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Everything you’ve always wanted to know about ballet dancers but were afraid to ask

Blood on the pointe shoe… and lots of other facts about the ballet

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


It’s Christmas, and if you’re a ballet dancer, that means one thing: The Nutcracker. With the Fort Wayne Ballet on the verge of launching its 2006 performance of the holiday classic, we thought it might be interesting to do something a little different.

So, we took an informal survey and invited people to ask questions about the ballet. What have you always wanted to know about the ballet but were afraid to ask? We accepted all kinds of questions, no matter how goofy…

And indeed, some of the questions were pretty goofy. While many people wanted to know about diet, health, and fitness, we also got questions like “is there a movie that is required viewing for ballet dancers” and (ahem) “do ballet dancers eat Kleenex?” The first time I heard the latter question I said “…yeah, uh-huh… got anything else?” But when another person had the same question, I put it on the list, and said I would ask it no matter how stupid I appeared (and the looks I got spoke volumes).

We put these questions to a panel of extremely patient dancers. Some were currently dancing with the company, others had moved on and were now dancing somewhere else. We actually got enough material for about three articles, but we had to stop somewhere.

Our panel: Karen Gibbons-Brown (Artistic Director of the Fort Wayne Ballet); Molly Merkler (New York-based freelance dancer/performance artist); Kristin Scott (American Repertory Ballet, New Brunswick, NJ);Mari Newlin (Trainee with the Ailey School, NY, NY); Lucia Rogers (Full time faculty and principle dancer, Fort Wayne Ballet); Barbara Shoen (Trainee, Fort Wayne Ballet); Jessica Bracy (Second level of the Conservatory Program, Fort Wayne Ballet); Karen Tubergen (Second level of the Conservatory Program, Fort Wayne Ballet); Leah Heet (Second level of the Conservatory Program, Fort Wayne Ballet); Lauren Slocum (Second level of the Conservatory Program, Fort Wayne Ballet);Corynn Miller (Second level of the Conservatory Program, Fort Wayne Ballet).

Q: How does ballet compete for the loyalties of aspiring dancers when there are so many other forms of dance out there?

Lucia Rogers: It’s the basis for everything. Your technique is your means to an end. Ballet technique makes you be very aware of your body, and aware of the things you’re doing, but it also tends to help with contemporary dance and jazz and tap and… ice skating and gymnastics. Even soccer and football. It helps with strength and coordination, balance and stamina.

Molly Merkler: I graduated from the Fort Wayne Ballet in 2001 and moved to New York City to study modern dance that same year. Although I had had minimal training as a modern dancer I was prepared for the modern dance conservatory in New York by all of the ballet training I had received in Fort Wayne. The goal of a modern dancer is to train one's body to move in any way that is anatomically possible. With the strength and flexibilty built into my body through ballet training, I was able to learn more. Common thought in the dance community is that ballet is a great foundation to any dance form.

Q: What do ballet dancers eat to stay in shape?

Lucia Rogers: We eat normal food. Everyone eats junk food every once in a while, but you basically have to have a balanced diet.

Leah Heet: I eat a peanut butter sandwich for breakfast every single day. The same thing every morning. It’s easy and it has protein.

Jessica Bracy: A lot of dancers eat yogurt.

Q: What’s a fact about ballet that will astound and amaze me?

Karen Gibbons-Brown: By the end of a full evening performance, a male dancer will have lifted the equivalent of a big yellow school bus. That’s not saying our dancers weigh as much as a big yellow school bus; that’s just when you do the math and the physics, by the end of an evening’s performance, that’s how it all adds up.

Q: What’s the most challenging thing about dancing ballet?

Lauren Slocum: A lot of people think dance is easy. Making sure you’re doing everything you’re supposed to with your arms and your head and holding your body a certain way… it’s a lot of work.

Leah Heet: Working hard all the time but not looking like you’re working hard. You can’t be up on stage and look like you’re thinking ‘oh my gosh I’ve got to do this turn and it’s really hard…’

Jessica Bracy: Doing everything the right way to keep me injury free and healthy. That’s the challenge for me.

