and “Flowers" eight shows a week if one rehearsal completely exhausted me?

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News

Who tires faster, ballerinas or football players? A recent study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine tested just that by measuring the lower-body endurance of ballet dancers and team sports athletes.

 

Forty ballet dancers and 40 team athletes performed an initial test of jumping onto one leg from a 30-centimeter platform. After doing repetitions of step-ups and vertical jumps to build fatigue, they performed the jump again, and their level of fatigue was measured. Since fatigue is strongly linked to an increased risk of injuries, researchers are trying to understand biomechanical response differences between sports and dance that could help with injury prevention.

 

It turns out that the elite ballet dancers took significantly longer than the team athletes to reach a certain state of fatigue. The researchers thought this was most likely because of the extensive training in landing technique and the daily practice dancers undergo from childhood. Either way, it takes a ton of endurance to play team sports, so it’s impressive to know that dancers can withstand even more. Score one for ballet!

Ballet Training

Have a question? Click here to send it to Amy and she might answer it in an upcoming issue!

I’ve been wearing the same brand of pointe shoes ever since I started four years ago. I know feet change. Should I be trying different kinds of shoes? –Amelia

You’re right—feet do change over time, especially after years of pointework. They often grow wider, particularly around the bunion joint. How do you know if it’s time to make a switch? “If your mind is distracted by your shoes too often, then something is off,” says Marie Johansson, a professional pointe shoe specialist for Freed of London. “They should feel like a glove, and then you can forget about them.” I wore shoes with a very broad, square box for two years. While I liked the way they looked, my toenails were always bruising. I decided to get professionally fitted, and realized that not only were my shoes too wide, they were the wrong shape for my foot. I switched to a narrower size and a more tapered box. I haven’t had a bruised big toenail since—and my feet look a lot better.

Your shoe needs will change as your training progresses, too. As a beginning pointe student, you probably needed stronger shoes to help support your feet and ankles, but as you strengthen you should become less dependent on your shoes to stay on pointe. “The shoe is there to support you, yes,” says Johansson, “But you should also be able to articulate your feet and hold yourself up. As our technique moves forward we may need less support and a lighter shoe.”

If you’re not sure whether you should try something different, ask your teacher for her honest opinion about what you’re currently wearing. Ask her to accompany you to a pointe shoe fitting if possible. “When looking for pointe shoes, look at the function of the shoe first: the block, platform and insole,” says Johansson. “Then look at the aesthetic and the measurements.” When all the ingredients come together—the fit, the appropriate support and, of course, the look—you’ll know you’ve found the right shoe.

 

Ballet Careers

When I finished high school, I didn’t have any aspirations to go to college. After all, I had already been a professional dancer with the New York City Ballet for six months; I certainly hadn’t needed a degree to enter the workforce. I didn’t have to go to college—I was a ballerina!

 

Fast-forward a few years, when I came to the startling realization that my career as a performer would not last forever. After a serious foot injury forced me offstage for a year and a half, I began assessing my interests outside dance and was disconcerted to discover I had countless gaps to fill. I didn’t have any hobbies unrelated to physical activity. When forced to sit still, I didn’t know how to occupy my time.

 

Still, the years kept passing and I kept saying, “Someday.” Then my brother, NYCB principal Jonathan, enrolled at Fordham College at Lincoln Center to study business—and the little sister in me felt those pangs of sibling rivalry. I couldn’t let my big brother beat me at something!

 

What’s more, I knew that I’d be covered by the scholarship program available to dancers at NYCB. Bari Lipp is the founding director of a fund called Dance On, which helps cover college tuition costs. (There are many similar programs and grants out there for dancers at other companies to take advantage of.)

 

Now I’m taking classes at Fordham College’s campus in Westchester, NY, where I live with my husband. In contrast to the Lincoln Center campus, where many dancers take courses, in Westchester I don’t feel like just another dancer: I’m an adult pursuing a degree. My first course was European History, which I completed this spring; now I’m tackling a theology class.

 

Attending college has given me an entirely different focus, and my dancing has been affected in unexpected, gratifying ways. Ironically, shifting my focus away from ballet has allowed me to change and grow as a dancer. I’m no longer obsessing unhealthily about my technique and performances, but happily engaging my mind elsewhere.

