Please note that this letter was originally published in April 2019. In the meantime, Jessica has been promoted to soloist at Stuttgart Ballet! Find Jessica on social media: @jessicafyfeofficial
I write to you to tell you what I wish I knew at the very beginning of my career. What I have experienced, learned and gained over my career, I wish to share with you.
I am currently a demi-soloist with The Stuttgart Ballet, was a Coryphée with The Australian Ballet and have been a guest artist with English National Ballet. I am Australian and I moved out of home to study ballet at 15, after already being a full-time ballet student, and studying school by distance, from the age of 13. Having toured Australia and traveled around Europe, I have now been living in Germany for the past 3 years. I am most certainly not perfect, my career has taken twists and turns and I do not know everything and have all the answers, but I have been in the ballet world for almost my entire life and still love dancing today and hope to be doing so for many more years to come.
First things first, becoming a professional ballet dancer is not an easy road! The journey is not smooth, nor straight forward and you need to know that no two paths are the same. This is the arts! But, if you really WANT to make it, hopefully I can help by sharing what I know and opening up about my life experiences.
When I decided that I was going to become a professional dancer at the age of 12, nothing would stop me! School and social events came second to ballet, which my parents were a little concerned about. I did complete my schooling in a roundabout sort of way though, but today I wish I had applied myself and focussed a little more on education. You certainly need it and if your career doesn’t turn out exactly as you planned you will have something to fall back on. As dancers we are educated in different areas and we do develop some life skills much earlier than our non-ballet dancer peers, but getting a good education is important, so don’t neglect it.
For me, moving out of home at such a young age was the beginning of many lessons and new experiences. I shared an apartment with two other ballet students in Melbourne, while my family lived in Brisbane. We cooked, shopped, cleaned and cared for ourselves and it was a massive learning experience and lesson in life at a very young age. I was on a tight budget, as most young students are, and I can vividly remember being very anxious about making ends meet. On one occasion I was very sick, with a horrible cough and the flu, and I would not take time off ballet class to see a doctor. I also didn’t purchase the medicine I needed as I didn’t think I could afford to buy it. I was young and silly! Looking back, I could have have taken a few days off school to see a doctor and of course my parents wouldn’t think I was being frivolous with money when I needed to buy a necessary medicine, but I was 15, unwell, and making mistakes. Making mistakes is a part of life, it’s only when we don’t learn from these mistakes, that we get ourselves into trouble. We all make them, so take it as a chance to grow. On the topic of mistakes, I had a few cooking accidents that first year as well, the most notable of which was when I forgot to put water in with my rice in the microwave rice cooker. So yes, I pretty much exploded the microwave! I also had to set an alarm on my phone to remind me to cook dinner, as sometimes I would be so absorbed in practicing or finishing off school work, that I would forget to make dinner. Dinner wasn’t just on the table anymore, with my mum calling me to come and get it, so I needed to be more organised. I am sure that I shrunk and discoloured a few items of clothing doing my laundry too. After the first year of adjusting to a new city, living independently, learning to cook, clean, shop, coping with new friends, teachers, a different schedule and a new ballet training program, the next few years got a little easier.
I was lucky enough to have learned about nutrition, anatomy and psychology alongside my physical ballet training and normal school subjects as part of the ballet program I was a part of. I look back on this and am very grateful for this has been an amazing help for me in my career! To this day, the knowledge I gained from my anatomy lessons has helped me communicate clearly with physiotherapists around the world, which can help prevent or rehabilitate an injury sooner. It also helped me understand and get to know my body in a lot more detail. Learning about the psychology of the brain and how it connects with the body is a great tool to have as well and I have learned how stressful situations can manifest as problems or injuries in the body and how to cope with them. If you can understand what butterflies in your stomach are and why you get sweaty palms, then you will be able to identify your anxiety triggers and be able to develop positive coping mechanisms, such as breathing techniques and mindfulness meditation. Both of these topics are very important for your growth as a dancer and if you haven’t already been educated in them, I would recommend grabbing a few books on the subjects yourself. You can also see a professional sport psychologist for a few sessions and meet with a physiotherapist to learn first hand about these important areas. After all, knowledge is power!
