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.
THOSE DAYS WERE MORE THAN LONG; they were endless. At first, each hour was filled with the anxiety of uncertainty, starting with company technique class first thing in the morning. Walking into a studio filled with professional dancers was utterly forbidding to me, brand new out of school, so green and self-conscious I could barely see where I was stepping, let alone find an appropriate barre-spot. Needing to be as inconspicuous as humanly possible, I hovered in the no-man’s land between two barres until the last moment before class began, and then slipped into a space that looked like no one else wanted it. If no senior dancer (and they were all senior relative to me) looked peeved, then that obscure spot I’d chosen along the side wall, putting me miles from the mirror and awkwardly straining to see the teacher’s demonstrations, was safe.
Once class started, I breathed. My nervous guessing-game of figuring out where to stand was temporarily resolved. And once the music began for pliés, the risk of possibly being spoken to by one of these supremely confident, old-pro dancers— and the pressure to respond appropriately and cleverly—also disappeared. For the 45 minutes of barre work, I was on safe ground. Everyone in the studio did the same exercises, which were, while unusual in style and presentation, comfortingly familiar. For a brief time each morning, I had a bit of confidence. This was something I’d done millions of times before. I could just dance, hiding in the solitude of barre-work, knowing there’d be no surprises and I wouldn’t have to interact with anyone.
That sense of safety evaporated when barre neared its end. The second half of class was a huge minefield, an obstacle course I felt I was navigating with an eye patch on. No longer tethered to their barre-spots, all the dancers swarmed into the center of the studio. It seemed too dense to possibly allow anyone room to dance. There was constant movement. Groups of dancers quickly formed and re-formed for each exercise, leaving me no time to gauge where I might fit in— so I clung to the back of the crowd, where I was hidden and happier anyway. I was more nervous about bumping into someone or stepping on their toes than actually dancing, but no matter how keenly I watched to avoid collision, I felt clumsy and inevitably in someone’s way.
If daily class was a study in the social workings of a ballet company, the rest of the day was physical boot camp. Up until this point, I’d never worn pointe shoes for more than three hours at a time, but now I was called to rehearse for six hours a day— after the hour-and-a-half-long class. I had never known such foot pain. I began to live by the clock, counting the minutes until another hour had passed and we were given our union-mandated five-minute break. I searched for ways to stand that might give my feet a degree of relief. I rocked back and forth from leg to leg, giving each one a chance to be pressure-free while the other took all my weight for a minute. The glory of sitting down— oh, it was pure nirvana. Even kneeling felt blissful. I would happily, joyously, spend five minutes on my knees if the choreography called for it. Anything, anything, to get off my feet.
EVERY DANCER KNOWS, soon enough, that standing still is remarkably more tiring, and painful, than moving. The blood pools in your feet and lower legs, which swell and throb. And when you are in the corps de ballet and learning new choreography, you spend much more time standing in the back of a studio than you do dancing. The cursed burden of being an understudy. And as the newest of the new, I had a lot of understudying to do.
A new ballet was being created that summer with twelve corps de ballet couples, of which I was part of one. Rehearsals ran for three hours at a stretch, then an hour lunch break, followed by another three hours of rehearsal. It was July, there was a heat wave, the studio was not air-conditioned, and I thought I was going to die.
There were blisters, but even worse were the “zingers,” the electric zapping sensations that shot through my toes and couldn’t be taped or padded. The inner sole (the “shank”) of a pointe shoe is slightly smaller than the length of the dancer’s foot, and the places where my heel overhung the shank burned so much I expected to see blood, though the skin wasn’t broken. My toenails bruised, and I started my lifelong battle with soft corns, which formed between my knobby toes on moist skin that never had a chance to dry out.
The first of the three hours did not necessarily pass the most quickly. When the zingers start early, and you see the clock show you there are 6 hours and 45 minutes left of the day, it is hard to put on a sunny face. The choreographer of this new ballet was also the artistic director of the company, but any eagerness I might have had to make a good impression on him (who doesn’t dream of being Esther in A Star is Born?) didn’t stand a chance against my instinct for survival. I didn’t care if my face betrayed my exhaustion, if he thought I was lazy for sitting down at any opportunity, or unambitious for hiding behind other dancers (so he couldn’t see me wince). It was all I could do to stay standing and not cry tears of frustration at the incredible discomfort I was in. It felt inhumane, to treat people this way, to expect them to endure such hours in such conditions— did he not know how awful it was?? Not care? I started to feel trapped, and even slightly panicked. This was slavery, forced labor, torture! And no one seemed to care! I thought about the people outside on the streets, in their offices, working normal jobs, going through daily life in the regular world, what they would do or say if they knew what was happening in this stuffy, moist, torture-chamber of a ballet studio. They would revolt, surely, and rescue us! No one would allow their fellow man to suffer this way. …
BUT NO RESCUE CAME. When the one holy hour each day that was my break from this ordeal finally arrived, all I could do was lie on my back with my legs straight up in the air, feet dangling overhead, and wish upon wish that I didn’t have to put my pointe shoes back on. I didn’t know how I could only be halfway through the day, how I could conceivably do this for another three hours. The rumble in my stomach forced me to stand up, barefoot, and even as much as I wished I could levitate to the dressing room to retrieve my lunch instead of walking there, feeling the spread of my feet on floor felt good. It may as well have been a deep-tissue massage for the pleasure it gave.