 

Finding the nerve to try new things academically has helped my confidence onstage, too. I want to be more than just a ballet dancer; I want to be a mature artist and person, and I know that to do that I need to step outside my comfort zone. The unfamiliar challenges of college have given me the courage to take more risks in ballet. After discovering that I could succeed academically, I was able to believe that my instincts and choices as a dancer might also be valuable. I’m experimenting with my ideas in the classroom—and with my artistry in front of thousands of people.

 

On the flip side, it’s sometimes difficult giving up my downtime to attend classes. I want to complete my studies in the classroom, where I feel I learn better than I would online—but that requires sacrificing my day off. Now Mondays are spent scrambling to finish up projects or papers. It’s a different kind of work, too. Grasping spiritual theories in Faith and Critical Reason, my theology course, is a far cry from learning ballets.

 

But I know it’s worth it. I’m now eager to learn about many different fields of study to find what fits me best. Writing, law and real estate all pique my interest. Whatever I ultimately choose, I know that my college experience has changed me as a dancer and a person. Anxiety about my future has turned into excitement: I know my life after my performance career can be shaped any way I want.

Ballet Stars

I always dreamed of becoming a ballerina, but when I was young, those dreams were far from modest: Not only would I be a ballerina, but I decided I would be the greatest ballerina. I would be world-famous, dance on the biggest stages and partner with the best male dancers. Looking back, my optimism and naiveté seem almost endearing. While these big dreams planted a solid determination inside of me, my journey towards the top in the competitive ballet world was far more difficult than I’d envisioned.

 

As a young student, my ambitions were fairly tame. I envied the girls who could do more pirouettes than I could and those who moved up a level. But as I continued training as a teenager at the School of American Ballet, my competitiveness grew. We were all there with the same goal—to become apprentices with New York City Ballet. But only a few of us would make it. My worries over who could do the most turns turned into bigger anxieties: Who gets the most attention in class? Why is she getting better parts than me? How does she do that step so well? Who is getting interest from companies?

 

Looking back, competing with my classmates gave me the extra drive to push myself. I worked hard in every class and took everything seriously. After a year and a half, it paid off—I was offered an NYCB?apprenticeship. I was thrilled to dive headfirst into the professional dance world as a member of one of the leading ballet companies.

 

Yet my first years with NYCB were very tough. I took every casting decision personally, convincing myself that someone else got a role because I wasn’t working hard enough or I had been eating too many cookies. I struggled with feelings of inadequacy. I was sure the audience preferred other dancers, positive I got the least applause.

 

Determined to prove that I was the best dancer, I decided I had to be better than everyone. I particularly remember one winter when I was one of many girls cast as Dewdrop in The Nutcracker. I wanted to perform the role flawlessly, but I kept struggling with a difficult set of turns. I was relentless, practicing them over and over. Then I started to obsess over how well the other dancers did the same steps.

 

My plan backfired. I’d put too much pressure on myself, and my inability to reach perfection morphed into stage fright. I didn’t trust my body to know what to do, or even if I had the strength I needed. Before shows, I pictured everything that could go wrong. I pictured the audience hating me. I pictured them wanting to see other dancers instead of me. What a horrible way to perform! My dancing, in turn, suffered. In trying to outdo everyone, I smothered my growth. I wasn’t able to simply dance. I couldn’t let go and be in the moment. 

 

Ten years of performing regularly has since given me many valuable insights. First, we are all here because we love to dance. Each of us strives for a perfection that will always be just beyond our grasp. We worry about our bodies. We analyze every ache and pain. We are insecure, yet we must maintain a certain level of confidence to be able to perform for thousands of people. We all want to dance as much as possible, yet we have to understand that we can’t dance everything.

 

It’s still a learning process. Lately, I’ve been working to accept my dancing and its flaws, and to use my time onstage to reward myself. In performance, I try to let myself simply enjoy the benefits of many hours of hard work. I’m able to grasp the concept that I may not be right for every role, but I have my own strengths to bring to the stage.    

