Navigating life as a classical dancer is a bit of a minefield at the best of times; especially managing the uncertainties of training that carry through to the professional world. At times I have felt like a complete outsider, ill equipped for the demands of the art form, and I know many friends and colleagues who have felt the same. Whichever route you decide to take in your pursuit of a career in classical dance, there will undoubtedly be tough times and pressure – mainly to pull yourself together and be proactive…which is worth remembering when your life seems to be concentrated down to executing the perfect battement tendu.
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Transitioning from student to pro
In order to keep your perspective in a determined and positive place, here’s an analogy that has become apparent to me now I’m dancing professionally: the journey from student to professional is like baking a cake. For the sponge itself, following the instructions to a t is the only way you’ll produce a base that has all the desirable qualities of a top notch cake; there are a variety of basic sponges you can choose as your base but they all follow a respective method that is precise and specific to the tried and tested result. (If I’ve lost you a little, this is school).
The filling, icing, decorations that are then added are personal embellishments that add flair, personality and originality to the cake; there are no set rules because we are now discussing creativity, where pragmatic ‘one-size-fits-all’ doesn’t apply. Plus, if the icing looks bad, you can always correct it; if the cream has curdled, you can throw it out and start again (et voila, we’re on to professional work).
When it comes to assembling all your acquired skills and artistry, the most exciting cakes are the ones that combine elements that the baker has decided suit their cake best, applied with confidence and with an openness to new ideas. You can always add more decoration, or even a whole other tier.
In truth, it’s a leap of faith, transitioning from school to work; the two approaches are incredibly different. The point I am trying to highlight is that, during training in school, our ability to work hard at the demands of our teachers determines how effectively we are training, whereas, upon becoming professional dancers, our autonomy and understanding of our own bodies is our guide to effective training.
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Learning your limits
Though there are significant differences between student and professional training, there is one similarity that I find pretty necessary in the development of a career in classical dance: learn your limits. While training at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, there were many instances where I felt challenged like never before; my final year exams were definitely the pinnacle. Physically, I had to master the hardest section of the Vaganova syllabus, while mentally, I was pushed to deal with pressure of producing my best.
Later, in professional life, I’ve had to take part in extremely intense tours that have lasted up to three months at a time, dancing every day, sometimes twice a day. Not only is the schedule tiring, but the amount of dancing in each individual production is extremely full on. For Swan Lake, I have danced all four acts, including both corps de ballet and soloist roles. The experience is very testing, to say the least, but prepares you like nothing else, stamina-wise, by way of the need to consistently produce high quality performances in not necessarily ideal conditions.
Having reached the ‘burn out point’ both before and during my career, I feel confident that I know how to handle my body. I am better able to tailor my training for optimal output; on form but not exhausted.
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Being prepared and focused
I’ve written before that the diverse dancer is the most employable. To prepare yourself for the professional industry, the vast variety of repertoire currently out there should be proof enough that classical dancers nowadays are required to be adept in many different classical styles, plus neoclassical and other dance styles, too (the various contemporary methods, even commercial and theatre jazz).
In addition, the workplace is crowded, so part of the classical dancer job requirements, that isn’t as heavily instilled in us as, say, commercial dancers, is to be unique and stand out. Find your own style from what you have learnt absorbing as many different methods of training (classical and otherwise) as possible and try to remember that confidence is a very attractive attribute.
Have clear goals; know what you want, pinpoint them, and strive to achieve them. It seems obvious, but, when I was a lot younger, I used to have a subconscious feeling that being a go-getter wasn’t part of being a classical dancer – I’m very glad I squashed that one! Ambition and self-belief are a more than admirable qualities for any dancer to have; they are also the only way you’ll ever secure any job in this industry.
Equally, self-motivation is an extremely valuable aspect of professional classical dancing. I have had to learn how to work for me; I understand my body better than ever and I make sure I work on mob technique and artistry in the ways I have learnt work best for my physicality. For more in depth on training options, see this post).
While everyone’s journey into professional dancing is different, my advice for any dancer contemplating taking up ballet professionally is to 1) know that working will be different to training, 2) understand your own limits, and 3) do your research so you are prepared and focused.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this article and have found it helpful. To find out more about my journey to becoming a professional dancer, please take a look at the other articles on my blog or check out my Instagram.