By Diane Claytor
Deborah Bull, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet and currently the director of Cultural Institute at King’s College in London, wrote in her book, “The Everyday Dancer”, that the day of a professional ballet dancer is more or less 12 hours of working, 6 days a week. According to Edward Stegge, a member of Diablo Ballet’s company, that may be true for larger ballet companies. But fortunately for him, and his fellow Diablo Ballet dancers, their days, although full and intense, are typically 5.5 hours of dancing, 5 days a week. And that’s during performance season, which generally runs from late-September through mid-May. Of course, that doesn’t include the hours they may spend with Diablo Ballet’s PEEK Outreach Program, studying the ballets they learned earlier in the day at home, teaching dance or working on their bodies by going to the gym or practicing yoga or pilates.
Stegge, who has been with Diablo Ballet for ten years, was kind enough to meet with me and tell me about a typical day in his life as a dancer, both when he’s performing and now, while the Company is on its summer hiatus.
First, a little background on Stegge, a Bay Area native. He began taking ballet lessons at 6 years old but remembers wanting to begin much sooner. He fell asleep while seeing his first Nutcracker at the age of 2 and cried when he realized he never got to see the Arabian Princess. When his mother was signing his older sister up for ballet classes, Stegge begged her to let him to go too, only to be told he couldn’t start taking lessons until he was at least 6. As his mother has recounted, on his sixth birthday, he asked if he could please go to ballet school now.
Stegge received his training at the San Francisco Ballet School as well as at New York City’s School of American Ballet, the Pennsylvania Ballet, Houston Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet. He spent 10 seasons with the Colorado Ballet, dancing soloist and principal roles. Prior to joining the Diablo Ballet, he performed with the Peninsula Ballet Theatre, Oakland Ballet and San Francisco Opera Ballet.
When performing, Stegge’s day begins at 10 a.m. with a 1.15 hour class with the whole company. The morning typically begins with warm ups at the barre, where the dancers, led by Diablo Ballet’s Artistic Director or Company teacher, exercise and stretch; about half way through the class, they move away from the barre and progress into a full work out, including balancing, turns and jumps.
According to Deborah Bull, ballet class has changed little since 1820 and “is easily recognizable in any country across the world. Starting with left hand on the barre, the routine unrolls over some seventy-five minutes, from pliés and tendus through to grand pirouettes and allegro. No one avoids class: it’s ballet’s great democratizer, the stars of the company working at the barre alongside the newest recruits, each leveled by participation in this same daily rite.”
Class serves two distinct purposes: it’s the way dancers warm their bodies and the mechanism by which they improve basic technique. “In class after class, dancers manifest the clichéd truth; that practice makes perfect, Bull wrote. “Through repeated tries and frequent failure, we develop and refine the pathways necessary to control accurate, fast and smooth movement and through daily repetition, we strengthen the muscles required in jumping, spinning or lifting our legs to angles unfeasible to the average spectator.”
A 15-minute break follows the class, giving the dancers time before beginning the intense rehearsals, which run straight through until 3:30 every day. There is a 5-minute break every hour, at which time Stegge and his colleagues may grab something quick and nutritious to eat – nuts, a balance bar, perhaps half of a sandwich. If one of the dancers is not needed during a particular rehearsal segment, he or she may enjoy a longer break, study a ballet in another studio or just sit, stretch and relax.
Stegge’s day doesn’t end with rehearsals. During the school year, two days a week he teaches budding ballet dancers through a partnership between Diablo Ballet and Walnut Creek’s Civic Arts Education. He also goes to the gym several evenings a week, focusing on his upper body strength. “If we work really hard during rehearsal,” Stegge admits, “I might not make it to the gym. I may, instead, go home and sit in the hot tub.” Among his dancer duties with the Company, Stegge is also responsible for producing promo video’s and rehearsal CD’s for the Ballet. He is also quite involved in Diablo Ballet’s PEEK Outreach Program for under-served youth.
As one might guess, rehearsals the week before a performance become far more intense. “It’s all about fine tuning and cleaning,” Stegge said. As described in a blog written by a professional dancer with Boston’s Jose Mateo Ballet Theater, “the rehearsal process is about ensuring that we are all doing exactly the same thing at exactly the same time in exactly the same way.” Stegge explained that this is also the time for drilling to build up stamina. “We may do the same thing over and over and over; we need to make sure we have it right and have the stamina to continue.”
The day of a performance is really no different than most other days, Stegge stated. If it’s an evening performance, the company will still get together for their morning class, still rehearse and run through the show. In fact, in the case of Diablo Ballet, we have so little time in the actual theater that rehearsal on the day of a performance is one of the few opportunities they may have to practice on the stage. But there’s always some down time before the performance, Stegge noted. “We certainly don’t want to wear ourselves out before going on stage,” he said.
Staying in shape all year round is crucial for a dancer, so during the Company’s off-time, Stegge’s schedule is not all that different. He still spends his mornings stretching, exercising and warming up. Sometimes he’ll go to a studio by himself and “give myself a class.” Sometimes other members of the company will join him and together they’ll work out. “I really commit myself to this time,” Stegge explained. “I really appreciate the time to self-focus, center myself. It is better for me to have someone directing a class because it’s kind of hard to push yourself beyond your comfort zone. But sometimes it’s just good for me to work by myself, and just do what I need to do. I like to really get into what I’m feeling, physically, get into my body and focus on what things have been building up.”
Several times a week during the off-season, Stegge hops on BART and goes to SF where he’ll attend open classes at Alonzo King’s LINES Dance Center, where professional level ballet classes are offered daily. Stegge has more time to go to the gym while the Company is on its hiatus and also finds himself walking more. “I’ve always walked a lot because I don’t have a car but now that I have my dog, I love taking her for long walks,” he said.
And he’s still teaching through Civic Arts Education; this time it’s a 5 hour summer intensive ballet class two days a week.
Dancers are always asked about food – what do they eat? How do they stay so slim? So of course, I asked Stegge, who is certainly fit and trim. He’s one of the lucky ones who said he’s never really had to worry about food and never “really regimented” what he ate. Although he did admit that every few years, he has to rethink what he eats. “When I was in my 20’s, dancing 8 hours a day, 6 hours a week, I remember every night I would have a bowl of ice cream that I would put both cereal and chocolate milk on and I didn’t have an ounce of body fat on me. The frequency that I’ll have anything like that now is just about non-existent. I don’t even want it,” Stegge said. He recognizes that his metabolism is slowing down and “every few years I’ll just rethink what I eat. I certainly don’t splurge as much as I may have in years past,” he noted.
When performing, the last thing Stegge wants to do is eat a lot before dancing hard. He doesn’t like that bloated feeling. But he also noticed that when he’s putting more hours into dancing, he can eat more than when he’s not dancing as much – although he generally doesn’t want to. “When I’m in really good shape, my stomach feels tighter and just tends to feel fuller more quickly.”
With all this physical activity and not eating ice cream, Stegge should certainly be ready when Diablo Ballet’s 20th season premiers in November.
Finally, as part of his “day in the life,” I asked Stegge if there is anything in particular he does right before a performance. “It’s helpful if I can go somewhere, lie down, close my eyes and breathe deeply. I’m finding my moment of calm before experiencing the thrill and excitement of the performance.”
Diane Claytor, a Chicago native, has spent most of her adult life living in the East Bay and working for several different non-profit organizations. Although admittedly not a dance aficionado, she enjoys all types of music and is probably happiest when she’s plugged into her mp3 player listening to whatever the mood dictates.