I would like to introduce you to Jennifer, although you may have already seen her before. If you are the artsy type, you’ve likely seen her perform as a ballerina at the Portland Ballet Company. If you are a saltier type, you might have seen her at Portland’s favorite dive bar, Rosie’s, where she pours drinks every Friday night. It’s an unexpected dichotomy: the ballerina at the bar, the bartender at the barre. For Jennifer, like any person in love with their art, the ballet trumps everything. It it’s worth the long nights and early mornings.
HOW DID YOU BECOME A BALLERINA?
My mother signed me up for just the after school ballet class in the gym in Bethesda, Maryland when I was five. It sounds cheesy, but I never looked back. My teacher had her daughter come in and demonstrate for us and she is now actually a really famous dancer, Julie Kent, and to me she was just the most beautiful thing I’d seen and I wanted to be just like that. So I had really great inspiration from an early age.
HOW DID YOU GET INTO BARTENDING?
Necessity! I took a waitressing job when I took my first ballet job, which was in Montgomery, Alabama. We were dancing from 9 to 3 every day but not making quite enough money to live on, so it was something that I just started doing on the side. Fairly quickly, I got promoted to being a bartender. I like it. The hours are tough but it’s a nice contrast to what we do in the dance studio. It kind of keeps your feet on the ground and keeps you connected with people.
TELL ME A LITTLE BIT MORE ABOUT THAT CONTRAST.
I think it’s easy, scarily easy, as a dancer to get caught up in the dance world and forget that there is a real world outside of the studio. We get so wrapped up in what we’re doing and how we’re doing it: it’s a very demanding art form. All art is very demanding, and just like any other art form I think it can consume you. So it’s good to have even just one night a week where you go and you’re not a fairy princess! You’re cleaning up somebody else’s puke and you’re pouring drinks and you’re sweeping the floor and you’re talking to Joe who lives down the street. It’s nice and it keeps things balanced for me.
TELL ME A LITTLE BIT MORE ABOUT THE PATH TO BECOMING A DANCER.
My path was pretty direct. I decided at an early age that was what I wanted to do and was fortunate enough to get into a good school and just kept going. I started at Maryland Youth Ballet, in Bethesda. We moved to Belgium when I was a teenager and I had a little bit of a setback. It was the combination of being in a different country and being a teenager. And, I have scoliosis and that presented itself at that time. So I lost some ground, which I think was good for me, it kept my ego in check! Then coming back and rediscovering it, rediscovering how I fit into it as a more adult body was quite an experience.
WHAT ARE THE TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS OF HAVING YOUR BODY AS YOUR ARTFORM?
That’s a good question. You know early on what you’re signing up for. Because as dancers our body is our instrument you want it to be- you take good care of your instrument. You keep it clean and you keep it stored in the right way. Same thing with your body: you take care of what you’re putting into it and what you’re doing with it. So dancing itself is great, it keeps you in great shape, but there’s a lot of cross-training that has to happen, especially if you’re dealing with something like scoliosis that is going to limit you. And just being careful about what you eat because you don’t want to be too skinny, absolutely not, but you want people to be able to see what you’re saying and you’re saying it with your body so you don’t want to muffle.
HOW LATE IN LIFE DO BALLERINAS USUALLY DANCE PROFESSIONALLY?
It depends. Some people stop when they’re 30 and want to go on and have normal lives. I’m hoping to go on for few more years, basically until my body stops me from improving. I feel like if I ever stop getting to where I can keep getting better that’ll be it for me. I’m 34. I have friends who danced into their 40’s. I’m a little more injury prone so I don’t know if I’ll be that lucky but Julie Kent is still dancing, she’s well into her 40s.
TELL ME A LITTLE BIT MORE ABOUT WHAT THE SCOLIOSIS MEANS FOR YOU.
For me it just means back pain! It’s not bad. Everybody has something they’re dealing with. Every dancer you talk to has something they’ve overcome because it’s not a natural thing that we’re doing with our bodies. It’s beautiful and it’s exciting and fun but it’s completely unnatural. So we all have those things. For me the scoliosis, that’s just been my personal challenge and it’s meant that I have to make sure that I have stability through my core so that I’m not putting too much of a strain on my back.
HOW DID YOU END UP IN MAINE?
I was dancing for a company in Florida, and just got the itch to go somewhere else – it happens to me about every 4 years! (I’ve been here about 5 years though). I just put out the feelers. I really loved Florida but it was just time for a change. I found the website and sent an email and they invited me out for an audition. It just seemed like a good fit. The company seemed like a really good place for me, I really like everything that Nell had to say (Nell Shipman, Portland Ballet Company’s associate artistic director) about where she was planning on going with the company and Portland itself resonated with me a lot. It’s grown, we’ve, I think, doubled in size in the 4 years. It’s an exciting time to be here and a lot- with the economy and just the way things are in America, a lot of companies are struggling and are downsizing and getting smaller and this is one of the only places I had seen where it was growing and people were excited. It had an anticipation about it that I really liked.
DO YOU THINK THERE ARE THINGS THAT AVERAGE PEOPLE CAN LEARN FROM THE LIFE OF A BALLERINA?