 

Now I am working on learning from my colleagues instead of comparing myself to them. I love watching Wendy Whelan and Jenifer Ringer, two of NYCB’s most experienced principals, because their artistry comes from such an honest place. They don’t try to dance like anybody else or please anyone. They are comfortable with their own dancing. I constantly gain inspiration and steal things I like from their performances, but I also have to remind myself that even they have their own strengths and weaknesses.

 

I love being onstage again. I love the exhilaration of a great performance. I’ve learned that my fiercest competitor and harshest critic is the one in the mirror. That’s who must be satisfied. That’s who must be happy.

Abi Stafford is a principal at New York City Ballet.

Ballet Training

Have a question? Click here to send it to Amy and she might answer it in an upcoming issue!

It seems like every other week I have a new injury: hip issues, Achilles tendonitis, back problems. I’m afraid this will stunt my career— it’s hard to improve when I’m always injured. What can I do? —Frustrated

Injuries are exasperating, but nonetheless a part of our profession. Make sure you’re taking time to heal properly. It’s tempting to try to push through when you should be resting. I developed a rare hip injury early in my career. I could barely lift my leg, but I was so anxious about casting that I did not have it properly evaluated for months. Well, I didn’t get the part, and I permanently damaged my hip. I also developed knee and ankle problems as a result of compensating.

Use the time off as an opportunity to learn about your body’s weaknesses, quirks and asymmetries. I found that my right hip socket cocks slightly inward, so certain muscles are weaker. Now I regularly stretch and strengthen that side to prevent further strains.

Once your body is well enough to get back to class, don’t be embarrassed if you need to modify combinations for a while. You’ll learn to work correctly, which will benefit your dancing in the end.

I’m never satisfied with my pointe shoes. I’ve tried several and they always make my feet look more turned in than they actually are! What should I do? —Janice, California

Pointe shoes can sometimes magnify imperfections. In all honesty, maintaining turnout is more difficult once you’ve got the boots on. Make sure you’re taking a sincere look at your technique and not just blaming your shoes.

That said, finding the perfect pair takes a while. I’ve changed my shoes many times during my career. Find a professional fitter to measure your feet and recommend shoes based on your foot type. “Look at the box shape of your shoe,” says Mary Carpenter, a New York–based teacher and shoe fitter. “If you have a square foot and you’re wearing a tapered box, it’s going to twist. If you have a narrow, tapered foot and you wear a square box, you’re going to sink in it.”

There are also tricks that can improve the look of your shoe. Some dancers criss-cross their elastics to tighten up excess material, or sew the sides down lower. Consider trying a special-order shoe. They take a while to come in, but you can customize everything to your liking.

My arabesque is stuck at 90 degrees. How can I make it go higher? —Talia, Florida

I’m so glad you asked—I used to have the same problem! Thankfully, my arabesque significantly improved over time. It’s still not great—94 degrees on a warm day—but at least it’s acceptable.

I suspect you either have an inflexible back or you’re holding your arabesque improperly. Or both, as was my case. Luckily, a teacher taught me a great exercise that can help you increase flexibility and find proper placement.

You’ll need two portable barres and a mirror. Set the barres parallel to the mirror, one about four feet behind the other. Take an arabesque, placing your foot on the back barre and your hands on the front barre. Observe your position. Are your shoulders down and square, ribs aligned, hips pulled up, arabesque leg turned out and behind you? (Use a lower barre if you can’t maintain the correct position.) Take three slow, deep pliés, keeping your upper back lifted. After the third plié, lift your back leg off the barre (without compromising your shoulders), hold, and lower the leg back down. Repeat, for a total of four times on each side. Stretch your back and hips in the opposite direction as soon as you’re finished. My flexibility, position and strength improved, and hopefully yours will, too.

Talking to Amy: Houston Ballet Principal Barbara Bears

I’ve had four foot surgeries, and have unfortunately experienced trickle-down injuries when coming back. You tend to compensate when you’re not 100 percent, so other things flare up. As dancers, we have to listen to our bodies. If something’s bothering you, talk to your instructor and then have it looked at by a dance medicine specialist. If you have several serious injuries, look at how you’re working. Are you not wearing the proper shoes, or not warming up well enough before class? Do your own little bit of investigating.

 

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