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  • Jennifer Milner

Artist and Athlete: Finding Your Balance

Am I an artist or an athlete? It’s a question that constantly plagues dancers. The artistry required to transport an audience to another world with merely a port de bras and head turn is undeniable. On the other hand, how can you hope to succeed in an increasingly competitive dance world without approaching your craft scientifically, and training like an Olympic athlete? And how can you cling to your artistic sensibilities in the midst of an international competition, when you’re so clearly being judged by a set of physical standards? If your drive to take your grande allegro to another level leads you to the training room and increasingly hard exercises for your leg muscles, are you building strength and “tricks” at the expense of your lovely leg line? Will you be sacrificing subtlety and grace for height and extra beats?

I see this tension in a dancer’s career a lot, and urge my clients to embrace both sides: artistry and athleticism are the yin and yang of being a dancer, and each only complements -and completes - the other. Which side of yourself do you nurture, and which lies neglected and dusty? As I’ve helped my dancers navigate the roads of their careers, I’ve come to define four different arenas in a dancer’s life where your instrument is shaped, as well as ways you can cultivate both the athlete and the artist in those places:

In the studio Whether it’s class, coaching, or rehearsal, the studio is where a dancer spends most of his or her time perfecting technique and steps. As an athlete, you’ll want to focus on having clean, precise, bio-mechanically efficient technique. Almost anyone can eventually force two turns out of a pirouette, but you’ll never get eight or eleven revolutions if you don’t analyze every aspect of that turn: is your spot correct? Is your leg going to passé efficiently? Are you controlling your breath? Proper technique is the foundation of all dancing, and spending time during a pas de deux rehearsal to work out the best handholds and weight shifts will both prevent injury and promote the appearance of effortlessness.

As an artist, your time in the studio must include delving into an understanding of the subtleties of ballet, the epaulment and breath that changes an entire line. Working through a full-length ballet, you’ll need to thoroughly understand the storyline, research the history behind the ballet and other dancers who have done the role before you, and if possible speak to a coach or mentor to learn what she’s discovered in the role and how you can make that your own. Figuring out what you have to say that’s uniquely from you, delving into the emotions of a piece and how to portray them, will elevate your offering from just technically well-done to brilliant and moving. Good technique allows an audience to relax - they’re not constantly holding their breath, worrying about a fall or a wobble - and strong artistry makes an audience forget they’re watching someone in peak physical condition demand nearly the nearly impossible from her body, so instead of a fine-tuned machine, they see a desperate woman under an unbreakable curse. I will take a flawed but authentic performance that comes from a place of truth over a technically perfect one any day.

In nourishment This category needs a blog all its own, I know. How can you keep your body fueled efficiently, maintain the energy stores you need for the marathons you run onstage each night, and still conform to the audience and historical expectations of the waif-like dancer floating ethereally onstage? I have a smart friend, a sports nutritionist who coaches gymnasts and pro football players and dancers, who is going to talk further about this in a future blog. For now, I’ll say this:

Ballet has a specific aesthetic. We all know that and get it. So how can you pursue that aesthetic in a healthy way? Being mindful of what you eat is part of being an artist, since your body is your paintbrush: you don’t have an unlimited number of calories in the “bank” to spend each day on your food. Meaning that, in order to survive as an athlete, you need to spend those calorie “dollars” wisely. Popcorn may be low-calorie, but will it fuel you steadily for a three-hour Snow rehearsal? Muscles need protein. Your brain needs fat. Your entire body needs hydration! Learning to eat a nutrient-dense, well-rounded diet is one of the hardest things about being a dancer, I think, and there’s no shame in asking for help from an expert. Find a nutritionist who works with athletes and can help you figure out how to fuel yourself appropriately before rehearsal, before heading onstage (no one wants a full stomach sloshing around in the Land of the Willis), and before bed at night. Choose foods and flavors you love, but that also give you what you need. Personally, I eat all day long - seriously, my friends constantly make fun of me because there’s always an apple or a handful of nuts or string cheese or a smoothie in my hand. I had to learn to eat a larger meal earlier in the day so I wasn’t stuffed before a performance, and find light meals I could eat after that show that would re-fuel me without leaving me with an uncomfortably full stomach at bedtime. Eating wisely and WELL means not starving yourself, which never works in the long haul, and will reward you as both an artist and an athlete with a supple body ready to respond when you need it.

In training A dancer’s job doesn’t end when he or she leaves the studio, as we all know. As an athlete, wrapping up rehearsal might mean it’s time to head to your Pilates or Gyrotonics appointment. Dance is physically demanding, but not a complete, balanced workout for your body, and cross-training is essential for a long, healthy career. Studying other forms of dance to make your body better at your own genre, identifying potential weaknesses and strengthening them before they’re an injury, and pushing your body when it’s healthy so it’s ready for the higher demands of a performance, are all important ways to train yourself outside the rehearsal room.

As an artist, you have demands outside the studio as well. Visit museums, go see plays and musicals and other companies perform. Read a book - something that moves you, or inspires you, or helps you see the world in a different way! Books help me walk in another person’s shoes; I’ll finish a great book and continue to worry about the characters for days later. Writers often put words to a feeling I’ve had but couldn’t describe, which can do nothing but help me when I step onstage to portray something complicated. Find new artists and figure out what you like about them! A painter friend of mine once said, “If you’re not growing as an artist, you’re shrinking,” and I think that applies to all mediums of art. Keep your soul and heart invested in the world around you, always listening and learning and growing, and that will absolutely come out in your work onstage.

In life Aside from your studio time, training, and fueling, there’s Everything Else! Being a dancer means keeping one eye on your instrument at all times. As an athlete, that means saying “no” to friends who want to go out for “just a quick bite” after the show, when you know you’ve got two shows the next day and your body is tired. It means making wise choices about how you spend your down time - lying on a Parasetter during a break with your feet up the wall, reading a book, while others walk half a mile to grab a frappucino. Pacing yourself, being mindful of how you spend your down time, and making choices that minimize risk and keep you healthy - perhaps sticking to the bunny slope rather than hitting the double black diamond ski run while on vacation - will keep you at the top of your game.

Artistically, you’ll want to choose wisely during your Everything Else time in a different way. As corny as it sounds, make sure you feed your soul. Travel, invest in dear relationships, find something you love that is Not Ballet and let yourself be fully present in it. Learn to play gin rummy or knit or lock yourself in your apartment and watch Notting Hill four times in a row if that’s what makes you happy. Having an identity and something that brings you joy outside of dancing will make you a better dancer and inform your artistry more authentically than trying to guess what a real life is like ever could.

Dance is a two-sided coin - artist and athlete. Which side of the coin do you polish? Tend to both sides, and you will see yourself shine.

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