The Nutcracker has become an essential part of the holiday season—not to mention a part of most dancers' DNA. These days, the ballet is a beloved tradition, and the lifeblood of many dance companies, whose budgets depend on its reliably great ticket sales. But did you know that it was a flop when it first premiered in Russia? Or that George Balanchine himself once played Drosselmeyer on TV? Here's a timeline of the rich history of The Nutcracker.
Ballet class at USC Kaufman (photo by Ema Peter, courtesy Glorya Kaufman School of Dance at University of Southern California)
Stefanie Roper didn't take her first ballet class until she was 20. Despite her obvious facility, she encountered plenty of naysayers. "I remember one teacher telling me, 'Honey, you're just too old,' " she says. And she did have to overcome obstacles as she entered the ballet bubble. "People talked about how good my feet were, and I didn't understand what they meant for the first four months," Roper remembers, laughing. But she found a mentor at Utah Valley University, where she was a student, and persevered. Now, six years later, Roper's professional resumé includes a stint with BHdos, Ballet Hispanico's second company.
It seems like most professional ballet dancers started taking ballet classes before they were born, especially the women. For those who didn't discover ballet until after elementary school, it can feel impossible to catch up to dyed-in-the-wool students. But it's not. Late starters face plenty of hurdles, but good facility and hard work will take you far—even if it isn't into the ranks of a ballet company.
Dancer and photographer Lee Gumbs (photo by Katie Morton, courtesy Gumbs)
A contemporary, jazz, and ballet dancer, Lee Gumbs is known for his six-year touring stint with Bad Boys of Ballet (and, of course, for being a Dance Spirit Cover Model Search finalist in 2008!). But Gumbs' photography has earned equal praise. He's amassed an impressive portfolio of subjects, shooting famous dancers like Ashley Everett, Allison Holker, Melinda Sullivan, and Sean Lew, to name a few.
Ballet BC's Alexis Fletcher says experimenting with structured improv can make you more comfortable with risk. (Michael Slobodian, courtesy Ballet BC)
The dancers who take our breath away are the risk-takers, the ones who appear completely fearless onstage. "When you see somebody trying to travel more, go farther, push the limits of their physical abilities, that's always going to be inspiring," says Ballet BC dancer Alexis Fletcher.
But dance training can feel like it's in conflict with that idea. We spend thousands of hours in the studio trying to do steps perfectly, and that pursuit of perfection can make us anxious about taking risks. What if we fail? What if we fall?
Luckily, fearlessness is a mental skill that you can work on, just as you work on your technique. Here's how you can learn to push yourself past your limits.
It's a question I've been asked hundreds of times since I stopped dancing over a decade ago. My answer has changed over the years as my own understanding of what lead me to walk away from greatest love of my life has become clearer.
"I had some injures," I would mutter nervously for the first few years. This seemed like the answer people understood most. Then it became, "I was just not very happy." Finally, as I passed into my 30s, I began telling the uncomfortable truth: "I quit dancing because of untreated depression."
Erin Carpenter as a Knicks City Dancer (David Saffran, courtesy Erin Carpenter)
The groundwork for Erin Carpenter's company, Nude Barre, began when she was a teenager. At 16, she earned a spot in the residency program at The Kennedy Center in partnership with Dance Theatre of Harlem. "We were required to wear nude—as in, our actual skin tone—tights and shoes," she remembers. Carpenter brought her "sun tan" tights and a pair of pink ballet shoes with her, because that was all she could find. But she wasn't allowed in class because her dancewear didn't match her skin. "I was so embarrassed," she says. "I looked unprepared. I just didn't have the right nudes." Her teacher explained that the dancers dyed their tights and pancaked their shoes.
Every ballet dancer has a pointe shoe prep process that's akin to a sacred ritual. And while some modifications are meant to make feet look prettier, the most critical tricks help those precious shoes last as long as possible—because at $60 to $100 a pop, they have to. We rounded up some of the best hacks to keep your shoes from dying prematurely.
You may have noticed Broadway dancer Emily Hsu's vibrant leggings and sports bras in dance and yoga studios across the country. In just two short years, Emily Hsu Designs has become a dancer-approved sensation, thanks to her unique understanding of line and fit—knowledge of a woman's body that only a dance career can teach. Her roster of clients now boasts the Rockettes and top-level Broadway dancers, who swear by her flattering gear.
Every ballet dancer has a pointe shoe prep process that's akin to a sacred ritual. And while some modifications are meant to make feet look prettier, the most critical tricks help those precious shoes last as long as possible—because at $60 to $100 a pop, they have to. We rounded up some of the best hacks to get your shoes through everything (even the intensity of Nutcracker season!).
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Sean Aaron Carman and Michael Jackson Jr. (courtesy NYC Dance Project)
Every NYC Dance Project image feels like a glimpse into something greater: a dance that's happening behind a curtain, in a private moment. Take, for example, one of Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal dancer Céline Cassone's photos, a commanding shot of her on pointe in passé, her fiery red hair flung upward over her face. Or, the image of Misty Copeland that perfectly portrays both her incredible strength and her ineffable grace. NYC Dance Project's photographers have taken powerful photos of dozens of famous subjects. But what inspires their iconic images? And how do you capture such stunning shots?
Hope Boykin (center) in Matthew Rushing's Odetta (Christopher Duggan, courtesy Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre)
You already know that taking on a new role requires lots of homework, from perfecting the steps to figuring out spacing. But while it's easy to become wrapped up in technical demands, a little extra research can make all the difference in your performance—because each piece of choreography is inspired by something, whether it's a person, a time in history or simply an abstract harmony created by a composer.
The Whole Dancer founder Jessica Spinner (Malika Ahmed, courtesy Spinner)
Dancers need more than balance at the barre to be successful—they need it in life, too. That's where Jessica Spinner's online program The Whole Dancer comes in, making professional nutrition and wellness counseling available to dancers everywhere. “There's only so much your teachers can impart on you in the studio, and they're mostly focused on technique," Spinner says. “You need to have something outside to support you, as well."