My Ballet Career—The Beauty and the Beast of It
I LET out a cry as I was falling to the ground, unconscious. I awoke being carried into the stage area I had just left. Quickly a sheet of wood was thrown onto two wooden sawhorses, forming a crude table on which I was placed. A big spotlight was focused on me.
The crowd of people in the room gathered around me in horror. There was blood gushing from my face, that glaring spotlight and a man standing over me saying, through clenched teeth: “Nothing happened, nothing happened! Do you understand, nothing happened!”
What “didn’t” happen? Who was this man and those people around me? How had I come to be in this situation? What happened as a result of it? I’d like to answer these questions, but first let me go back to when I was three years old.
I was the typical little girl thrilled and dazzled by the ballerina I saw on television. I decided then that I was going to be a ballerina when I grew up. So dancing became my reason for living. In time I achieved my goal of becoming a professional ballet dancer.
In the course of my career I appeared on a number of television programs, either to dance or to be interviewed. One of several appearances I had on the Mike Douglas Show featured Carol Burnett. Before that show we were given only a few days’ notice that we were to be cancan dancers with Miss Burnett. When we got to the TV studio, they explained that all of us were supposed to be good dancers facing the audience, but that Carol Burnett would be in the middle of the line with her back to the audience doing everything wrong. And, of course, she would finally turn around, and the audience would know who was out of step. One catch, though. The TV studio neglected to tell us that the music had been switched from cancan to “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World”! What a change in tempo! They gave us one or two run-throughs and taped the show before a live audience. I still wonder if the audience got the point that we were supposed to be the “good” dancers.
Training Your Mind
In my training from childhood several things were deeply ingrained in my thinking. The first was total obedience to the artistic director (one who has the combined jobs of ballet master and choreographer). The second was absolute loyalty to the company and the art of dance; “the show must go on” no matter what. And the third, to develop one’s own talent to its fullest, one must be prepared to eat, sleep, breathe ballet—and ballet only. And once I came under contract even decisions involving my personal life (what little I had left) were made for me.
Another part of my training was to learn how to make last-minute changes or immediate decisions due to the unexpected, being sure the performance continued smoothly. To illustrate, one time I made a very fast change, the wardrobe mistress zipping me up with just seconds before my cue. However, in the wings on the other side of the stage stood my partner with her wardrobe mistress waving frantically and gesturing that the costume’s zipper had just broken! No time to sew her in or even pin her in. With one costume zipped and one not, the audience would know something had gone wrong. As I heard my cue and stepped forward I simultaneously felt my zipper get yanked down and the two of us made our entrance onto the Academy of Music stage in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, wondering if we would be the first ballet-dancers-turned-burlesque-dancers before that number was over! Happily, we remained ballet dancers.
During my early teen years it became popular for girls to have short hairdos. My hair was long. I decided I could have the best of both worlds by cutting my hair short but leaving it just long enough to put some of it in a rubber band and then put on a hairpiece, a bun. In theory that sounded good. In practice—well, that was another story. After using at least one hundred bobby pins to anchor the fake bun, I “lacquered” my head with hair spray and was ready to perform. Everything went fine until after a series of pirouettes (turns on one leg) across the stage. I stopped, but my bun kept going—just like a flying saucer, sequins glittering in the lights, out into the dark audience! The audience was hysterical with laughter, my director livid (to put it mildly) and I was scared to death! Since a professional dancer should not allow even a small string from her toe shoe to be visible on stage, you can imagine what a “sin” it is to lose your hair. The rest of the company knew I was in for big trouble, and so they hid me in a closet until tempers calmed down.
Training Your Body
Allow me to say here that I am describing the training of a professional ballet dancer, not what you might expect if your child wishes to take ballet lessons for the grace and exercise of the dance.
Training for a professional career, however, is an intense, constant discipline of the body with the potential of a host of physical injuries. In my case I started when I was seven years old with one class a week. Quickly, this increased to 2, 3, 4 and eventually as many as 15 classes a week. Before being on a professional level, I performed perhaps eight times a year.
When I was about 16 our company went professional, and the number of performances jumped overnight to nearly 80 performances a year. This put a tremendous demand on us. By the time I graduated from high school I was working a part-time secretarial job after school, taking several classes every weeknight but one, and these classes were followed by rehearsals. It was not unusual for a rehearsal to go as late as one or two in the morning. From Friday night through Sunday we usually had two or three performances. Each performance was preceded by warm-up classes and rehearsals. I would estimate that I spent an average of from 35 to 40 hours a week in training, rehearsing and scheduled performances. In my “spare” time I choreographed musicals for schools and theater groups, including Music Man, The King and I and Finian’s Rainbow.
