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  • Emma Acton

10 Things I Learned As A Professional Ballet Dancer

The ballet world is a magical place where hard work is expected and dreams can be realised. I spent 21 years striving to perfect an art that requires strength and athleticism as well as precision, passion and patience. Having made the decision to hang up my pointe shoes (at least for now), I feel a sense of achievement in living a dream that began when I was 5 years old. This is not to say that I perfected my craft entirely, or that I was the most ‘successful’ dancer in the world. But knowing that the many opportunities I was lucky enough to experience as a dancer have provided me with the tools needed to move forward into the next chapter of my life, I feel comfortable in furthering my journey in the world of dance. Reflecting on my time as a professional dancer has instilled in me a belief that I have the knowledge and skillset to teach others. While there are millions of lessons to be learned as a dancer, here are 10 of my most ingrained learnings.

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1. Self-motivation In a career full of competition, it is so vital to remain motivated, and I learned quickly that no one could do that for me. As much as teachers, family members and friends can support you and want something for you, it is ultimately only you who can make the hard work happen. In my professional experience, there was very little guidance from those above me -therefore it was paramount to do everything I could to remain inspired and continue working towards goals. The monotony of daily class and rehearsal can become stale if your mind believes the work is not important. Attend live performances, take classes from different teachers and remind yourself each day what it was that inspired you to dance.


2. Self-criticism and self-love The professional stage is the most daunting place I’ve ever been. It is also where I was able to find awareness and growth within myself. The pressure to perform, for me, ignited nerves and self-doubt that I had never experienced throughout my training, and the disappointment of underperforming on stage filled me with incredible defeat. While it was important to know where mistakes were made to improve for the next performance, the emotional blow was an unnecessary burden to put on myself. In the studio, I learned to love what I was seeing. Not because it was perfect, but because I was watching my own perseverance and progress. Focusing on the growth you’ve made instead of only watching your faults, helps to create a more positive learning environment.

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3. How to develop a thick skin Critiques and corrections are a common occurrence in every dance studio. This is how we improve and learn to dance correctly and safely. Some students see corrections as their teacher ‘pointing out their flaws’ and take it as a personal attack. A lesson I learned throughout my full-time training was that, although not all teachers have the greatest delivery, they do all want to see you dance to your full potential. For me, the hardest thing to deal with in the professional world, was realising that sometimes it has nothing to do with how well you dance. Sometimes, doing your best just isn’t good enough, and that’s because casting involves so much more than choosing talent. Fitting a role can require a certain look, height, body shape, hair colour or skin colour. It can also come down to something as silly as who was fresh in the director’s mind on the day of casting, or who remembers to say ‘Good Morning’ to the choreographer each day. While we hope that our work ethic and talent can speak for itself, it’s important to not take any decisions too personally - a skill that requires daily reminders!


4. Self-care must be a priority Injuries are a dancer’s downfall - they can and do happen to every dancer. Remind yourself constantly that your body is your instrument, and without it, you can no longer practice your craft. I learned slowly the importance of a proper warm up and implementation of personal conditioning. Before this knowledge, I spent a lot of my dance years with niggles as minuscule as muscular cramps and as significant as broken bones and torn ligaments. Injuries can be manageable and, if rehabbed correctly, can make you stronger than you were initially. Following the advice of dance teachers, pilates instructors and medical professionals got me to a point in my career where I understood my body well enough to pre-empt most injuries and manage pain very well. To neglect the needs of your body is a foolish way to shorten your dance career and leave you with ongoing issues. Listen to your body and prioritise your health in all aspects.

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5. Confidence is a performance in itself The phrase ‘fake it ’til you make it’ is relevant here! Confidence or lack-thereof can be the final straw in determining which dancers make it through an audition, who is cast for each role and who performs best on stage. Thousands of times throughout my career I have heard teachers yell out “Show confidence!” and for a long time, I didn’t understand how. My time as a pre-professional was the first time I ever felt that I was allowed freedom in my movement. This is when I perhaps developed ‘real’ confidence in my dancing. It wasn’t that I all of a sudden believed that I was amazing, it was that I took pride in finally being able to make my own artistic choices (even something as small as deciding on my own use of port de bras in barre work). Art requires uniqueness, and this demonstration of independence allowed me to find my uniqueness and in turn, show pride and confidence in my dancing.


