Ballet Is Hell: 5 Nightmare Realities You'd Never Guess
Ballet for amateurs is sort of like whistling. It's fun for a little while, but we all generally accept that it's not something you should get too serious about. If you do delve too deeply, however, you'll find that it's a grueling contest even NFL linebackers couldn't endure. That's why we at Cracked spoke to two competitive whistlers about the blasted hellscape that is the whistl- hmm, what's that? This is supposed to be about ballet? Oh. OK. That could be cool, too. Let's speak to Noel Hutchinson, a dancer in Wisconsin, and Luke Jenkins, a dancer in Virginia, instead ...
Ballet Puts Kids Through Hell
Sports like figure skating, gymnastics, and dance may not get a ton of attention, but the people at the top of their game still have to devote their entire lives to it:
"All of the best dancers in my company started off when they were really young," said Noel. "It takes you so long to get good at something that those who started way younger are so much better at it. You get 5-year-olds with blisters all over their feet that way, but they get a big head start on those that enter at age 9."
You're basically the dance version of Jedi.
Noel and Luke started in normal dance studios, but there are special boarding schools that employ the minimum amount of book learning and the maximum amount of ballet. The top school in Russia, Vaganova, does a lot of really weird things to young students, even by Russian standards. Luke told us about a guy he knew who underwent Vaganova methods in Beijing.
One of the guys I performed with who went [to the Vaganova Ballet Academy] had his legs hanging over a tall chair, with weights placed on his knees and his feet on another chair pushing them down," he said. "This way his legs would not bow out and would instead hyperextend."
"This will make you nimble of feet, instead of dancing like the pregnant bear."
This leads to graceful legs, but can cause a whole host of leg problems later in life. It's also really hard to fix without breaking your legs, making it ballet's equivalent of "your face will freeze like that, you know!"
Nothing a few minutes of creepy home therapy can't fix!
Young dancers are also forced to look as if they're in peak condition at all times. Some especially competitive (read: cruel) schools ask little girls to drop five pounds at an age where most of their diet is probably crayons.
The Smallest Problem Will Ruin A Whole Show
One tiny mistake can throw the whole performance off. Like this.
"But we're only five minutes from the end and the crowd is ready to go home."
"I SAID START FROM THE BEGINNING!"
In that video, one dancer got behind on the music, so the musicians slowed down accordingly. This, in turn, threw off the rest of the dancers ever so slightly, with the end result being that the whole thing looked like it was choreographed by a narcoleptic goat.
"Sometimes the person in charge just comes up with a whole new routine before the start of the show we need to know," added Luke. "It's like a speechwriter going, 'Hey, I replaced a paragraph in there. Memorize it in the next five minutes.' That makes for a lot more mistakes. They expect us to know it in five minutes, when the reality is that it takes days to get even a small part of the routine perfect."
"And don't forget that your parents are in the audience tonight,
and that they worked extra jobs to put you through dance school."
Noel remembered one particularly problematic dancer.
"One of the dancers was male and didn't practice as much as the rest of us. During practice, he would do the wrong spin at a certain part," he recalled. "This threw off the girl next to him into thinking it was farther into the number than it really was. Half of the dance line eventually was going 45 seconds further into the song than the rest of us, with the line scrambling to fix it when they realized that the number, which they thought was ending, still had a ways to go. That tiny mistake cost us not only being uniform in movement out there, but also the trophy."
Ballet is a lot more like Top Gun than you'd think.
That dancer's name is Gary. We assume. He just sounds like a fucking Gary.
The Injuries Are Horrific
Ballet dancers do some crazy stuff on their feet. That's why they have crazy ass foot injuries:
"My worst injury occurred when I attempted a barrel turn and moved my foot wrong," he said. "I heard four pops, pulling my fibula and tibia apart. I also tore a few tendons in my foot. In the dance world you are expected to go on, so I danced the rest of my set like that before going off stage and collapsing in pain. I didn't walk again for two months and was out for over four months under care of the Baltimore Ravens' private doctor. Ballet has a lot of rich patrons, so we can afford that."
"No problem. If you want to thank me, just try to incorporate the Ray Lewis dance next time you do Swan Lake."
The dancers we interviewed have seen everything from Achilles tendons snapping, to a dancer who accidentally spin-kicked her assistant choreographer off the stage into the empty band pit, fracturing her foot and concussing the choreographer. Both Luke and Noel agreed that it's hard to tell who has it worse, men or women. Women have to go en pointe, which means standing on their toes. It looks graceful on stage, but when they take off their shoes it looks like they stepped on a witch's brand new kicks and got put under some sort of cruel foot-hex:
"I see you've had your big toes circumcised."
