The Everyday Dancer by former Royal Ballet Principal Deborah Bull

September 22, 2011


The Everyday Dancer by the Royal Ballet’s Deborah Bull

with illustrations by Millicent Hodson

 ballet book cover

First things first. You absolutely need to read this book. Deborah Bull knows her subject and will take you on a journey that you may be unfamiliar with – as a dance student (male or female) or the parent/guardian of someone who is, or if your experience of ballet has been mostly in front of the curtain (we’ll be calling them ‘tabs’ from now on). Bull has lived the life of a ballet dancer, emerged relatively unscathed and taken on new challenges as a broadcaster, writer and, since 2008, Creative Director of the Royal Opera House. What makes this book essential for you is that Bull is qualified to overlay the dancer’s routine with feeling; for example, how it feels as a dancer to transit from the end of a performance, through the fleeting emotions as the tabs close, back to the dressing room and on into the night. Throughout, Bull places emphasis on the energy levels in the studio, the atmosphere (including how noisy or quiet) and how all of these shift inexorably as the clock turns towards the performance.

The Everyday Dancer, through its structure of 8 chapters, over 209 pages, reveals not only the diurnal life of a dancer but concurrently, their (short) career span, taking in their first ever class right up to the last curtain call. So 10.30am represents not only the start of ballet class, but for some dancers, their first ever class.

The everyday life of a ballet dancer is more or less a 12 hour working day, 10.30am – 10.30pm, six days a week. That’s not including the extra Pilates, stretching and other warm up routines that dancers often undertake before class, which might see them back in their place of work by 9am. Factor in travelling and that doesn’t allow much time for sleep; in all probability it’s less than 12 hours since the curtain came down – and 9 hours to the next!

Through each chapter, Bull breaks down the various constituent parts of the day/career, so as we arrive for ballet class at 10.30am we are introduced to the environment, the teacher, the barre and through the elements of the class itself. Bull interweaves fragments from her diary into the narrative which emphasises the dancer’s emotional response to routine rather than simply ‘it’s 12.00 so it’s a corps de ballet rehearsal.’ Bull vividly sets the scene for class so that you understand its levelling nature – all dancers standing at the barre no matter whether they were last night’s star or the company’s newest member.

Through Bull’s other work, since retiring as a Principal Royal Ballet dancer, she is able to bring the science behind the training of an elite athlete to the table, something she admits she didn’t fully understand as a dancer herself.  It takes 10 years to train a ballet dancer, and those 10 years must be completed before the effects of puberty. Nowadays the global market disadvantages anyone who hasn’t commenced vocational training by their teens, even if that’s starting with ‘good toes naughty toes.’ During a dancer’s career, between the ages of 7-40, Bull estimates that they will have taken 10,000 classes.

Bull applies science in surprising situations, for example : the mirror. Traditionally the dancer’s best friend and the one they defer to.  Because the human brain places greater importance on the information it receives from your eyes, rather than through proprioception, when it comes to correcting mistakes from what you see in the mirror, the process becomes slower and less effective. There’s also science behind dancers ability to jump, which has to do with fast and slow twitch muscle fibres.  More specifically, if you have a larger number of the former, your jump will be lighter but the flipside is that you’ll tire more easily.  A predominance of slow twitch muscles fibres, on the other hand, give better endurance but when jumping, a dancer can look laboured.

12 noon takes us to the corps de ballet rehearsal.  There could be as many as 120 rehearsals a week, and at The Royal Ballet where there are 5 studios, possibly 6 different casts over 3-4 weeks when the company is performing 2 different programmes and rehearsing 3 more, the job of the scheduler is massively important and never advertised. On top of the physical restrictions on space the scheduler must also know the repertory inside out (including how many acts a ballet has/how demanding they are/how long they are/how many people are in the cast) so as to avoid scheduling two contrasting ballet styles on the same day, which could be dangerous. In ballet school, rehearsals are different, but they are often where dancers first learn the harsh truth that sometimes you’re cast, and sometimes you’re not, and that you may never know why. C’est la vie. Bull goes to some lengths to explain the company notice board system, its importance, how it’s arranged and where the dancers want to see their names, and the rule never to leave the theatre without checking the board. Omnia mutantur – all things change.

