By Leda Meredith
Today one of the young student dancers I rehearsal direct in a Nutcracker production came up to me and pointed to her right foot. A bad blister had bled through her tights and through her pointe shoe. She looked up at me with wide eyes and a well-trained ballet-school smile and asked if it was okay if she did the run-thru on flat. I said yes, the other ballet mistress said no. She kept the shoes on. During the run through, I heard, Smile, girls, its Nutcracker not a tragedy! shouted at the dancers. I looked at Susans foot. Her shoe was red with blood. She was smiling.
This is complicated. There are times when I think a dancer does need to perform despite bleeding blisters and such. When the curtain is going up and there is no understudy, for example. On the other hand, if this were foreign policy rather than ballet Id say it was utterly inhumane.
I think ballet is beautiful. The ancient Chinese bound womens feet because they thought small feet were beautiful. What did those women think? My ballet students are willing to put up with real physical and psychological pain in pursuit of beauty. Is it worth it? Is there an alternative way to get to the beauty without the torture? Are we willing to break with tradition to investigate what that way might be?
In a recent dinner conversation with Cynthia Gregory, she mentioned that during her performing career she was very protective of her body. For example, she would let whoever was running the rehearsal know that she could only do one full-out one through. This was not laziness, but a guarded attention to what her instrument could handle. She had no major injuries during her remarkable career.
Sometimes dancers abuse this principle. I have to mark this run thru because the floor is slippery (when it isnt), I cant do the lifts today because my back is bad (when it isnt). Directors are sometimes right to be skeptical of dancers claiming physical excuses not to perform full out.
But then there is Susan with her bleeding feet at a rehearsal when it wont make or break the show if she does the run thru on pointe or not. Given enough longevity, professional dancers learn how to make this call for themselves: yes, I can do this and it wont injure me and its necessary vs. no, this would actually injure me and/or isnt really necessary. But what are we teaching our dance students?
Smile, girls, smile! Right. Maybe that needs some rethinking.
Leda Meredith is the author of “Botany, Ballet, & Dinner from Scratch” (Heliotrope Books 2008). She is the winner of the 2007-2008 Teaching Excellence Award from Adelphi University. For more, go to www.ledameredith.com
Photo: Leda Meredith and Jonathan Riseling in Francis Patrelle’s “Macbeth”, Photo Credit: Eduardo Patino