By Cambria Fuqua
When Kate Arnson arrives to rehearsal at the San Diego City Ballet, she begins by wrapping and taping her feet and toes. With 35 hours of rehearsals per week alongside working a second job, she tends to her injuries on a daily basis.
For Arnson, that all comes with the territory of being a professional ballerina.
Despite an outward appearance of glamour and sophistication, ballet as an art form has an unflattering reality rarely seen by the pubic. A behind-the-scenes look at the lives of professional ballet dancers reveal what few people see: fierce competition, an unforgiving physical regimen and the need to supplement income.
That reality is is on full display at the San Diego City Ballet, especially for the female dancers. Arnson explains that with each new production, the company’s ballerinas feel the need to fight for a lead role.
“There are definitely always going to be more women than parts,” she said. “There are always going to be women behind you, so just because you aren’t willing to work for a little less money, there are definitely 10 girls behind you that will.”
The psychological strain from the constant need to fight for a place within the company often ensues.
“Sometimes it feels like a total mind game,” she said. “Ultimately, though, we all love it.”
Head choreographer for the San Diego City Ballet, Elizabeth Wistrich, elaborates on the mindset needed for such a unique career.
“You have to really focus. It’s a lot of hard work,” she said.
The hard work and focus extends to the physical exertion of her dancers as well.
Each dancer at the company rehearses seven hours each day. It is inevitable that this amount of physical strain will take its toll on the human body.
“Part of the pain – you just kind of have to deal with. You move on with your life. I take a lot of Epsom salt baths, different kinds of tape, different kinds of ointments – anything you can put on your body that will lessen the pain,” Arnson said.
According to the Orthopedic Journal of Sports Medicine, overuse injuries are the most frequent injuries in ballet. The repetitive motions of ballet movements are especially taxing on the hip, knee and ankle joints. As a result, many dancers experience arthritis at a young age.
Although a strong mentality and resilient body are vital, Wistrich emphasized that other attributes are needed in order to achieve success in the world of ballet.
“If you have really high expectations, you have to have the physical attributes. You do have to be on the thinner side, you have to have nice feet, and I think you have to really focus,” Wistrich said.
She puts into perspective just how much her dancers need to truly want to succeed.
“It’s 75 percent hard work and disappointment, and maybe like 25 percent where you really love it, enjoy it, and get some kind of reward out of it,” she said.
Not only are the dancers working hard in the dance studio, but they are also working hard outside of rehearsals.
The dancers say they don’t get an impressive salary by any means. Because of this, most dancers at the San Diego City Ballet are forced to work a second job on top of their busy ballet rehearsal schedule.
“Ballet is never enough to pay the bills,” Arnson said. “In addition to all the other struggles we’re dealing with, everyone is usually working another job until 11 or 12 or two in the morning,” Arnson said.
Lorenzo Sanzo, a guest dancer with the company, elaborates on the passion that is needed for professional dancers to succeed.
“It’s always going to be hard- you’re going to want to give up a thousand times,” he said. “But when you step out onto that stage, it all goes away and the hard work, sweat, tears are all worth it. It’s amazing, and no one can ever take that feeling away from you. That is why we dance.”