Nutrition is a very important subject for dancers, especially when you are still in school, young and still growing and already fending for yourself in some situations. I was diagnosed with Coeliac disease when I was 13 and so I had a head start in understanding the digestive system and the impact of certain foods on the body. I had to quickly learn to eat a specific diet and avoid certain foods for the rest of my life. For me, although I would totally love to be cured from Coeliac disease, the knowledge I have gained of my body and the early education into diet and nutrition that I developed as a result of having the disease has helped me so much throughout my career. We dancers rely on our bodies for our entire career (and hopefully after our careers are done too!), we only get one and, let’s face it, dance and ballet are not very kind to our bodies at times. Therefore we need to fuel it and keep it running at its optimum level to prevent injuries, sickness and fatigue. Think of it in simple terms; my body is like a top grade Formula 1 car and it needs high quality fuel. No running on empty, or cheap and nasty fuel, because everyone knows a Formula 1 car will break down if not well maintained. Basically, I don’t want my body to break down and burn out, which could cause me to miss out on a great role, a ballet I love or another opportunity. The easiest, most effective solution is to eat well. There is so much information on nutrition and diet on the internet, on TV and in books, but I would definitely seek a professional’s advice, at least once or twice, to get you on the right path for your body and needs, as everyone has a different engine!
Talking about nutrition and diet can be a sensitive subject, and not just for ballet dancers, so please don’t think I am telling you always need to be strict. I am human and I like to indulge in treats from time to time too. On more than one occasion during my time in ballet school, and particularly when I was stressed about exams, home sick, experiencing difficulties with friends or just ballet itself, you could find me in my closet, cradling a tub of ice cream in my lap and sobbing my heart out to mum on the phone. Everyone has down days and don’t think you are alone in that. What I have learned over the years, even as a professional in a company, is that it is ok to reach out and seek help and support with a friend, a family member or even a professional. The life we have chosen to pursue is not easy and you will inevitably have a bad day or even possibly feel that you are struggling every now and then, but through persevering through each of these days or experiences we grow a little stronger and wiser.
Injury: the biggest struggle for a dancer! The toughest time of my career came when I had just landed a contract with The Australian Ballet Company, after graduating dux of the Australian Ballet School. I had been on a scholarship for all 4 years of my training at the ABS, I had danced at Prix de Lausanne, in China and guested in Malaysia, and then just as I was about to begin my professional career, I couldn’t walk, let alone dance. I remember having my world turned upside down. Going from such highs, to such a low in such a short space of time, is hard to process, but in ballet this can often happen. I only wish someone had told me this when I was just starting out. So as you begin your career prepare yourself both mentally and physically. An injury can be as tough mentally as it can be physically, but time recovering from an injury can afford you an opportunity to strengthen yourself, grow personally, and learn new skills, to build relationships and to channel your creativity into something new. You can prevent most injuries through proper cross training and keeping on top of your personal weak spots, so for me that is always my ankle stability. When you are injured it’s a perfect time to reassess your body and work on those areas you never get the chance to address during your usual hectic school or company schedule. I would also highly recommend talking to your doctor or physiotherapist if you have just a small niggle, as these small problems can become big ones if not properly addressed and you will also learn so much at the same time! I have learned how to properly strap and tape sprained ankles, how to tape to reduce bunion pain, knee taping, what to do when you have a back spasm, neck spasm…. ok, you get it. Basically you can train yourself to be your own physiotherapist and this has not only come in handy for myself, but I have taped up a few colleagues before when the physiotherapist was not around and they needed some help.
Traveling is an amazing benefit of being a dancer, but I have a few words of wisdom on this topic. Travel lightly! There is nothing worse than turning up to a summer school, audition or tour performance with a sore back or neck from lugging a heavy suitcase around. It’s important to know a little something about every country or city you visit as this will help keep you safe and in the age of Google it’s easy to discover the places you will visit before setting foot there. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to research where you are going and for me this is even more important, as I need to know where I can get gluten -free food. But whether or not you have a food allergy, I would recommend traveling with a few familiar and favourite foods. For breakfast before class a hotel buffet may sound great, but then again on a nervous stomach it may not be what you need and late at night, after a show, you may find many restaurants are closed or full and when you are starving it is handy to have some emergency supplies to rely upon. Make sure you research the local public transport and layout of the city, so you can get familiar with a few landmarks and make life a little less stressful, which is crucial when you are on a big tour, where the stress levels are usually higher and schedule so busy. In general though, traveling is one of my favourite perks of being a ballet dancer and I have had the opportunity to visit some truly amazing places during my career.
