After graduating from Middlebury College in 1983, Paula Routly moved to Burlington for a job at the newly created Flynn Center. She left to pursue a career in journalism and in 1995, cofounded Seven Days newspaper. Although her dance moves are now mostly aquatic—as in swimming laps in the Y pool—she’ll interview members of the Joffrey Ballet before the company’s Flynn Center performance on Saturday, March 16.
Every little girl dreams of becoming a ballerina—at least during Nutcracker season. But those who actually pursue the sugar plum job eventually have to face reality: The world employs a total of about 1,000 ballet dancers, according to Burlington native Kevin McKenzie, artistic director of American Ballet Theatre. Landing a paid position turning pirouettes is far more competitive than scoring a spot in professional sports.
But I wasn’t calculating the odds in 1974, the year I decided to make ballet my career goal and Mikhail Baryshnikov defected from the Soviet Union, changing the art form forever. Starting in eighth grade, I eschewed all the normal adolescent temptations—parties, dating, driving, rock concerts—to devote myself to the rigors of classical ballet training. For the next four years, I spent up to five hours a day, six days a week, perfecting my technique under the tutelage of Czech and Russian emigrés.
It was a great way to get through the teenage years. Every day at noon, I swapped standard-issue high school for an exotic life that combined art and athleticism, teamwork and individual drive. The arrangement also suited my parents, who loved that the grueling daily workouts, combined with dieting, homework, and school-time performances, kept me out of trouble.
But when it looked like a career in dance might also keep me out of college, Mom and Dad were not so pleased. They rejected the widely-held view that an aspiring dancer should be working in a professional ballet company by the time she or he is 18. And they were dead set against my plan to make that happen by spending the summer between my junior and senior years studying at the Joffrey Ballet School in New York City.
At the time, most of the action was at America’s three biggest ballet companies—American Ballet Theatre, Joffrey, and George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet—all of which offered intensive summer programs in Manhattan. The goal was to get into one of them, preferably on a scholarship, and make a positive impression. Success was surviving summer school long enough to stay on for the academic year. Anything less than a “winter scholarship” suggested it might be time to turn in the toe shoes.
To the extent that American ballet had a baseball-like “farm system,” this was it. Girls and boys from all across the country came to New York to audition for these programs. American Ballet Theatre’s was a veritable round up, during which hundreds of young dancers, identified by a number attached to the front and back of their leotards, trotted out before a panel of stern-faced judges.
A huge percentage never got past the “quarter turns”; not a dance step, alas, but a beauty pageant-style evaluation of physical worthiness. Anyone overweight or out of proportion was sent back to the hinterlands. Those who made the “body cut” were allowed to take a ballet class. But after each exercise, a handful got the boot. It was the ballet version of Survivor.
I made it halfway through class before I got the bad news via a smiling messenger: “You may leave.”
New York City Ballet had a more humane process, but the company only hired “Balanchine dancers” who were tall and rail-thin with long legs, small heads, and huge arches. I had been accepted to the school a few years earlier, but without an offer of financial aid. I took that to mean I wasn’t their type.
Joffrey was different, literally. Its dancers—and repertoire—were the most diverse of the three. The company had grown from a six-dancer ensemble operating out of a station wagon to become New York’s City Center Joffrey Ballet, with two choreographers, Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino, at the helm. The company’s repertoire included works by Alvin Ailey, Twyla Tharp, and others. Now based in Chicago, Joffrey was the first US dance company to set a ballet to rock music.
I went to the company’s feeder school, American Ballet Center, to audition for the summer program. I made my way up the narrow staircase at 434 Avenue of the Americas to a big studio on the top floor with city views in three directions.
The class was crowded and disorienting, but the teacher, Meredith Baylis, was funny and tough. When we were dancing in small groups across the floor, I got the sense that she was watching me. She must have seen something she liked because I got what I was hoping for: a scholarship for the summer.
But when I returned in July to New York, the curtains didn’t exactly part for my grand entrance. I was one of hundreds of dancers in the city—a fresh summer crop—trying to catch the same break. After the Slavic-flavored family atmosphere of my ballet school in Maryland, it felt competitive and isolating.
My folks, who had never been stage parents, did nothing to make it easier. I was lucky to find a family on the Upper West Side that was willing to exchange free room and board for my babysitting services. I was so broke I couldn’t afford subway fare, so I often walked from the apartment on West 86th to the school in Greenwich Village.
Classes continued through the famous blackout of 1977, which coincided with a spectacular heat wave. Packed into studios that exceeded 100 degrees, some dancers fainted from dehydration. Did I mention Son of Sam?
No one thing convinced me to give up my dream of being a professional dancer. It was more of a feeling: even if I had the talent to get a “winter scholarship,” which I had begun to doubt, I saw plenty of dancers of that ilk, with years invested, still waiting for a job. The longer they stayed, the harder it was for them to walk away, and the more new opportunities they gave up.
Of course I looked back—a lot. And it didn’t help that two of my six closest classmates from Maryland went pro, and two others from a competing ballet school wound up dancing with Baryshnikov.
Over the years, I’ve come to peace with my decision and reclaimed dance, first as a critic, then as a spectator. I know I’ll enjoy the upcoming Joffrey performance at the Flynn, without wishing I was up there.
I’ve also come to appreciate all the other things ballet gave me, including discipline, determination, and physical endurance. At a local celebration in his honor last November, McKenzie added a few more: self-respect, poise, team spirit, and respect for deadlines.
“I’ve told so many people in the business world: If you want to hire a good employee, hire a former dancer,” McKenzie said. Better yet, why not put him or her in charge of the place?
The Joffrey Ballet, Saturday, March 16 at 8 pm
The Joffrey Ballet makes their first Flynn appearance in a performance of Kurt Jooss’ The Green Table (1932), an expressionist anti-war work that was equivalent to a warning against the clouds darkening over Europe. The company also performs two contemporary works, Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain, and a brand new piece by Houston Ballet’s superstar, Stanton Welch.