Plight of the Sugar Plums

By Cassandra Smith

October 30, 2011

When the Sugar Plum Fairy steps onstage each December, little girls wearing Christmas dresses in theaters nationwide become instantly mesmerized by her delicate beauty.

Adorned in a dazzling pink tutu and oversized tiara, she floats effortlessly through the air to Tchaikovsky’s melody, spinning and balancing as though gravity did not apply to her.

In reality, gravity does load her torn intracapsular ligament and Achilles tendonitis.  And to her, the shoes are torture devices. She is counting the seconds until she can take them off.

All the while, a little girl in the audience thinks, “A grown up who gets to wear tutus and crowns to work? I want to do that!” As she leaves the theater, she begins to imagine her future life as a glamorous prima ballerina.

When the Sugar Plum Fairy exits the stage, she hands in her tiara to the prop department, washes off the day’s sweat and makeup, and waits for her boss to tell her what she did wrong.  Then she goes home to nurse her blistered toes and aching muscles before the full day of rehearsals and performances tomorrow. So much for glamour.

I have been both characters in this story.  I was the two-year-old on the edge of my seat dreaming of the stage; and then I was the sugar plum fairy, putting on a graceful grin and performing through injuries.

I trained constantly during my childhood, dancing six days a week by the time I was seven.  At 12, I started going away to month long “summer intensive programs,” where elite dance teachers from around the world train selected students for professional careers.  Boston Ballet offered me a spot to train with them year round at 17, so I graduated a semester early from high school and followed my dream.

To me, the ballerina’s experience is eerily similar to the NFL athlete (minus the tiara).  The job descriptions are comparable. Both function as entertainment.  Both require a specific body type, as well as years of intense physical and mental training.  Both are extremely competitive at the professional level, put one at high risk of injury, and force very early retirement.

But there is one rather significant difference. The minimum salary for a rookie in the NFL in 2010 was $325,000 a year, or $6,250 a week.  The starting salary for a Colorado Ballet Studio Company member is a $75 a week stipend. Life at the top of ballet isn’t particularly gilded, either: a New York City Ballet principal makes $1,743 for a rehearsal week and $2,060 for a performance week.

It is clear we live in culture that has a higher appreciation for masculinized competition than performance art, but does that really justify the difference? How can ballet survive if the companies and dancers are starving?

Most ballet companies in America can only afford to pay dancers for a portion of the year, known as a season.  The recession forced many companies to shorten their seasons or cut dancers to make ends meet.

Even American Ballet Theatre in New York City, arguably the best ballet company in the country, isn’t exempt from this struggle.  Devon Teuscher, dancer at ABT since 2007, explained that although they have not made permanent cuts to the company, they have been touring a lot less.

“When we do tour now, we are often restricted to ballets that only use recorded or piano music,” said Teuscher. “This is much cheaper than paying a full orchestra, but limiting to our repertory as a company.”

Briana George has been dancing at Orlando Ballet for three years.  She receives $475 for a six-day week, dancing seven hours a day.

“The amount I make a week isn’t horrible to live off of, but when you are only employed for 28 weeks a year, it makes it very hard to maintain a normal lifestyle. Starving artist is a bit of an understatement,” said George.

So what makes so many young dancers in America eager to enter a profession with so many drawbacks?

For ballet dancers, there is no Super Bowl. It is not about championship rings or sponsorships or making the all-star team.  Ballet dancers just want to dance and share that gift with the world.

“Ballet is a type of art and football is a sport.  And for an art form to work it involves devoting your entire self.  I mean, all of your thoughts at the moment you’re doing any sort of dancing, all of your emotions and all of your instincts, go into that or it just doesn’t work,” explained Natalie Brim, a former Colorado Ballet dancer and current University of Colorado senior.

Ballet dancers understand they are much more than highly trained athletes.  They are artists, inseparable from the art they create, capable of sharing unspoken truths through the vessel of being.

To the ballet dancer, being onstage is the payoff.  Dancers thrive in sharing their gift with the world; they live to give themselves to others.

Going to the ballet “is a way for people to escape their busy, chaotic lives and be transformed into another world for a few hours. I feel a responsibility as an artist to bring this rare opportunity into someone’s life,” Teuscher explained.

I’m no longer a dancer, but ballet changed my life.  On a cold December night in 1992, my mother took her two-year-old daughter to see Colorado Ballet’s The Nutcracker. The Sugar Plum Fairy’s magic put a spell on me that never wore off.

Support ballet, and be swept away by the beauty of the The Nutcracker. But don’t forget the people whose dedication to artistry makes it all possible.

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