I've been a professional ballet dancer for 15 years, and currently perform as a principal dancer for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. As a dancer, my body is my instrument, so healthy living goes hand-in-hand with my art form. A few years ago I combined my passions and started a nutrition bar company called Barre. The rigors of my craft and small business require constant balance -- sometimes quite literally -- both on and off stage. Along the way, I've honed strategies that can translate to anyone striving to achieve balance in their lives and create room for personal passion and creativity.
1. Understand that discipline is your friend, not your enemy.
Most people know that ballet requires intense discipline. Dancers have a full-blown love affair with the stuff, resulting from years of repetition in ballet class and rehearsal. By focusing on the minutia of each articulation of the body, we can bloom into ballerinas that move with grace and ease. This hard-learned lesson forges into each of us the concept that discipline isn't negative or burdensome; instead it frees us to be artists. We so desperately want to dance well that we find solace in discipline, especially when we need to muster for the moment: another tendu, another plié, one last stretch or pop of the hips. This habit -- discipline -- enables us. The discipline I've developed as a ballet dancer helps me in every facet of my life, because when I leave the studio I still have to run to the store, pay bills and (oh yeah) run my small business. A little bit of discipline can give you a great return. Start small, build good habits -- free yourself.
Imagine performing 32 fouettés as Black Swan in the third act of Swan Lake...talk about "being in the moment!" Whether it's executing basic daily warm-ups with impeccable form and deliberation, to learning choreography, to working tirelessly on finishing a complex solo, we have to give each step 100 percent of our attention. Luckily for dancers there are few distractions in the studio (nary a cellphone in sight!), or we've trained ourselves to ignore them. If we compromise our focus, we know our steps, performance and perhaps our career will suffer for it. It works in tandem with discipline. Even in small doses, focusing and being present can reap great rewards. Try it with things you like doing first. The privilege of focusing on what's most important in the moment is a wonderful antidote to the crazy busyness of today's world.
Photo by: Rich Sofranko
A little creativity can bring new vibrancy to life. You may think that ballet dancers are a bunch of "creatives" off in la la land (some of us are), but ballet is actually very mathematical -- it's geometry and physics. Dancers focus a lot of time on technique and form much like, say, a competitive swimmer. What separates ballet from other athletic endeavors is the creative signature each dancer adds to his or her performance. Sometimes this quality comes deliberately from study and practice. More often it comes from our own perspective and life experiences. Take time to explore and dissect your work, play and relationships. Your experiences and perspective are unique. Don't be bashful about taking a cue from dancers' fantastical world of fairy tales. By exploring the world creatively you may find the more beautiful version of it. When I decided to start a business I approached it like a gigantic art project; my goal was to impact people with something beautiful and unique. This is no different from how I approach a role in a ballet. While there may be a correct way of doing things, this still leaves room to make each step fresh and new.
Photo by: Rich Sofranko
4. Fake it until you make it.
I've never heard a colleague say, "that was the greatest performance of my life," and I've never experienced one of my own. There are always mistakes, miscues, fudged steps that the audience never sees. But that doesn't matter. If they enjoyed the performance then I've done my job well despite anything that happened to bruise my fragile artist ego. Ballet dancers aren't born with invincible self-confidence. It's a deliberate practice to cultivate a positive self-image, and it works - not just for dance, but for everything. Feigning a little confidence, even when things don't go perfectly, builds healthy self-esteem. Eventually this becomes habit, and before long you're no longer faking it. Nobody's perfect. We're human after all. Cultivate your good habits, but also try stuff you're not great at to increase your comfort level. Visualize the proverbial curtain rising. Emulating confidence will help you rise to new heights.
5. Manage your time and know when to "take five."
When it comes to time management, work backwards. Make a schedule. Sure, plans change, but it's difficult to be disciplined and focused without it. Dancers have a hard-and-fast schedule (They won't hold the curtain for me if I'm not ready at show time!). If the show is at 8 p.m., I know I have to be at the theater at 5 p.m. for hair, makeup, warm-up and preparation. Keeping a schedule helps us maximize the time we have. We multitask (I'm icing my sore foot as I write), and love fitting stuff into the margins. I took advantage of my lunch hour and brief rehearsal breaks to build my small business within the confines of a 9 a.m.-6 p.m. studio schedule. But, make sure to write breaks and rest into your schedule. An occasional five minutes to be present for yourself makes all the difference. If dancers don't rest, we face bruises, sprained ankles and, heaven forbid, a career-ending injury. Likewise, in any career you can drive yourself crazy overbooking and neglecting yourself. Take five, because without it, none of the magic happens on or off stage.
Photo by: Aimee DiAndrea