“I had no idea.”
We often hear this phrase when a new ballet attendee makes their way across an energetic lobby after the final curtain. They approach our table and utter it followed by a string of excited sentences describing the sights, sounds, and emotions they experienced during the performance. More often than not, it refers to the sheer effort and strength the audience member just witnessed on stage.
When non-ballet fans think of ballet, a set of presumptions tends to pop into their subconscious—a dancer making small, gentle movements to light, flittery music with a smile on their face or no emotion at all, a stiff tutu, and hair woven into tight buns. While these depictions can and do appear in a ballet performance, the breadth of the art form is actually much broader and grittier.
During a performance it’s not uncommon to see beads of sweat forming on a dancer’s skin and their chests heaving from exertion. Yet their faces are calm, portraying the emotions of the role they’re performing, and never revealing the physical toll into which they willingly leap. Dancers frequently push themselves past their body’s comfort level, over and over and over again, as many athletes do. They endure injuries and face extreme physical and emotional challenges. They sweat, they bleed, and they persevere, for days, weeks, months, and years.
Dance is not gentle. It is not calming. It may be soothing to watch, but to perform is to test and re-test normal physical boundaries. The goal is to make it look effortless, which takes more effort than you’d think.
Need more convincing? Here’s what a typical dancer’s day looks like:
Meet two of Eugene Ballet’s Principal Dancers, Mark Tucker and Danielle Tolmie. They joined Eugene Ballet in 2008 and have developed a high standard for their craft through a consistent and challenging regimen.
Their day starts at 6:00 a.m. as they get up, make coffee, and begin stretching to wake up their bodies.
“My routine incorporates both a hybrid of Ashtanga yoga, core and leg exercises, as well as TheraBand foot exercises,” Mark says. “Getting mobile is a crucial start to the day.”
“I start yoga immediately to get my body moving and to work out all the kinks and sore spots from the day before,” Danielle explains. “I usually practice for 50 minutes to an hour before coffee and breakfast.”
For many of us, this would be our workout for the entire day, but Mark and Danielle are just getting started. After eating breakfast, preparing lunch, and getting ready to leave their home for the day, they head to the studio for rehearsals.
Eugene Ballet rehearsals start at 8:00 a.m., but many dancers show up early to start or continue stretching and waking up their bodies. At 8:00 a.m. sharp, the workday starts with a 90-minute technique class and then transitions to rehearsals for upcoming performances. Rehearsals involve solo work, pas de deux (a dance for two people), and group numbers, as well as creating new choreography. Dancers receive short breaks every hour and an hour for lunch. Hydration and nutrition are key to fueling the body during a grueling work day.
After rehearsal, we imagine dancers are exhausted and done for the day, but Mark and Danielle aren’t finished yet. They head to the Downtown Athletic Club (DAC), Eugene Ballet’s official athletic sponsor, for additional body work and strength training.
“Due to injuries I have suffered in the past, squats are a cornerstone of my training program,” Mark notes. “Reps of 20 with 65 lb, 105 lb, and 135 lb weights, three times a week. This generally keeps me ahead of the curve in terms of the physical demands I place on my legs and back.”
Mark adds repetitions with dead lifts, kettle bells, free weights and resistance bands as well as extensive breath work throughout. Mark can also be found in the Downtown Athletic Club’s pool where he continues strength and breath training by working up to a full two lengths of the pool in one breath. Regardless of the day, Mark enjoys a 15-minute sauna to finish his gym routine.
Danielle’s routine at the Downtown Athletic Club also varies from day to day depending on what she feels her body needs.
“Some days I take a yoga class at the DAC, other days I do cardio on an elliptical,” Danielle explains. Danielle created a BOSU ball exercise routine using low weights to challenge her balance even more. Her gym session lasts an hour to an hour and half before heading home for the day.
“Home is all about restoration,” Mark says. Occasionally, Mark will indulge in a full-body ice bath, although getting enough ice to submerge his six-foot two-inch frame can be challenging.
Regardless of how the day went, a large, nutritious dinner and eight hours of sleep are an everyday goal for these dancers.
“I usually fall asleep going over my choreography and corrections for the day,” Danielle says. “Then we wake up and repeat the process all over again.”
The next time you experience Eugene Ballet, just imagine the number of hours and amount of effort that’s been poured into the performance. Watch the way the dancers jump, move, run, and land across the stage and picture the challenges each of them faces for days and weeks on end. And, if you can spare it, clap extra hard. They will be incredibly grateful.