Questions that never get asked – Dancers

Modern pointe shoes. The edge of the toe pad, ...

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by Madeline Laughs

Recently I was invited to attend the dancer’s audition for a local production of The Nutcracker. It was held in an exclusive ballet academy in Sonoma County and I was excited to be front and center as dancers were chosen to fill parts for the Christmas extravaganza.

I worked in theater for several years as a Master Scenic so I’ve attended oodles of auditions of all kinds, dancers, actors, magicians, etc. This wasn’t a new experience for me. What was different was instead of sitting out in the chairs where the audience would normally view from, I was cross-legged on the floor, eye level with the dancer’s knees as they plodded by me in the toe shoes.

The first hour was spent watching the young children go through the paces of the audition. Adorable little dolts in tutus and leotards laughing and having the best time moving through each dance step the best they knew how. 

The next two hours was spent watching the adult dancers.

I noticed it took much longer to round up the elder dancers to get them into their places than it took the children. Even after they were lined up according to their audition numbers they still goofed around. There was a certain level of comfort for the teenaged dancers with their svelte untouched figures, wrapped toes snugly crammed in toe shoes practicing high kicks that literally reached the ceilings. Okay, that was an exaggeration, but wow, those kids could kick.

Then there was a slight posturing between the older dancers as they nimbly propped one leg and then the other on the highest balance beams and stretched talking about their day. Some were in pointe, most were not.

I noticed this one woman’s toes as she gracefully glided around the floor chatting with this one and that one. She walked like a professional dancer and her toes were evidence that she had spent most of her life doing just that. Her toes were grotesquely bent and misshapen and though she made the effort to paint her petite toenails a bright red, it did not distract from the painful shape of her toes. I felt something for this woman that sacrificed her feet for something she loved. When she bent down to don her ballet slippers I paid close attention to see if she would be wearing toe shoes, and she did not. I was secretly happy about that.

The Balanchine dancers that run the academy were impressive, though obviously not working professional dancers any longer. The male instructor walked slowly through the lines of dancers barking out dance positions, but he never made a move to demonstrate unless most of the auditioning pupils were flummoxed by his requests. Then it was a two second deal and everyone was expected to follow suit with urgency.  No doubt as a soloist for the San Francisco Ballet he put in his time in the studio, and my friend assures me he and his wife are both still performing character parts in the productions and are quite spry.  I saw no evidence of that today.

I had no idea how most of these men and women continued standing, jumping and kicking for as long as they did. The steps became more and more difficult as the time wore on and a sheen of sweat cascaded down everyone’s faces. Towels were mopping, shirts were pulled over wet cheeks and hair escaped carefully applied bobby pins as buns unraveled.

Dance! Dance! Dance!

Then the barres used for balance were moved to the sides and dancers lined up to do full blown dance steps in groups of four. As they glided and jumped to impossible heights they stomped right past me to line up for the next instruction. I started to notice that being at ground level in close proximity put me at a slight disadvantage. The smell of feet and body odor started to become quite prevalent.  I never noticed this with the small children. In fact, I don’t even think they broke a sweat, but the adults were indeed suffering for their art.

This brought to mind questions that had crossed my mind on numerous occasions, but had never asked. How fortunate for me that now I had access to a professionally trained dancer that actually held a degree in dance. It was something she had done all of her life. I could ask her my questions and I knew I’d get good, honest answers.

After explaining to her my impressions once the auditions were in full swing, I asked her my first question:

Me: Are there issues with personal hygiene among dancers?

Dancer: Oh yes! One of the things I saw happening at the university level would be lack of knowledge of the proper use of foundation garments. Typically these would be the men. They would show up to class in just sweats and a t-shirt, no underwear or just wearing boxers. The teacher would typically take them aside and tell them they had to wear a dance belt to class, which is essentially a jock strap.  You just can’t have things bouncing around in dance class, women at that age mostly know about how to keep things from jiggling around and showing through their clothes, but the men just haven’t had to think about those things, most of them.

But what you’re talking about is bending over in a leotard and having your rear end in someone else’s face. You lose a lot of your inhibitions. You’re constantly changing costumes in front of each other and you’re all sweaty. When you’re taking four or five classes a day you run around between class barely having time to eat, never mind change your leotards. Maybe when they get super wet you’d change them, but for the most part you didn’t bother.  Your sense of personal space and privacy sort of changes, after a while you don’t really see it in the same way, the physical proximity.

