In her new book, Being a Dancer: Advice from Dancers and Choreographers, dance journalist Lyndsey Winship shares with readers practical advice and insights on living the life of a dancer. Lyndsey has collected wisdom from an impressive lineup: Carlos Acosta, Matthew Bourne, Darcey Bussell, Steven McRae, Tamara Rojo and Lauren Cuthbertson, to name but a few. We caught up with her for a chat:
TBB: How did the idea for “Being a Dancer” come about?
Lyndsey Winship: Journalist Laura Barnett had written a similar book about acting, “Advice from the Players”. Laura writes for The Guardian and has just finished a novel. She told me she was doing a book with advice from actors and I thought ‘that sounds like a really good idea, there should be one for dance!’ There are relatively few dance books out there, as compared with other art forms. And there aren’t that many that really deal with the life of a dancer.
TBB: Indeed, and that offer practical advice…
LW: There are books aimed at little girls, and when I was little I used to pour over them, looking at their pictures. But they still seemed like a mysterious world, not practical guides. There are thousands of books for actors: how to do auditions, how to get a job, how to get into drama school, etc. So that was the idea. That we’d make that book, containing advice from people who had succeeded in the field, with all their insights.
TBB: Not your typical “ballet for little girls” book then. Who is your target audience?
LW: Well, it can be for little girls… It’s just not filled with pictures! It is for anybody who is interested in dance, in dancing, whether as a hobby, or for people who are training a bit more seriously, students of Dance GCSE and A-Levels at school, people who want to be performers, those at vocational schools, or who are starting out their careers. I think it is quite broad. Even people who are not working as dancers but who are looking to further their careers or are thinking of moving into choreography, because it is difficult to talk about choreography. Finally, I also think it is for people who are interested in that world. Lots of the stuff that the dancers talk about could be applied to any career, in terms of hard work, inspiration and motivation. How to achieve the things you want. So it can also be applied across the board. I found some of it to be quite inspirational.
TBB: Which messages are particularly inspirational?
LW: Those that have to do with the endless hard work, which was the constant message: ‘that’s what it takes’. Plus, the discipline but also the single-mindedness. From talking to a lot of people I got the sense that, early on in their lives, people had said to them ‘Oh, you won’t be able to do this. You don’t have the right body. You won’t succeed’, and rather than thinking ‘Oh that is not for me then’, they turned around and said ‘I’ll show you that I can succeed’. I wouldn’t have thought that’d be my natural reaction if I’d been a little kid dancing.
TBB: How about the discipline?
LW: Well, if you do it when you are young, and you are doing it every day, or even periodically, there is no question that it becomes a part of who you are. Like breakfast. For me, doing a ballet barre was a bit like mediation, doing the same things over and over again. But you do get the sense that your mind is in your body. It becomes such a habit that you’d feel weird if you didn’t do it. And obviously, I haven’t done ballet classes for a long time, so that is no longer the case! But dancers don’t think about the discipline, it is just automatic because they do it. They almost don’t have to push themselves into class every day.
Some people talked about the fact that just going to class every day was not enough. Because unless you are extremely gifted, physically, there are going to be things you’ll need to work on in order to get your technique to that level. Conversely, Ballet Black AD Cassa Pancho talked a lot about all the things you might need to do outside of ballet class. Nowadays, keeping in mind the expectations companies and schools have, just doing a ballet class is not going to give you all the requisite skills.
TBB: Speaking of things outside ballet class, how about the increasing presence of dancers on social media? We know some dancers are very aware of that, and believe Tommy Franzen offered some advice?
LW: Which is the same in any career these days! But dance is so competitive. I think company dancers are more protected. Lots of them are on social media and have their own followings, and build their own brands as performers. But if you are a freelancer, then that becomes even more important. In the book, Tamara Rojo says that ballet is totally meritocratic. The way to be noticed is to be very good, technically very good. And that is true but… all those other things have to help. There is no point in being technically very good if someone is not seeing you. It is also not just about being technically-gifted, it is about how you are as a dancer, about your unique qualities.
TBB: We noticed that Steven McRae talked about this too. He mentions dancers who might not be technically perfect, but who can exude such confidence that you never doubt them.
LW: Yes, you want to watch them and you feel safe in their company. It is a bit like going to see a stand-up comedian. All you want is to feel comfortable, not awkward. When you are watching someone going through a virtuosic variation, you don’t want to be worried about them: you want them to be in charge, so you can sit back, relax and enjoy! I think that is what Steven was talking about. And being in charge on stage isn’t necessarily about doing the most turns or those fantastic fireworks. It’s about holding that stage.
I tried to ask everybody I spoke to about charisma and stage presence, what they understand by that, because people talk about it all the time, that “extra factor”. I remember that Matthew Bourne said that part of it is about how comfortable you are on stage. You get more stage presence and charisma by becoming more comfortable on stage. So it is not something you project but it is about how are you feeling, at peace with yourself on stage.
TBB: How did you go about selecting the dancers you wanted to interview and the topics you wanted to discuss? Were the logistics tricky?
LW: There were time constraints, deadlines… I wanted to select people from different dance forms, and at different stages of their careers. I also wanted dancers and choreographers, people from different worlds: major companies, West End freelancers, different environments. Due to logistics (I did most of the interviews in person), I focused on UK-based dancers. I looked at the span of a dancer’s life and key points like training, auditioning, performing, the things I am interested in and things I thought would be useful for the readers. Pulling it all together was quite a big task. I had 25 interviews to transcribe! Some interviews were 20 minutes on the phone, others went over an hour chatting in person. Finally there was the big puzzle of trying to tie, thematically, what people had been talking about.
TBB: Is there anything you feel you wanted to include but couldn’t?
LW: Well, when you are in a conversation with someone, it always goes down interesting avenues, and as a journalist, you think ‘that is interesting!’ so sometimes I needed to bring myself back and focus on the “Life of a dancer”. Most of the things I wanted to cover went in. There was one bit, where Jonathan Goddard said ‘oh maybe don’t put that in the book’ and I did put it in!
TBB: Did you tell him?
LW: Well, he has a copy of the book now! But it wasn’t bad at all.
TBB: Were you surprised by some of the answers?
LW: People were very candid. For example, Melissa Hamilton was very honest about her experiences. She told me how when she joined the Royal Ballet, she was so focused on what she was doing, her dancing and her technique, and because she had come from outside the company, people thought she was quite a ‘b*tch’ (to use her words)!
She was also very open and wise, I thought, about her career path, how she used to get all of her self-worth out of ballet but she finally realised that maybe that is not the only thing in her life. I was really grateful to people for being so honest, because I think that will chime a lot with ballet students.
Lyndsey Winship’s Being a Dancer is out now. Click here for a FREE extract, courtesy of Nick Hern Books.
Plus, to get a 25% discount and free UK P&P use discount code BALLETBAG when purchasing via Nick Hern Books. This offer is valid until 31 December 2015.