So from the fun side of ballet life to the not so fun side. Even as a professional dancer ballet is not all roses and opening night after parties. There have been two times in my career where I considered giving it all up and ending my career. Don’t think that you are alone when you have these thoughts. The first time was during the tedious injury recovery process after my surgery in my first year with the Australian Ballet. The second was when I was deeply unfulfilled, not challenged and just unhappy after being with my former company for a number of years. My friends helped me out of the first time that I found myself in this dark place and I will be forever be grateful to them! The second saviour came in such an extraordinary way; being gifted a scholarship to travel to Europe and see and work with other Ballet companies. Seeing as I am still here in Stuttgart, it certainly worked. Sometimes life throws you lemons and sometimes it throws you flowers! When I left my previous company I was open for anything and everything, which has now led me to a wonderful company where I am very fulfilled and challenged. We are all different people, all different dancers and there are many different places for everyone. It could take a few years to find the right company which perfectly suits you or you could be lucky enough to find it on your first attempt. There is no right or wrong answer. You should also remember that, just because you dreamt of one company when you were a student, it does not mean that that is the perfect company for you when you are a professional.
You should broaden your horizons and seek out directors and companies which are going to give you the best chance to grow as a dancer and person. That is what I did and it has made the world of difference to my career. Finding a place where you feel valued, but also pushed and challenged by your ballet masters and directors, is important. This lesson even applies to choosing the right ballet school.
The ballet life is not an easy road for you or for your family, and living half way across the world in a foreign country and learning to speak another language is all very difficult at times. So all I can say is be understanding and kind to your family, outsiders truly can’t grasp what it is like to be inside the ballet bubble. Developing a network of support within the ballet world is a must, as these people will be most able to help with the problems you encounter throughout your career. This can be double important for young dancers who often feel that they don’t have the right or ability to speak up and question something. You always have a right to be heard, whether in a company ballet studio or in a school class, so please know that it is ok to stick up for yourself and tell people when something is making you uncomfortable. I don’t want to sound all doom and gloom because the truth is I love my job and most days are fantastic, but as you will learn, ballet life is a rollercoaster. If you thrive on challenges and can get through the tough times this wonderful art form will change your life and open your eyes to so many wonderful things.
When you join that ballet school or get that contract to a new company, being the newbie can be simultaneously exciting and difficult. You have a fresh start, you are unknown and exciting, you have the ability to make new friends and see new places. There can also be another side to being the newbie though as some of your new colleagues may think you may upset the balance of the company and coming in from the outside and breaking through already forged friendship circles can be more difficult than you imagined. You should also not underestimate the difficulties in moving to another country and having to learn a new language and understand a new culture. This can be a hard process at times, but the rewards are great; I never would have imagined when I was younger that I would be able to speak German!
I hope that you have gained something from hearing about my experiences in the dance world, even if it was only just a sentence or two here or there. I know that I have talked a lot about the negatives at times or tried to warn you about problems that can occur, but you should not think that they will all happen to you. What you need to know is that they can and that others have experienced them too and can help to guide you through the tough times. You should not approach your career with fear, but instead be courageous, bold and take risks. Your career will have twists and turns and it will not always be easy, but with your support network, you will be able to forge through the tough times and have an amazing life, one that is unique and rewarding. My career has been something that I cherish and love deeply and will continue to do so for the rest of, not only my dancing days, but the rest of my life. I truly love being a ballerina and many of the challenges that I have had to face in my career have also helped me grow as a person. For me, I dance because seeing the joy that it brings to the audience makes me incredibly happy and fulfilled. The feeling I get when I can accomplish a new movement, interpret a role or flow with a partner on stage is pure ecstasy. My husband tells me all the time that I am so lucky to do what I truly love for my job, and although I hate to admit it to him, he is right!
Best wishes for your future in dance,