Editors’ note: What goes into the making of a professional ballet dancer? In this twelve-part series of reminiscences and turning points excerpted from a larger work-in-progress, former Oregon Ballet Theatre principal Gavin Larsen pulls back the curtains and gives us inside glimpses of the challenges, uncertainties, and triumphs of the dancers’ life. Part 5 of “Everyday Ballerina”: In the summer of 1992, Larsen travels cross-country from New York to Seattle to begin her professional dancing career with Pacific Northwest Ballet.
By GAVIN LARSEN
In the summer of 1992, I thought I had been duped.
I was naive, even for a 17-year-old. But as it became clear that I had failed to notice a huge, crucial, completely obvious basic fact about being a dancer, I was rocked absolutely to the core. I’d been oblivious to something everyone else got but didn’t bother to tell me about, because it was so commonly understood. I was terrified. And I feared I just might have made a terrible mistake.
It was as if, after desperately wanting and hoping to be granted membership into a special club, one whose members I idolized and that was my ticket to my dreamed-of life of a dancer, I had finally been allowed to join— but once I was inside, the expectations and assumptions and responsibilities were completely unlike anything I had envisioned. They were dauntingly difficult, and stunningly painful. There was no rule book, and nothing was explained. The price of membership in this Professional Dancer Club was a test of toughness, adaptability, and stoicism. It required a worldly-wise savvy of which I had not one iota. The other members were welcoming enough, even accepting, but their blasé air of capable professionalism was intimidating. I was much too embarrassed to ask a question that might reveal my shocking lack of preparation— my reflexive instinct was that I should hide my struggle or I would be branded as irresponsible and inadequate, not up to the task. I was in completely over my head.
What scared me most during that summer of ’92 was a startling feeling that I should have known what this was going to be like— I should have known what to expect when I graduated from ballet school into the life of a professional dancer. I should have known that I would be in pointe shoes for eight hours a day— and my feet should have been able to handle it. I should have been able to learn the choreography for three different ballets, and understudy three other dancers’ roles, and be able to step in without warning to any of the other dancers’ positions whether or not I’d learned them. But I hadn’t even known how long the rehearsal days would be, and I definitely did not imagine they would leave me feeling desperate from pain and fatigue.