After high school I held a full-time secretarial position during the day and averaged from 45 to 50 hours a week training, rehearsing and performing. While I could have lived off my earnings as a professional dancer, I chose to work another job to save extra money. I realized that when I would try to make my “break” in a major ballet company I would need extra funds to live off of until such a “break” came.
What about a professional ballet dancer’s feet after spending hours in toe shoes? At first, the shoe is hard, and friction will cause blisters. In time the blisters get tough and you develop a corn. A new blister can form under every corn. And this cycle will keep repeating itself. The end result is raw, bloody toes. There are times when all the corns are tough at the same time, and then times when several are back at the raw stage—the latter being more common.
What about your toenails? You must be prepared to lose them and keep dancing while the new ones are growing back—this being done in a toe shoe that runs several sizes smaller than your street shoe. Yet you never miss a performance because your feet hurt, which is most of the time. You bear up even if it means you will finish your performance with blood-soaked toe shoes, which I have done. We were taught that you weren’t considered a real pro until you lost all your toenails at least once.
One never pampered any injury. When I was 14 years old, I once got to class late. I had missed the barre work (where muscles are warmed up and stretched) and joined the class in doing splits. The muscles were cold and tight, I pushed and—snap! I will not attempt to describe the pain. Hearing that sound, mothers came running in from the outer office wondering who had broken a bone. We were told it was a torn ligament, and I was made to walk on it all that night. I cried and begged for mercy, but I was told I couldn’t baby the injury. I obeyed and never did go to a doctor.
Eleven years later I had major surgery performed because of the complications caused by that accident. The mothers had been right. I learned that the bottom portion of my right pelvic bone had broken right off. I had lost a significant percentage of nerve usage on my right side, had muscle damage, and the bottom piece of my pelvic bone is still detached.
Injuries can be minor or major ones. But since dancers are constantly using their bodies, the minor injuries often become chronic in that they never have a chance to heal properly. One girl in our company pulled the muscles of several ribs doing a particularly difficult lift. She could not perform thereafter without being taped in so as to be able to execute that lift. I recall two occasions where, because of such painful muscle injuries, dancers were given cortisone shots just to get through a performance.
From my experience, as a professional ballet dancer, whether it is feet, muscles or even bones, something in the body aches or hurts at least 75 to 80 percent of the time.
Looking Back With Tears
Then our small ballet company received financial grants. We each signed our very first contract and were being paid to do what we loved! Life was wonderful—for about a week. The Board of Directors selected me to be the representative of the company and mediate between the dancers and the Board regarding questions or disputes over contracts. I heard an earful. Almost overnight, friendships turned to rivalries. Tempers and arguments flared. The language often used hardly matched our delicate, graceful image. We learned what competition was and in some cases forgot what friendship meant. It was an entirely different world now, and it hurt.
What was the moral climate like? I was surrounded by adultery, homosexuality, bisexuality and other perversions. One male dancer once came in with a professional photograph of a beautiful, voluptuous woman in a formal gown. We wondered what he wanted with a picture of a woman, until we learned it was a picture of him!
I had danced with this company since I was 11, growing up under my director’s oversight like a child before a father. I was trusting, loyal and had earned my roles through hard work and talent. Due to the injury I mentioned earlier, my roles had taken a setback, but now I was also a soloist and had the privilege of being in a pas de trois (dance for three persons) with the company’s prima ballerina and premier danseur (male lead in a company) in an original modern ballet work.
However, I felt I was ready for a role to be specifically choreographed for me, this being an important part of my future. I approached my director on the matter, and he agreed I was ready and said he would choreograph it for me—on one condition—that I would grant him special promiscuous “favors.”
I was shocked and at first thought he was joking. It soon became apparent he was serious. Now I was angry. I couldn’t believe he would do this to me! I flatly refused and wasn’t about to give in. He continued trying to change my mind, reminding me always that everything I had achieved—the roles, the money, the contract—was due to him. What good were hard work and talent? This left me confused, hurt and bitter.
Shortly after this, I had come out after a performance and was heading for my car down the street. Before I could unlock the door, two young men came out from behind and jumped me. One held my arms in a full nelson hold while the other repeatedly beat his fists into my face. What followed is where my story opened.
