Wake up at 6 a.m. Go to the gym, and warm up on the elliptical before heading to the studio at 8:30 a.m. Class until 10:30 a.m., a 15-minute break and then practice until 3 p.m. A short rest before teaching students after school. Finish up the class, and head to another job, maybe as a waitress or a bartender. Work the shift, and finally head home to sleep. Wake up, and do it all over again. That’s the grueling schedule for a dancer with Missouri Contemporary Ballet — a schedule that despite the long hours and aching feet, dancers insist is worth it.
For ballet dancer Alice Wells, performing has been the norm since before she could do much else; Wells started taking classes at age 3. Now she has professionally danced her way across the country and has landed here in Columbia. Her chosen career path is a lot for a 22-year-old, but she says it’s more enjoyable than any other job. Ballet isn’t just a sport; it’s a form of expression, an all-consuming passion for dancers around the world.
José Soares Jr., 26, knows about its reach better than most. His first introduction to dance was when he was 11 years old, living in his home country of Brazil, and the Bolshoi School held open auditions. For Soares, his passion for ballet wasn’t immediate, but he is now fully in love with the art form, despite backlash from those who consider it to be a women’s sport. “Brazil is very far behind still in thinking ballet is just for girls,” he says. “Even when I moved (to the U.S.) some of my friends pushed back a little.”
Although there can be emotional stressors, physical challenges and injuries are the more pressing issues for professional dancers. Foot and knee injuries, such as stress fractures or broken ankles are a concern for women dancing on pointe, while back and shoulder injuries are typical for men from doing lifts. “If we get injured, we just try to work through it,” Soares says.
Taking care of their bodies is a major concern, but the pressure while performing isn’t purely physical. “There is so much you have to remember,” says MCB dancer Nicole Bell, 23. “After one 15-minute rehearsal, you might get 30 notes that you then have to apply.”
Even in the summer off-season, rest is limited. Wells and Bell spend time teaching and taking additional classes while balancing part-time jobs. Soares travels around the country with other dance companies before returning to Columbia in the fall. For a sport so focused on delicate beauty, the work that goes into the effortless lifts and turns is endless.
Soares likes to tell himself there is never a “good enough” and that he needs to always strive for more. Wells reminds herself if she doesn’t get her steps right, someone else will, and she’ll be out of a role. Despite the harsh mantras, there is an undeniable joy in each of these dancers when they speak about their work. As Bell puts it: “It’s what we love to do. It’s worth it.”