Mary Johnson (FWB publicity director): What seems to surprise people the most is the amount of time the dancers spend in class. Some of them have around nine hours a week of just straight ballet. Then there’s an academic class, which is usually an hour, contemporary dance, theater, character (which is styles of dancing from different parts of the world) pilates, and acting class.

Q: What’s the big deal about the pointe shoes?

Karen Gibbons-Brown: Earning your pointe shoes seems to be a tremendous right of passage for female dancers. It’s a natural progression of the techniques you’re learning, but it’s a prize. We keep telling the young people “oh, you want your pointe shoes now, but when you get them you’re going to want to throw them in the trash.” They all think we’re kidding, but it’s almost like learning to dance all over again.

Corynn Miller: Your feet are soft before you start on pointe shoes. Your feet are not tough at all, and then you get blisters the first time. You just have to get used to it.

Lucia Rogers: There are many different shoe types. It gets pretty technical. Everybody is picky about their shoes. I couldn’t wear Lauren’s shoes and she couldn’t wear mine, even if our feet were the same size. The shoes mold to your feet.

Q: Why do they put their shoes in the oven?

Mari Newlin: It’s one of the different ways of drying out your shoes so they last longer. I use something called JetGlue. It is a very strong, pungent glue that I put in the inside of my shoes. After the glue is dry the shoes are hard again!

Q: What’s with all the French?

Karen Gibbons-Brown: The first ballet school was started by Louis the XIV, so all our terms are in French. Louis XIV had a narcissistic motive: he loved to dance, and he liked to do the leads in all of his ballets. He wanted to do the best shows in the whole world, so he decided to codify the syllabus. That’s why classical ballet is the most formal, codified training syllabus that you will ever come across.

Q: Do ballet dancers have a movie that is required viewing?

Mari Newlin: The Company is a pretty good movie for dancers. It’s based on The Joffery in Chicago. Center Stage or Save the Last Dance would be movies we laugh at (too unrealistic). I think it would be hard for Hollywood to really capture the real life of a dancer, because without adding a romance or conflict it wouldn't be much of a movie.

Karen Tubergen: (Dancer movies) tend to be too dramatic. We’re not spiking each other’s pointe shoes with glass. We don’t slip into the costume shop and cut up each other’s costumes.

Q: Ballet dancers use their legs a lot. How do they keep their legs from becoming overly muscular in proportion to the rest of their body?

Mari Newlin: The way ballet was created keeps the legs lean. Dancers legs are very strong; however, if you are moving the correct way your legs will not gain bulk. It's all about using your whole body in the correct way (because it is all connected), and you will maintain the "dancer's body.”

Barbara Shoen: Classical ballet technique uses the secondary muscles more than the primary muscles. So when you use your secondary muscles and lengthen the body through use of the secondary muscles, the bulk doesn’t happen in the way that people imagine it might.

Q: Do ballet dancers ever get tired of The Nutcracker?

Kristin Scott: Pulling it out each Christmas season feels just as comfortable and almost exciting as getting out the box of ornaments. If we didn't do The Nutcracker, our Christmas season just wouldn't be the same.

Q: I've heard that sometimes ballet dancers eat Kleenex. Is this true?

Molly Merkler: Only if it's one-ply. All kidding aside, I've met hundreds of ballet dancers and not once have I heard of a Kleenex eating incident. Ballet dancers eat food, real food. As much as dancers are artists, they are athletes who need to take proper care of their body, which means not eating paper.

Kristin Scott: I know nothing about eating Kleenex, although ballet dancers have many strange habits. For example, we tell each other merde before the show. In ballet language it means good luck. Also, blood on any pointe shoe is good luck.

Karen Gibbons-Brown: Why would we eat Kleenex? Are you making that up?

Q: What’s the dumbest question anyone has ever asked you about ballet?

Corynn Miller: “Are pointe shoes made out of metal or wood?”

Molly Merkler: Nothing can beat.... “Do dancers eat Kleenex?”

The Fort Wayne Ballet Presents The Nutcracker
Friday, December 1st & 8th at 8pm
Saturday, December 2nd & 9th at 2:30pm & 8pm
Sunday, December 3rd & 10th at 2:30pm
Arts United Center
303 East Main Street

Tickets for the 2006 production of The Nutcracker are now on sale. Call 260.484.9646 for more information.

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