6. Be humble Being a performing artist has wonderful benefits like connecting with audiences from rural communities and performing for large scale audiences full of ‘important people’. I’ve seen dancers become swept up in the praise they’ve received from audience members, reviewers and even co-workers. While it can be exhilarating to hear that someone appreciates your work and talent, remaining humble is the best advice I could give a fellow dancer. The studio can often be filled with egocentric dancers, and rather than creating a healthy, competitive environment, all this does is weaken the camaraderie between dancers. Inspiring a younger generation is one of the most rewarding parts of being a dancer, and no one looks up to arrogance!

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7. Find the balance between friendship and rivalry All work environments have their share of necessary rivalry. The dance world is definitely no exception, with each dancer competing regularly for the top rank in the company and the best roles on stage. It is important to realise that dancers with a similar look, height and physicality to you, will often be vying for the same roles. The dancers you spend the most time working with often become your closest friends - this can be a difficult area to navigate when one gets a role that the other desired. Finding a way to support each other will only make your workplace more enjoyable. Some of my greatest, lifelong friendships were formed in the dance studio - we pushed each other to be our best and to remain motivated, and we supported each other in success and in moments of defeat.



8. Have a life separate from work A healthy work/life balance really is a fundamental need! As an artist, it is so easy for your work to become all-consuming because it is something you are truly passionate about. You may find however, that if you do allow dance to control all of your decision making and fill all of your time, that your motivation could either decrease or come from an egocentric place. Switching off from the dance world can be as simple as coming home to a different suburb (living too close to work can feel like you never left!), finding another creative outlet that is purely for entertainment, or finding a friendship circle or partner outside of your profession (don’t poop where you eat!).


9. Peak physical fitness takes focus and determination This one may sound obvious, but it’s even truer than I ever realised during my training! Certain ballets call for an extremely high level of stamina and place an enormous load of physical stress on the body. Even at times when I felt very strong, I struggled immensely to get through these types of performances. During the rehearsal period of a new ballet, if I found myself strangely out of breath, or with cramps in my feet or calves, I would make it a priority to up my level of personal conditioning work. Unlike some dancers, I’m not a huge fan of going to the gym so for me, adding regular swimming into my schedule was a must for any cardio-heavy ballets. Taking extra care of my body was also high priority at these times - pilates-based strength exercises, extra rolling out and ice buckets would become regular daily activities!

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10. Enjoy the moments as they happen This is perhaps something we are all told fairly often, yet it can be a difficult task to accomplish! With social media taking over the world and every dancer trying to one-up each other’s posts, just enjoying the art for what it is in that moment has become very rare. In my recent final performance with Melbourne City Ballet, I decided to try the advice of many classic dance films and just ‘dance for myself’, without really expecting anything to feel different from any of my previous nerve-racking, adrenaline sparking, exhilarating performances. Somehow, knowing it would be my last show (at least for a while), I was able to completely relax on stage in a way that I have never experienced before. I felt comfortable, proud, strong and intensely connected to my dancing. I urge all dancers to strive for this feeling on stage as I wish it was something I had felt every time I performed!

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My experiences are just that - they are mine. So they may be and probably are, completely different from other professional dancers. I chose to share these lessons in the hopes that another dancer may come away with some new knowledge of what to be prepared for in the dance world. It was also an important time for me to reflect on such an influential and special chapter of my life. Although I’m no longer required by contract to complete a full ballet class every working day, I will continue to train and learn, as I’m not yet ready to let go of the skill level and physicality I was able to achieve throughout my professional career. I will also always continue to learn as I coach young dancers - these fresh minds are often the most energising to work with and to learn from! The world doesn’t stop when you stop dancing - in fact, I feel more inspired and connected to the dance world than ever. This is just the beginning!


Emma Cheeseman

9th July, 2019

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