Living on Pointe: Life as a Ballerina

The alarm goes off. It’s 7:30 am (not an abnormally early time for a college student to wake up). Unlike most college students, whose schedules consist of science and math classes, Madison Linnihan’s schedule is packed with dance lessons and rehearsals.

Courtesy of Madison Linnihan

Madison is just finishing her freshman year at Troy University. She is an active member of a sorority, Kappa Delta, and working towards double majoring in dance and English. Madison’s ambitions are high, as she is planning to attend law school and dreams of dancing for Joffrey or Ballet West.

Before Madison leaves for the morning, she double checks to make sure she has everything she will need for the day: her English book, tights, leotards, and ballet shoes. Madison’s schedule begins with her 8:00 am English class (credits that will go towards her second major).  Following her first class, dance training begins. From 9:00 am -12:15 pm, Madison will practice ballet and contemporary dance, under the intimidation of her dance teacher, Dominique Angel (a previous dancer for Joffrey and Miami City Ballet), who stresses the importance of being really good and working hard in an industry where many are competing for the same goal.

In the afternoon, Madison will cross train at the gym for about an hour, until she makes her way to musical dance theater training (at 4:00 pm). On days of rehearsals, Madison will rehearse for about four hours the rest of the night.

For those who shadow Madison’s daily routine, most would say it is an easier way to go through college; as there are a significantly less number of exams and assignments to worry about.  But, if Madison is making her schedule appear easy and energizing, then she is doing her job as a dancer.

Every day, ballet dancers are pushed to their limits, and most working towards becoming a professional will practice five to ten hours a day. For hours on end, ballet dancers will go over technique training and rehearsals. The amount of repetition and Pointe work (supporting all of one’s body weight on the tips of one’s toes) can create strain and exhaustion, and some of the harshest injuries in dance. Almost anyone in ballet will have to suffer through an ankle break or foot injuries (e.g. cut, bruised, distorted, and calloused feet). However, most dancers are trained to mask their pain to give the most beautiful show possible to a paying audience. Therefore, the whole idea of ballet is somewhat paradoxical; being one of the most graceful and effortless art forms on the appearance, but the most demanding and cruel on a dancer’s body. In essence, ballet is a double-edge sword.

However, one of the most common misconceptions about ballet is that the dancers are unhealthy, as dance companies put emphasis on having a tall and slender figure. Linnihan, a petite and blond-headed young woman, does feel the pressure of having to look a certain way. She notes, “For ballet dancers, there is a very specific way that we want to look. There’s this thing called the ‘Balanchine Body’ that everyone wants.” Essentially, it is to look long and lean when dancing, which generally means being as thin as possible while still holding the maximum amount of lean muscle. Interestingly, Linnihan states, “I don’t necessarily think that I am that skinny, but I did the Freshman 15 in reverse and lost 15 pounds since I came to college because of how much I danced.”

It was noted in the documentary “First Position,” that while the look of many ballet dancers may seem to be the result of pressure and expectations from teachers, the amount of practice, training, and work causes dancers to burn many calories. If dancers were to restrict too much food from their diet, dance would become impossible from low levels of energy and nutrition.

Yet, there are many dance studios across the nation that teach younger students the importance of self-respect. Mandy McVeigh, owner of Brookfield Dance Academy (BDA) and prior dancer, emphasizes that BDA encourages, “Healthy eating for an overall balanced lifestyle and diet, but would never expect [her] ballet dancers to look a particular way.  We value healthy lifestyles and we teach our students to love themselves inside and out.”

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Courtesy of Madison Linnihan

So why dance ballet if it is exhausting, strict, and painful? When asked this question, Madison Linnihan responded, “It’s all I really know. That’s a terrible answer, but I really don’t know any other lifestyle. I like how it’s both physically and mentally demanding.” To many dancers, ballet is a way to express themselves and another outlet to channel their emotions. There is much to be said through dance, and it can have as much power as the tongue.