Oh sure. And I tell my students this all the time because not all of my students want to dance. That training will prepare you for anything. It’s that, I think like any art, like photography or anything else, writing, it’s never being satisfied, always striving for more, but also, I know in dance, it’s finding your own voice, no-one else in the world can do this the way you do it, you have your own gift to give and your responsibility is to just give, don’t hold anything back, and just share that with the world. And be influenced by the people you work with because they’re incredible too. So yes, I think art always imitates life, that’s what they say! Dance is not just flitting around on stage, there’s a lot of work that goes into it. There’s blood and sweat and tears but it’s completely worth it if you love something.
ARE THERE THINGS YOU THINK AVERAGE PEOPLE CAN LEARN ABOUT THE LIFE OF A BARTENDER?
Oh yes! As a bartender you become kind of a social anthropologist. You learn to have an instinct about what people need and you learn your job – yes your job is to pour drinks and get the drinks right and do everything quickly but your job is also about recognizing that there are people in there who need to have a conversation with somebody or people who need to be left alone or people who just want to talk, they don’t want you to talk they want to talk to you. You learn – it’s actually been very good for me – how to be diplomatic. And you learn it’s a performance.
TELL ME ABOUT THE TEACHING THAT YOU DO.
I teach a little bit here at Portland Ballet and I teach out in Westbrook at Drouin Dance Center. I teach pretty much all ballet, that’s always been my strength! It’s fun. I was really resistant to teaching at first, even though I got my degree in teaching, but you – this going to sound selfish – you discover a lot about your own dancing in teaching. In trying to explain something to a child, or an adult, you make yourself look at it in a different way. So it’s been fun to do that and I’m getting to the point where I’ve been teaching long enough that I’m seeing my students become whatever they’re becoming and that’s really incredible too.
WHAT ARE THE PIECES IN BALLET THAT REALLY SPEAK TO YOU?
A couple of years ago we did Giselle here and I was one of the casts of Giselle, and that was a part that I never thought I’d get to do. It was incredible. They say it’s the ballet version of Hamlet: it’s just a really challenging role but a really beautiful role to get caught up in. And that whole ballet is just stunning, it’s a beautiful story; it’s beautiful music. I love Romeo and Juliet; it’s one of my favorite ballets, the music from that is just stunning. We did a ballet called The Armed Man, not the past year but the year before, that Nell choreographed and that was an incredible experience. I like to be part of the creation of a ballet’s story, It’s like unwrapping a present: seeing what they’re going to create on you and watching this thing develop. It’s really neat.
WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED FROM DOING PARTNER WORK?
Every partner is different and every partner has something wonderful to give you. I’ve been very lucky, I’ve heard a lot of horror stories about people having partners that just didn’t work out but throughout my career I’ve had just fantastic partners. The men I pair with here are world class, no complaints. But it’s definitely a dialogue, it’s a conversation, it’s a relationship, it takes work on both parts. You have to communicate with each other and be patient with each other sometimes and every day things are going to feel different. Because your body changes every day. Yesterday I ate yogurt, while today- or I got less sleep or….
WHAT IS AN AVERAGE DAY OR AN AVERAGE WEEK LIKE FOR YOU?
For me we work 9:30 to 1:30, so that’s class from 9:30 to 11 where we get warm and we work on our technique, strengthening, and then we rehearse whatever we’re working on until 1:30 or so. Then most of us run home and eat a bunch of food! Then we go teach for the afternoon. On Fridays I bartend at Rosie’s.
WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU?
It’s super cheesy, but love. I was blessed with a just perfect family to be born into and I think that everything that I do comes out of love because they taught me that that’s- If you don’t love what you’re doing, if you don’t love the people around you, why are you doing it?
WHAT IS A LESSON THAT YOU’RE LEARING IN YOUR LIFE OR HAVE LEARNED RECENTLY?
Something that I am discovering is that in general people don’t regret things they did, they regret things they didn’t do. Or things that they did incompletely. So just to give everything you have to whatever you’re doing and not be afraid of failing but just to really live. And part of being a dancer, it’s a short life that we have as dancers. I’m still young – but the older you get – and I’m sure this is a metaphor for life life as well – the more you appreciate dance and every moment is precious because you just never know. I’ve seen careers end with injury. Just going for it.
WHAT IS THE GREATEST GIFT OR BLESSING IN YOUR LIFE? WHAT IS THE GREATEST STRUGGLE?
it’s kind of the same answer for both. I’ve been given so many gifts, sometimes I’m horrified at how lucky I am because I look around me and other people don’t have that. I’ve mentioned my family, just an incredible family to be born into, so supportive, all of them, and loving. And the gift of I get to dance around every day. And yes, it’s hard work but it’s so fun and that’s what I do. But having things like scoliosis, the limitations I think are a gift in themselves because they make you appreciate what you have and they make you work for it. I think when I was a littler kid I was talented and was singled out and I think I was probably a little bit snotty. Having challenges and having to overcome them puts your head back on your shoulders.
WHAT IS THE BEST MOMENT OF AN AVERAGE DAY?
I get out of bed in the morning because I can’t wait to come to class. A lot of dancers just get through class. I love class, I love how you start and you’re all creaky and things hurt and you’re really groggy, not really awake, and just feeling your body wake up and feeling the sweat start. That moment for me is what it’s all about.
IF YOU HAD A MOTTO OR A MANTRA, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
I catch myself often saying to myself “Be the positive energy in the room”. I’m in a position now where I’m the senior dancer in the company, or one of the senior dancers in the company, and so I watch these girls who I remember being there and I want to be a good example and to keep everybody as excited as I am. So that’s something that I don’t always succeed in but it’s something I always try to do.