Klipsun Magazine

Act II: Life After Ballet

Story and photos by Brooke Loisel

Dancers in sparkling, brightly-colored tutus wait in the dimly-lit backstage area for their performance. Each woman's hair is pulled back while standing on the tips of their pointed shoes and glide onto the stage to the melodies of Tchaikovsky's score in the orchestra pit.

Judging from their perfect bright lips and powdered faces, it's no secret they've done this before. And yet, the atmosphere is giddy as dancers leave the safety of backstage and enter the vulnerable place where 2,900 pairs of eyes watch them. The size of Marion Oliver McCaw Hall is roughly the equivalent of 15 large movie theaters.

Unlike movie stars, dancers don't get multiple takes to execute a flawless performance. Instead, they carry the pressure of having to dance without mistakes. Instead of film retouching, dancers must be authentically youthful and possess a physique that looks delicate, yet strong enough for demanding choreography. And instead of star treatment, Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB) dancers train nine hours a day, five days a week.

Dancers dedicate their entire lives to the art, but the human body can only possess the ballet ideal for so long. Unlike jobs that one can keep until 60 or 70, a ballet dancer's career often ends during his or her 30s or 40s-an age requiring a career transition, not a retirement plan. After their stage careers, some remain in the dance world, starting their own dance studios or companies while others attend or return to college, and some discover new passion that have nothing to do with performing arts. But, with so much time spent dancing, it’s difficult for the dancers to think about the movement from their careers to life beyond the stage.

PNB, founded as the Pacific Northwest Dance Association in 1972, has a reputation of producing accomplished dancers and exceptional performances. To help these dancers' career transitions with grace, PNB's Second Stage program was developed in 1999. The program provides dancers with grants and career counseling, or the option to take night courses offered though Seattle University.

All PNB dancers donate a day's wages each year to Second Stage, says Chalnessa Eames, a PNB dancer, in order to help fund the program. She knows people who have been successful through Second Stage—like Jordan Pacitti, a PNB dancer who used the program to launch his business: Jordan Samuel Fragrances. After he retires this coming June, he plans to build his line of organic fragrances and attend a six-month program at Gary Manuel Aveda Institute in Seattle to become an esthetician.

It is difficult to picture Eames, a 32-year-old woman with a slender athletic build, dark hair and a heart-shaped face, retiring anytime soon. She says she doesn’t have an exact plan of life after dance, but has a few ideas.

"I'm excited to see what else I can do," Eames says. "It's reality our bodies can only take so much."

Starting a family with her husband, Ash Modha, designing a dancewear line for Modha's active-wear clothing company and founding a yoga studio are all options Eames is considering after her PNB career.

Eames was raised in Bellingham and took ballet classes at the Nancy Whyte School of Ballet and the Morca Academy of Performing Arts. As a teenager, she studied at a prestigious dance school in Florida, and a summer program through PNB's school. She went on to Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet at age 18, where she became an apprentice, a step up from a student. Just one year later, she landed a job in the corp de ballet, a large ensemble of dancers.

In 2001, Eames joined the PNB corps de ballet, and after six years of dancing with the large ensemble, was promoted to soloist in 2007-a mid-way position between the ensemble and starring roles, in which she preforms more solos.

Although she enjoys her work, she admits it is fast-paced. At any one time, the dancers rehearse for three to six ballets that could be performed at anytime, from the next day to eight months away. But she enjoys the challenges that come along with her job. It's amazing what can be accomplished in rehearsals for a ballet, Eames says.

"At times, I am given parts and I think I can't do it. And then I do, three weeks later on stage," she says with pride.

Sometimes rehearsal and hard work is what gets Eames through each day of dance. Other times, it's all a matter of luck. Knocking on wood, she says she's been fortunate to not have had any major injuries. When dancers are injured, they cannot rehearse, perform or take the daily ballet class—a dancer's bread and butter to staying in shape and maintaining strength and flexibility.

While dancers consider other options outside of performing, some may leave the stage to teach the next wave of dancers, like Vivian Little.

Like Eames, Little grew up and attended school in Bellingham. She was a principal dancer for PNB from 1974 to 1977 and later pursued a performing career at San Francisco Ballet. After taking some time away from ballet altogether, Little realized she missed the art. While in Peru, she became a ballet mistress and began teaching. When Little returned to Seattle, she taught at PNB for seven years.

In 1996, she founded Dance Fremont, located in Seattle. The studio is made up of a performing company of high-school-age students and a younger crowd that take classes in classical ballet and modern dance. The older students commit to attending classes and rehearsals for about 20 hours a week.

Little hopes her students can take life lessons away from their time in dance classes. Through dance, they have learned discipline, how to be adaptable and-above all else—how to have a strong work ethic. She says with the skills learned from dance, former dancers can utilize them in all movements of life, no matter what stage they find themselves on.

Learn more about Chalnessa Eames and Pacific Northwest Ballet here

© 2010 Klipsun Magazine