Mandy McVeigh has been greatly changed by having dance in her life. At age 11, Mandy had started out, as do many younger siblings, in the footsteps of her older brother. Her older brother was an excellent swimmer, so it was easy for her family to assume she would be too. However, even after trying to become connected with swimming, her mediocrity caused her to lack passion. Yet it wasn’t hard for Mandy to search for what she truly loved to do. Everyone who knew Mandy from swimming and other occasions can remember that Mandy would always be doing the splits on the side of the pool, or dancing where ever she went.

After being signed up for her first dance lesson, Mandy instantly fell in love. She recounts, “Dance forced me to find my inner passion, take risks and follow my dreams.  Dance also helped me to become less shy and come out of my shell.  I would not be the person that I am today without dance in my life.”

Additionally, it is recommended that most dancers practice ballet. McVeigh summarizes ballet as being a balance of athleticism and artistry, where “you get the challenge and push of a sports team, along with an artistic performance.”  McVeigh describes that the ballet at BDA follows a very specific program, “[here] the Vaganova method of Russian Ballet [is taught]. It is the strictest of dance as it is the technical fundamentals,” and, “While there is less creative contemporary movement in ballet than there is in other styles of dance, it provides an excellent foundation for students learning other genres.”

It is incredibly difficult to earn a spot at a professional ballet company. As with many sports and hobbies, the more practice and dedication that is put forth, the more likely for success. However, ballet is different. No matter how much control dancer’s have over their own training and commitment, the majority of dancer’s fates lie in the hands of judges and dance company owners.

For the dancers at the School of American Ballet (SAB), Peter Martins will have the ultimate decision for who he will reward an apprenticeship to the New York City Ballet. According to Peter Martins, Master in Chief of the New York City Ballet, “More than ever, technique and ability is at a [maximum], so you have to have a lot to be able to make it professionally.” So, while it is important that dancers have a balance of excitement, musicality, and technique, the opinions of judges may have the greatest say in where a dancer’s career will go.

Because the ballet industry has limited positions, it is only natural for competition between dancers to arise. For those who want to secure a spot in a professional ballet company, it means beating out the other thousands of dancers fighting for the same goal. Yet, it does not mean that the competition to gain an intended end result creates bad will towards other dancers. In fact, Samantha Lewis, BalletMet Dancer, confirms, “There is a real sense of commodore. We all want to put our best foot forward and show everyone [during a performance] what we can do and the community we have created,” and that while everyone is competing for the same roles, “anyone going out for a part against you will push you harder.”

Many dancers are incredibly focused and driven, so much so, that they push aside extra-curricular opportunities. However, the students at the SAB spend nights out with other students to break themselves from the pressures of ballet. In the mini-series “Strictly Ballet,” produced by Teen Vogue, the dancers were seen spending time with other students, detaching themselves from ballet for a few hours, with a fun night out at a bowling alley. Madison Linnihan has also made it possible for herself to find friends beyond her intended major, by joining a sorority at college. While both are a significant time commitment for Linnihan, she would never give either up.

Yet, while most ballet dancers aspire to perform, there are many options beyond the reach of elite dance companies. Mandy McVeigh, a dancer throughout high school, college, and for a professional sports team, is the owner of Brookfield Dance Academy. What started out as teaching for six students in a basement (of the family that she was a nanny for) and local nursing homes, has eventually blossomed into a group of 1,200 students. When asked the goal for her dance studio and her students, Mandy states, “For me, the end goal is less about [students] becoming professional [dancers] as it is about the person that the kids become along the way.  Students who are involved in ballet, dance or any sport learn way more during the process of becoming successful, than they do when they actually arrive there.” Many people come to Brookfield Dance Academy because of the culture; one that promotes love, friendship, and growth. At Brookfield Dance Academy, the goals are simple: to always serve the needs of the families and students, provide stable careers for the staff, and to be good role models (by keeping a positive culture) for students.

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Courtesy of Madison Linnihan

Ballerinas are more like athletes than they are dancers. Ballet dancers are underestimated in their power and misunderstood by their image. Yet, there is so much more that goes on beyond the final performance. Ballet dancers are some of the most driven, powerful, and optimistic people; having to enduring tiring schedules and hoping for a goal that many won’t receive. Despite the exhaustion and body aches, the feeling of slipping on her shoes, becoming lost in turns, or hearing the applause of an audience is something Madison Linnihan can only describe as “magical.”

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