In stark contrast to the interminable hours of rehearsal, my lunch hour passed faster than sixty minutes ever should. Delaying the inevitable moment of putting my pointe shoes back on would have been a mistake, since the initial few minutes inside them was always the worst. At 10 minutes before 3, I re-taped my toes, vainly hoping that fresh athletic tape and corn pads would magically alleviate the pain. I gave my arches one final stretch and pulled my pointe shoes back on, almost stunned at how disgusting it felt. Awkwardly standing up, I could not conceive of dancing, or doing any ballet steps at all, but luckily, walking was worse than anything else. The choreographer was already back in the studio, talking to the pianist, and was about to resume work on the latest section of his ballet, picking up where we left off an hour ago.
He had placed us 12 corps de ballet girls in a circle, sort of— more like a loose amoeba-shaped formation, with all of us joined hand-to-hand. He wanted unspecific, continual movement, an undulating wave from girl to girl through our linked arms, without ever losing contact with one another. Our bodies were positioned in a vague half-curtsy, no one standing fully upright, but our backs would rise and fall as the wave passed through us. The undulations started with one girl and came to me, back around and through us all again and again and again, until I was not an active part of the chain anymore—I just couldn’t be. My arms were being jerked and practically yanked out of their sockets, I was bobbing up and down obediently, my feet were throbbing. Suddenly, the ridiculousness of what we were doing, in juxtaposition to the degree of physical pain it was causing, was hilarious— I was struck with pure disbelief that this was my job, my exalted career. At another moment, my emotions would have erupted in tears of exhaustion and frustration, but now I was past that point. From way, way down in the pit of my stomach, giggles bubbled up— I stared at the floor, trying desperately to sober up, but this sudden giddiness was uncontrollable. It was like I’d let a release valve open a millimeter, and the steam pressure that had been building up all week came rushing out.
I was one week into my fabulous professional ballet career, and I was being pulled limb to limb and told to move like a single-celled organism wearing soggy, putrid pointe shoes in a 100-degree studio. We must have looked like 8-year-olds on a playground. My giggles turned into full-throttle gasps for air the harder I tried to hold them in. Unfortunately, the choreographer called us to stop moving the amoeba— I might have been able to hide if he hadn’t— and I tried desperately to calm myself with humungous deep breaths, pretending to have been working so hard I was winded.
He ended up choreographing an undulation for us, which involved a snaking conga line around the room, but although it felt equally ridiculous to be shuffling behind another dancer with my hands on her waist and I had to squelch the occasional guffaw, my meltdown in the amoeba-circle had been a catharsis. Even in my desperation, I’d acknowledged to myself the absurdity of the experience, and suddenly I had a sense of perspective. I could possibly, just possibly, be able to handle this. The other girls were hurting, too; they were just more used to it than I and had accumulated a toolkit of tactics and strategies with which to cope. They had figured out the best corn-pads to use, what tape held them in place, how to position pieces of Second Skin on a blister. Their legs were stronger than mine from years of work, and they knew how to psychologically pace themselves through long hours of rehearsal. They were acclimated to this life, and they knew the answer to the question I was afraid to ask: Is it always going to be like this? Is this all there is?
Rehearsals ended at 7, and thankfully never ran late. The choreographer was as tired as we were, and the heat in the studio was soul-sucking for everyone. As the afternoon wore on, the sun’s intensity beamed directly in through the open windows and door, bringing the black-tar heat of the parking lot directly inside. My skin was tight, caked with salt. Nine hours of sweat had dried, layer upon layer. Sitting down to take my shoes off, I didn’t let myself think about the next day— at that moment, I almost, almost relished the ache in my legs, the pins and needles in my feet, the open blister on my heel. I could walk barefoot to the dressing room, stick my feet under a stream of cold water, and listen to the girls laugh and chat about anything not having to do with ballet. I might even join them, confess that I thought I’d be fired on the spot for my outburst, ask someone what to do for my ingrown toenail. The hours had worn away my self-consciousness, and I felt a glow of pride at having made it through a long, hard, working-girl’s day.
I GOT A RIDE HOME THAT NIGHT from Catherine, another girl who was almost as new as I but had a year of corps de ballet experience under her belt. How long would this last?, I asked her. Were the days always going to be this hard? Was this normal?
Her answers weren’t very reassuring, but I did learn that, no, it was not always this hard, this long, this hot or this exhausting. But it often was. There would be periods of respite when we’d learn different ballets and eventually I’d not have to understudy so much, and in a few weeks, we’d be performing. That would change everything, of course. That would be the payoff.
But for now, I’d begun to earn my stripes as a professional dancer. I had the battle-wounds to prove it, and next week, I would have my first paycheck.
As we pulled out of the studio’s parking lot, Catherine put the air conditioning on full blast. She stopped at a McDonald’s drive-through on the way to the freeway for a Diet Coke. I got one, too. I wondered what the woman at the window would say if she knew what we’d been doing all day, while she’d been serving up fries and shakes to normal people going through their daily lives. Imagining her reaction if we described our day didn’t make the prospect of tomorrow’s pain any less heavy. But I secretly loved knowing that in the sea of cars in rush-hour traffic, we were two utterly normal ballet dancers, making their way home from the office like everyone else, earning a living one tough day at a time.
That Coke never tasted so good.
TOMORROW: Into the Night. “By the time I get home tonight after the show, it will be late, my legs will be tired, and I will need protein and sleep as quickly as possible.”
Born and raised in New York City, Gavin Larsen has been immersed in ballet’s “bizarrely intuitive system” since she was 8 years old and began to study in the same studios where George Balanchine had created some of his finest ballets. She moved on to the School of American Ballet, and a long career performing with Pacific Northwest Ballet, Alberta Ballet, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, and as a principal dancer with Oregon Ballet Theatre. Since retiring from the stage in 2010, she has taught and written extensively for Dance Magazine, Dance Spirit, Pointe, Oregon ArtsWatch, The Threepenny Review, the literary journal KYSO Flash, and elsewhere.