In this chapter you’ll be introduced to the répétiteurs (in a large company there will be several to coach the principals, soloists and corps de ballet), the notators (Benesh Notation is used at The Royal Ballet because video cannot be relied upon as the ultimate record of a choreographers intention) and the ballet mistress (responsible for bringing the dancers up to standard once the choreography has been taught by the répétiteurs). Then it’s on to the difference between full calls and stage calls for the corps de ballet. There are between 12-32 dancers making up a corps de ballet, and they are responsible for setting the tone of a ballet, so their rehearsals are focused on this, rather than their technical skills.

ballet dancer

Deborah Bull

The Everyday Dancer has lunch at around 1.30 and packs in a surprising amount besides food.  Bull says that as dancers mostly do anaerobic exercise (high intensity work in short bursts) the energy source best suited to their needs is carbohydrates as they are the only nutrient that can be stored as glycogen, which provides energy for muscles.  Most people, dancer or not, will concur that eating carbs can make you feel sleepy and sluggish, which is why dancers tend to eat them after a show rather than in the middle of the working day. Science steps in again to explain that 15-60 minutes after a show is the optimum time to eat because glycogen levels will refill completely, whereas at other times they may only partially refill and be less beneficial. The subject of eating disorders is actually barely touched on, except to say that there is more support and advice available now and that there is no reason to miss lunch. It later transpires that the ideal time for a dancer to eat lunch is 3pm; giving the optimum 4 hours before performance when the food will be just where you need it – in your small intestine.

Ironically, a typical dancer’s day will have costume fittings around this time too. You may be aware that the costume department has a record of every dancers measurements, but did you know how detailed ? For instance, they also know your ‘point to point’ measurement (between one nipple and the other). Bull describes the dancer’s reaction to some costumes, in this case the asymmetric hemline and its habit of turning unevenly, pulling the dancer off centre and reducing speed.

With 20 minutes to spare the dancer beetles off to the shoe room (usually on a weekly basis), an alphabetically arranged honeycomb of cubby holes filled with pink satin pointe shoes (for the girls), each with the dancers surname on the front, and one of the most frequently photographed locations in the Royal Opera house.  Why ? Because it so effectively demonstrates the collision between the reality and the fantasy of a dancers life. The shoes in your cubby hole are a testament that you’ve made it as a dancer. Bull tells the story of her first pointe shoes, from Gamba (a van practically sent from Heaven filled with pointe shoes arrived at White Lodge), which she slept with under her pillow – as did each of the 12 new arrivals.

During the lunch break some dancers visit the busy physiotherapists who treat mainly 2 types of injury : traumatic and chronic. Bull explains that once recovery is progressing, finding the cause of the injury is time well spent. In a pro dancer it’s usually technical and one to one coaching is very helpful, as is looking at the site above the injury to find its cause.

By 2.30pm it’s the Soloist and Principal calls for an hour and a half, and here Bull explains that the main difference is the shared responsibility for performance that the dancers have with the répétiteurs, and that ‘feedback’ rather than ‘corrections’ is given. You’ll discover the pathways to becoming a Principal or Soloist, and the challenges of taking the version you’ve learned in the studio onto the stage. Pas de deux rehearsals are more often taken by men, because partnering is a skill specific to them which they learn from around the age of 15. For a Principal, a full call is quite a scary experience.  It’s the first time with the whole company for starters, with a packed studio and a line of répétiteurs watching every move. Corrections for the corps de ballet are made in public; for the Principals they are saved until later.

Between 4-5.30pm new work is on the dancer’s schedule. Bull explains the difference between contemporary and classical work : with contemporary the steps usually come before the music and with classical ballet the music is always first.

By 6.55pm it’s the half hour call and Bull takes us through her make-up kit as an RBS student.  It sounds horrific and includes a fishing tackle box.  It’s very interesting to note Bull’s remarks about how make-up, over the years and in all kinds of differing situations (fighting, for example) is used as a protection against an unknown encounter.  Going back in time, wigs are glued on by 6pm and by 6.15 the dancers are warming up.  Unique to female dancers by and large (some roles require male dancers to wear pointe shoes), 6.35pm is reserved for the shoe ceremony.