It’s clean sweat too and a lot of your odor depends on your diet. I know a lot of professional dancers exist solely on coffee and cigarettes, but when I was doing this we were all pretty young and healthy, we had pretty good diets so it was rare that someone was really ranky in class.  Except me, when I got nervous, but that’s not really body odor, that’s something else.

Me: I see these performances where the woman literally has her legs wrapped around the male dancer’s face. How do they handle this?

Dancer:  Well, it depends on the individual really.  Some of the men are straight, and I’m sure they love it.  When there is real sexual energy between dancers it can be very hot, if the piece calls for that, and the performers can use the sparks between them to create magic on stage.  Still, the ten millionth time some sweaty leotard is in your face maybe it does lose its charm, I can’t say.

I did a duet once with a male dancer who was stunning, and very gay.  He was sweet to me, and we did a fair imitation of being a couple despite our language differences (he spoke primarily Korean), and our orientation differences (we both preferred men as sexual partners), and I would say we both enjoyed the physical interaction.  It is a safe place to have such an encounter, it is sensual but not sexual, there are witnesses, and you are doing physically what you have been asked to do, not expressing your own self through your body, so you can put on these archetypical stances, and play out romantic poses, without having to risk the person expecting it to extend outside the choreography in any way.

Dancers are such physical beings, we speak a language of gesture, and the physical conversations are scripted, we are simply actors in many cases.  There are some instances where we are called upon to contribute our own vocabulary to the project, but even then it is our movement chosen and sculpted by the choreographer so it is their statement, we simply embody it.  This can be incredibly freeing in a deep way, it allows you to explore yourself in ways you might not otherwise choose to look at.  I don’t think of myself as particularly graceful, for example, but I can do graceful, it feels good to go there even though it’s not really where I live.

Me: Is a dancer taught how to take care of their feet? I have noticed at many auditions and backstage performances horribly disfigured toes and feet being wrapped and bound so tightly that it made me wince.

Dancer: Well, that is definitely an issue.  If you dance on pointe you are doing a fair amount of weight bearing on parts of your foot that are not typically used for such things.  The tips of your toes, the place where your foot arches into your toe knuckles on the top of your foot, these are not places that are built to support the weight of your body, not over the long haul.

If you are a modern dancer you do a lot of turns and such in your bare feet, and I have seen the whole bottom pad of someone’s forefoot tear right off when they did a turn.  So even the bottoms of your feet are not immune.  They are built to bear weight, but the callouses that develop over years of dancing barefoot can tear off all at once, so the bottoms of your feet will just be raw.  I have been lucky, I have never had any problems like that with my feet.  I have gotten blisters, or had some issues with twisted ankles and taping for that, but overall I have really strong feet.  And I have never done much pointe. So my toes are pretty good.  If you do pointe for years it can often trash your feet.  I think that’s what you were seeing at the studio the other day, ballet feet.  Modern feet can be just as bad, but in a different way.

People tape to avoid getting blisters in places they know are going to rub, they tape to immobilize something they are afraid might be sprained or strained, or they tape to be able to dance on an injury they already have, or a blister, or a hot spot, or some other oddity that doesn’t interface well with the shoes or the floor in question.  Dancing on an injury is standard, no one wants to lose their part to an understudy because they have to miss rehearsal.  And the endorphins and the adrenaline just block out the pain, it is not uncommon to finish rehearsal and then realize your feet are a mess.  While you are dancing you feel nothing, you are the music and you are a dream.  Dreams don’t have feet.

I think I’m going to close with that thought; While you are dancing you feel nothing, you are the music and you are a dream. Dreams don’t have feet. If everything in life, all of the details that some of us focus on and the day to day grind we all become accustomed to could somehow be boiled down into a simple, pain free dance, I think  the world would be a nicer place. Until then I will continue to search for answers to the questions that make me wonder exactly how things work and why they do.

Keep on dancing my friend!

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About Madeline Scribes

A writer with a sense of humor. If anyone can laugh at life, it's me.
This entry was posted in Memories good and bad and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Questions that never get asked – Dancers

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