Why did they want to beat me up? This was in the late 1960’s when racial riots and tensions ran high across the United States. I was white, they were black. So I was a victim of a society’s frustration.
But why, then, did my director keep repeating over me as I lay there bleeding, “Nothing happened”? Because it was feared that if the reporters and those who provided our funds heard about the incident, we might lose the grants. Someone called an ambulance. It was canceled. Others said, get her to a doctor or a hospital. It was refused. All that mattered was the safeguarding of the financial interests.
Lying there, emotionally numb, I realized I was nothing more than a piece of meat to be used for making money for others. When my contract was up several months later I left, with the threat that I could be blackballed from ever getting into another company.
My whole world caved in under me. I felt as if I had nothing to live for. Not trusting any human, I finally prayed an entire night to God, using his name, Jehovah. My mother had previously studied the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses and had taught us kids whenever she could, in spite of my father’s bitter opposition to her Bible studies. As a result, I had some Bible knowledge, but it meant little to me. Now, though, in desperation, I called on Jehovah and, since the Witnesses had been kind to my mother, I asked him that night to send Jehovah’s Witnesses if they could help me straighten myself out.
The day after that prayer I moved to San Francisco, hoping for a fresh start with a new ballet company and soon started dancing with San Francisco Ballet. Within three weeks my prayer was answered when, moving into a new apartment, I discovered that the manager was associating with Jehovah’s Witnesses! She immediately arranged for me to attend a meeting at a Kingdom Hall. I was so impressed with the friendliness of all there. Sad to say, though, I became so engrossed in preparing to audition for San Francisco Ballet’s coming season and in working that weeks went by before the Witnesses could find me again.
However, during this period two things began happening to me. Prior to when I was beaten up I had had a problem with one of my eyes, even having several operations. But now since my head had been beaten, I quickly was losing my sight and was in a great deal of pain. All I wanted to do was dance, and yet dancing with a new company was not bringing me the happiness I was so sure it would.
The depression and frustration returned, and at about that time so did the Witnesses. They talked with me and offered me two Bible study aids. I wanted to contribute for the books but only had 50 cents left before my next paycheck, and that money had been set aside for a pack of cigarettes, as I was addicted to smoking. The books won. I read one that evening, along with portions of my Bible and knew I had found not only the truth about God’s purpose for mankind in general but a purpose in life for myself.
Looking Ahead Happy and Secure
After studying the Bible with the Witnesses, I became a dedicated, baptized servant of Jehovah God. My goal now was to become a pioneer (full-time minister). I felt very strongly that to have devoted myself whole-souled to dancing for 13 years and then to give Jehovah any less than that devotion would be a complete lack of appreciation for all that he had done for me.
Ah, but dancing was still in my heart, and just when I was able to begin my new career as a pioneer, a ballet company offered me the role of the Sugarplum Fairy in The Nutcracker. They even said I could have my congregation meeting nights free, rehearsing the company around my schedule. Most ballet companies just do not do that! It was so tempting.
I prayed over the matter, reflecting on all the things that had happened to me as a result of my professional career and why I had turned to Jehovah in the first place. I thought about the peace of mind I was experiencing now. I decided that night to turn that role down and at the same time never return to my dancing career in this system of things.
How do I feel now? I know I made the right decision. I have been blessed with a loving husband, and these past 14 years since I left my ballet career I have continued in my full-time preaching activity. Presently, my husband and I are serving as volunteers at the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
I did eventually lose one eye in order to save the sight in the other. But imagine my joy when one of the first persons I aided on the road to life confided that she knew I had something she wanted when she saw I was able to smile and talk with such confidence about the day I’ll see completely again. Yes, God’s purpose is to rid the earth of all immorality and wickedness and transform this earth back into a Paradise. Then all mankind will grow back to physical, emotional and spiritual perfection and live forever.
What about my dancing? I haven’t given up dancing forever by any means. I’m taking a temporary break. Now the most important thing I can do is tell others about this coming Paradise earth. Then there will be forever to dance to my heart’s content, without the pain and frustration experienced in this system. I anticipate doing a lot of dancing then, just as King David did on an occasion of joy. (2 Samuel 6:14) And I hope you will be there to dance with me.—As told by Elizabeth Balnave.
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The audience was hysterical with laughter, my director livid, and I was scared to death!
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From my experience something in your body aches or hurts at least 75 to 80 percent of the time
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I was surrounded by adultery, homosexuality and other perversions
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Within three weeks, my prayer was answered