What you’ll find is that at almost every stage of a dancers day, a lot of preparation has already taken place at other times, so class may start at 10.30am but a lot of dancers will be in the building by 9am and 6.35pm may be shoe time but this row of potential candidates will have been though quite a process already.  Bull wants to clearly make a point about pain, one I’ve seen her make slightly exasperatedly in interviews.  It’s not physical; at least, for a professional dancer wearing pointe shoes should not mean constant pain – it’s more of an emotional issue because, as Bull describes pointe shoes, they are like lovers : never perfect. You’ll find very important information about the sort of shoes to reject immediately, and which to keep for another day; another mood.

The half hour call is a rare moment of calm. Bull describes the processes on-stage, with electrics, lights, props and other technicians working away in shifts to get the performance on (and the next, and on double show day, two!) The dressing room for the corps de ballet is described in vivid detail – before and after the refurbishment – and the loss of dressing rooms 1-5 which had been home to Darcey Bussell, Margot Fonteyn, Moira Shearer, Antoinette Sibley and many more.

For the Principals, preparation started earlier in the day.  With luck and a lighter schedule (or a tougher performance) they may have been given the afternoon off, with time for lunch at the ideal time of 3pm in their own kitchen and the possibility of a nap. They arrive in the theatre 2 hours before the half hour call.

Bull describes in part her own pre-show routine but also that of our everyday dancer – the help needed from the dressers to get into all but the most basic of costumes and the wig mistress, who are probably cautious not to encroach on the dancers thoughts too much at this time, and how different the post-show routine will be.

“Most of us have grown up in tutus : our proprioceptors seem to have adapted, like cat’s whiskers, to include the additional girth.”

There is still the headdress to fix – the dancers hair has been painstakingly prepared earlier – and finishing touches to make-up, plus the plaster routine to complete (sometimes using a gel they call “squidge”), and as 7.10pm arrives the dancers are pulling on tights and tying shoe ribbons. At 7.20pm the stage manager gives the five minute call and the dancers head to the stage. Then there will be a call of “beginners, please” and the assistant stage manager takes the conductor and leads him to the pit.  There’s a lovely description of the sound you’ll be familiar with if you’ve sat in the auditorium, where the oboe’s tuning A rings out and all the other musicians follow until you can hear a single massed note heralding the arrival of the conductor.

Once in situ, the overture plays (if there is one), and the stage manager will say “stand by on stage, please.  Tabs going out.” And that’s it; all the months of rehearsal are over and this is your moment.

Bull clearly remembers vividly her post-show emotions and describes them very well – the reality check when the curtains close at 10.30pm, how the end of a performance feels for the corps de ballet and the principals, and how it feels to be applauded.

The delicate shift between the character you’ve inhabited and your own self is one that takes place alone, in the in-between spaces of the night, whether it’s curtain down or your final curtain.

The Everyday Dancer by Deborah Bull is Released on 6th October 2011

The Everyday Dancer (Hardcover)

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The Everyday Dancer (Kindle Edition)

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2 Responses to “The Everyday Dancer by former Royal Ballet Principal Deborah Bull”

  1. Jason Says:

    Sounds like an interesting book. I think it is very specific to Ms Bull’s experience at the Royal Ballet – it is perhaps more ‘the everyday dancer – if you happen to be at the royal ballet’. Still thats not a criticism, I’ll certainly be interested to read it, but a clarification that not every professional dancer is going to have a day like Ms Bull.

    To quibble, I think its a bit reductive to say that the difference between classical and contemporary is “with contemporary the steps come before the music and with classical ballet the music is always first.” that is certainly not true in all cases – yes certainly some contemporary choreographers work with the steps first and add music later, but plenty are driven purely by the music.

  2. Ballet News Says:

    @Jason I’m not aware of how much research there has been into whether or not the routine described by Deborah is the norm for the majority of professional ballet dancers, or whether it’s the norm for the Royal Ballet. I think any dancer who has spent the whole of their professional career in one place is going to base their experiences on that company, and hopefully anyone reading the book will be aware of Deborah’s background before they start and may anticipate that. Regarding new works, the subject is covered in more detail in the book – I don’t want to give everything away with my review.