Dance Like Everyone Is Watching

After a successful performing career on Broadway, Radio City and more, Steve Konopelski hung up his dancing shoes to purse a career in pastry arts. His journey has led him to opening Turnbridge Point B & B, and more recently to entertaining audiences on Food Network's "Holiday Baking Championship". Having known Steve since our ballet school days at RWB, I was curious to hear how his skills as a dancer have translated into pastry. This is part one of a three part series.

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KM To you, what are the similarities of pursing a career in dance and pastry art?

SK I think, there is definitely the creative aspect that is incredibly similar, but also the aspect of cleanliness, precision and technique. On my first day at pastry school, one of our chef instructors mentioned she had been a dancer.

KM Oh wow.

SK She said this thing, that to me became my mantra - any Neanderthal can grill meat, but a true artist bakes. And at first, on the surface, it sounds like poking fun at whatever, but when I really thought about it - it really means that if you've got that real driven artistic sensibility, then baking is where you need to be.

At the end of the class I went up to her and shared that I was a dancer too, and she said to me - dancers do incredibly well in the pastry kitchen. She pointed out that the things that we had learned as dancers - like the importance of repetition to create muscle memory, the importance of seeing something and then being able to replicate it, spacial awareness. All of those things that you wouldn't necessarily think would be important in a kitchen, really truly are. So I really felt right at home. It didn't feel like a foreign place to me because in many ways, it felt like being in the studio.

Of course there were new techniques I was going to start learning, but the principle of the importance of technique was not foreign to me. So while people would complain ugh, we have to roll dough, again?!? - to me - that was part of the technique, like tendus and pliés. I'm never going to be above rolling dough.

KM How does your creativity you found in dance live on in your baking?

SK With dance, for example, most of the time it's not your choreography. You are being given someone else's choreography to perform. Swan Lake is the perfect example. That choreography has basically been around forever, but you get to put your own specific artistic spin on it.

I think that pastry is the exact same way. There are some traditional desserts that you can try and reinvent a little, but at the end of the day it's still the same thing. Croquembouche is a perfect example of that. It's a very traditional french thing - you could swap up the fillings on the inside and you can swap up the caramel - but if you don't make that tower of Pâte à Choux, it's not Croquembouche.

I really like that there are some parameters that are already set for us in pastry. As a chef, I get to put my own spin on them vis-à-vis flavor and structure - but at the end of the day I'm still making something that has existed for a very long time. So I love the fact there is creativity within the confines of tradition.

I also believe in the importance of understanding the rules. Once you know the rules, you know how to manipulate them. Dance is that way - once you understand how your body works within the confines of the steps, then you can manipulate it however you want. Pastry is the same; you understand the rules of baking and then you know how to manipulate the flavors.

KM What is your greatest joy with baking?

SK I had a huge realization just before I retired as a dancer. One of the things that bothered me the most about performing was that you spent so much time becoming part of the creative process but you never got to see the final product - you are the final product. As a dance captain I could swing myself out of the show and watch it from the front; but then the show was different because I wasn't part of it anymore.

As a pastry chef, I finally get that satisfaction. I get to take all of these raw components, I can put them together and I can create something beautiful. I get to see the final product. Many times I am blessed enough to see people eat and enjoy my food. So I'm in closure in the creative process, and I also get the gratification of seeing that joy in somebody else.

KM How did you work through the fears of leaving a life long pursuit and something that had defined much of who you were throughout childhood and early adulthood?

SK One of my biggest fears was that I was going to be wasting, what was in essence, twenty seven years of my life. I started dancing when I was seven. I was afraid that I was wasting everything. I could hear in the back of my head my dance teachers at school - you worked so hard, you trained so hard, you built this technique and everything, to just throw it away?

I think that's why it took me so long to retire. I had been considering it for three years before I actually did retire, because I was so afraid of wasting all of my "talent". That is the part that eats at you, like you say, it was something that had defined me for basically my entire life. I had always been "the dancer". As a kid, I was always "the dancer". When my Dad would talk about his sons - people would ask which son he was talking about - I was always referred to as "the dancer".

So it really felt like I was giving up some of my identity. Who was I going to be, if I was no longer going to be "the dancer"? It was almost like divine intervention with my instructor on the first day; I think I needed that. I'm sure she could see that, because she knew that same fear of losing your identity. I think that is maybe why she pointed out to me, right away - these are the similarities between the kitchen and the studio. Don't think that you are wasting any of this technique, but learn to transfer it to a new place.

The more I recognized that all of these things that I had learned as a performer translated instantly into the kitchen, the more comfortable I felt in the kitchen, and the more comfortable I felt in having a new identity. I just thought of it as the studio. I wasn't losing part of myself. I was in a space that honestly, I had known my entire life, I just didn't realize it.

As a dancer, you know, marking is just so frowned upon. It was always full out, full emotion, full everything. I knew that was how I needed to approach the kitchen as well. There was going to be no half-assery.

You know that little expression - dance like nobody's watching? I hate that phrase! It really doesn't resonate with me, because I'm like, oh great, I can just mark! (laughing)

It should actually be dance like everyone is watching!

KM I love that!

SK You gotta be full out in the studio, and full out in the kitchen. As a dancer there are many times that you are very tired and you don't feel like going full out, and it's the same thing in the kitchen. But it's not the way to live, and not the way to be successful. So it's really about reminding yourself about the push to do this. You have to live your life full out.