"I have fucked up feet," said Noel. "Every ballet dancer does, especially those that do pointe. I've been out of ballet for a few years now, and although I don't have blisters anymore, my toes are still crooked."
Many doctors who specialize in dance just advise their patients to quit dancing. Men wear flat shoes and don't have to worry about podia-curses, but they have another problem -- women. Men are often responsible for lifting spinning women around stage. When the women be spinnin', they can't see off to their sides, which poses problems for their partners.
Imagine someone just threw a running lawnmower at you.
"One ballerina had launched at me in a split jump, her foot with a rock-hard, inch-thick taped ballet shoe coming straight at me. It was mistimed, with her foot going straight into my gut, knocking the wind out of me and giving me a bruise that took a long time to heal. One of my instructors had a piece of his nose missing from a female dancer who had her nails a bit too long, mistimed a jump into his arms, and her nails took out a small chunk of his nose."
We don't know what that type of injury was called before, but now it's called "the Tyrion."
You'll Lose Your Job If You Can't Afford Shoes
Getting started in ballet can be costly, as Noel found out at a very young age.
"For me, it was $60-80 a week for a few two-hour sessions," she recalled. "With all the practicing, the shoe and tights budget went higher. Starting off, it's several hundred dollars a month with clothes, gas, fees, and everything."
It only gets worse as dancers get older. Ballet dancers burn through equipment the way NASCAR drivers burn through tires. Tights wear out in a matter of weeks. Tights will run $20 a pop, so a dancer can be looking at $100 a month on that alone.
Ballet shoes wear out even faster -- some don't even last a week. At $80 a pair, that can top $300 a month, especially during busier performance seasons. An entire ballet company can flush down $100,000 on nothing but shoes.
"The NBA don't got shit on me."
"During busy season like Christmas, Nutcracker is about half of any ballet company's yearly business. Many dancers actually drop out, because they go through shoes so fast, and since the dancer can't afford them, they are out," explained Luke. "By the end of the season for smaller companies, about half the cast has been replaced by their second or third understudy."
This gets complicated by the fact that ballet simply doesn't pay enough to even put a dancer at the poverty line. They have to have second jobs.
Teaching dance! And thus, we come full circle.
"In Madison, I worked a second job when I was not practicing or with the company," said Noel. "I was getting paid a few hundred in ballet, but since my shoes ran out so fast, a lot of that went to new shoes. Add in bus fare and other dance costs, and I needed a second job for food and shelter. It seems like a glamorous job, but it's not exactly sustainable."
So the next time you see a skinny waif on the corner holding a sign that says "will plie for food," spare a dime, won't you?
Sexism is Rampant
Surprisingly, a lot of the sexism is directed at guys.
"We need [to meet] certain standards and have to be dancing Ken Dolls out there," Luke elaborated. "Our dance belt really makes our butts pronounced, so we have a lot of older, female patrons who support us. Since they want to ogle us like guys do to Hooters waitresses, the director goes through us each day -- we need to be weighted every day to check for no weight gain, or if we are too skinny or not having enough muscle mass. It's so important that one of my former companies docked $25 of the pay of the lightest guy and the heaviest girl every month."
"OK, Shamu, you start giving Stringbean your meals."
But like ladies certainly get it, too. Most of the ballet companies are actually owned by men, so in non-union companies, men can make four times as much as women.
"Not as many guys dance, so there is higher demand," said Luke. "But it doesn't justify a female dancer, like my fiance, making $100 a week when I make $400 a week in the same company for the same amount of work."
Contributing to the pay inequity is how headliners are listed. Many ballets ignore female headliners for the males.
"When we watched the greats perform, our instructor always said, 'Here is Nureyev' or 'Look, it's Baryshnikov,'" said Noel. "We never heard about any of the ballerinas. Look at any major ballet performance or on PBS, and if there is a headliner, nine times out of 10 it will be the guy."
There a reason Natalie Portman's character goes crazy for a chance to actually headline in Black Swan.
It doesn't matter if you're male or female, you're going to experience body shaming, the brink of poverty, and injuries that would cripple a normal person. If ballet were easy, they'd call it football.
Evan V. Symon is the Interview Finder Guy at Cracked. Have an awesome job/experience? Hit up the tipline at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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