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“Like Peeling Back an Onion”: A Dancer’s Reflection on Becoming

Editor’s Note: A native of Bedford, Massachusetts, Samantha Hope Galler currently lives in Miami Beach, Florida, where she performs with Miami City Ballet. She is a frequent visitor to New Orleans and loves to teach and share what she has learned. In fact, Sam will be teaching intermediate/advanced ballet at Live Oak Dance in Riverbend on Friday, July 24, at 6pm. Drop-ins are welcome, and only $5 as part of the New Orleans Dance Network’s $5 Class Week. To contact Sam, and to read more about her career, visit her website or her blog.

The professional development of a dancer is like peeling back an onion. For many professionals, a sign of progress is that their daily work seems easier; tasks become simpler to complete. Dancers, however, have quite the opposite experience of professional growth. One of the hallmarks of progress throughout a dancer’s career is that he or she is asked to perform iconic roles. Each new role presents previously unimaginable challenges, risks, and rewards; the complexity of the onion, with its many layers, begins to reveal itself. A satisfying and harmonious professional life in the unique world of dance requires not only physical strength but also psychological strength, as it constantly tests a dancer’s ability to rise to the occasion with artistry and poise.

Developing to Survive

Though it’s frustrating at times, this complexity is what draws me to work harder in and to learn more about my chosen discipline. I began my professional career at age 18. Presently I am a professional ballerina with Miami City Ballet. Before joining Miami City Ballet, I spent five seasons with the Alabama Ballet and worked my way up to the rank of principal dancer. Continuing to grow in my professional career forces me to search for new levels of confidence on and off the stage. Dancers learn to develop an individualized balance between positivity — the feeling that lifts me up when I dance — and self-trust, which is what helps me to move on when things are not going smoothly. I always remind myself that dance is live art, and that I may be able to grow as an artist, but my full artistic development won’t happen overnight. This reminder helps me to find more trust in myself that I will be able to conquer my challenges.

Discovering the drive to move forward from past experiences, even good ones, is important. However great my last performance might have felt, in my next performance I aim to perform better. Each time I set foot on the stage I have a new opportunity to improve and learn. And with each new role, I usually find myself saying, “This is the most difficult role I have ever worked on.” I am sure, each time, that the new role is as great a challenge as I could ever encounter. Inevitably, of course, the next role surprises me with a new set of challenges, requiring me to further develop and refine my technique and artistry.

The Process

Moving forward with a role can be difficult as the learning process begins — again. At home, I spend hours in front of the mirror, breaking down the positions of my arms, head, and fingers. In the studio, seven hours a day, my time is spent practicing the steps of the role. It is a process that requires constant correction. Eventually, I find that the new positions of the head and upper body start to feel natural. When this happens, I have a sensation that I am starting to “connect the dots” in my development of the new character, and with this sensation always comes relief that I am starting to understand. Each time I approach a new role, I also bring with me a new set of personal experiences: happiness, grief, the experience of uprooting and moving to a town, or even new friendships. I find that my performances become much more effective when I can incorporate real-life experiences into my approach.

New Roles, New Challenges

Swan Lake

In 2012, I performed Odette and Odile in Petipa’s Swan Lake with Alabama Ballet. Odette and Odile are characters I had on my bucket list. Yes, I used the words bucket and list. This profession quickly forces you to realize the importance of living every moment, and my life goals happened to include Odette and Odile. While working onSwan Lake, I found the development of the contrasting characters of Odette and Odile to be the most important aspect of the role. These swan creatures are opposites but require the same amount of careful attention. Odette is a subtle, elegant creature with a vulnerable side. Odile, on the other hand, is sharp and sensual. Both are extremely dramatic characters, and both are typically performed by the same ballerina in one performance. Learning to shift quickly from one character to another involves training the arms and legs to take on different dynamics, enabling the audience to see the different sides of the swan. During my studies, I went to the nearest zoo in Birmingham and watched the mannerisms of the white and black swans. It was interesting to observe the animals and compare their behaviors to those of humans; watching the swans turned out to be a major stepping stone in my process of developing these characters. When I later watched a video of my performance, I realized I had achieved my goals of becoming Odette and Odile. This felt like a major breakthrough for my career — I had learned how to completely give myself over to the art form.

Samantha Hope Galler as Odile in Swan Lake

La Bayadère

After working for nearly two months on Swan Lake, day in and day out, I figured ballet could not be any more difficult or demanding than what is required of a dancer performing Odette and Odile. I was sure of it — until I performed Nikiya in La Bayadère. For me, the technique required in achieving the slowness and articulation of Nikiya’s movement was the most demanding part of the role. Act III of the ballet features a slow pas de deux followed by a variation, in which the female dancer must do multiple turns in arabesque while holding a long white scarf in one hand. It is extremely challenging. One of my coaches for this role, Roger Van Fleteren, said to me, “You must become obsessed with a step in order to accomplish it.” After working on Nikiya, I completely understood what he meant.

Samantha Hope Galler as Nikiya in La Bayadère

Romeo and Juliet

The role of Juliet is like no other role found in the classics. I had the opportunity to perform it in 2014 with Alabama Ballet — my first experience portraying a main character in one of Shakespeare’s iconic stories. Reading the play was my first priority. I discovered that conquering the role of Juliet requires a strong and emotional portrayal of a young girl. The character develops through the story, ultimately becoming an independent woman forced to make her own difficult decisions. Although this role requires a strong technical base, a successful performance of Juliet is largely dependent on the dancer’s ability to convey emotion. As I developed and devoted myself to the character, I was surprised to discover the quantity and depth of personal emotions I could invest in Juliet. An important scene in the story is the potion scene. My director and coach at the time, Tracey Alvey, allowed me understand how to apply my emotions and let go of being afraid of not portraying the role correctly. Tracey taught me that less is more. Smaller gestures can make a powerful difference in major scenes. I still consider the role of Juliet the most life-changing experience of my professional career.

Samantha Hope Galler as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet

The More You Know, the More You Know You Don’t Know

Over the course of my career, it has become clear to me that ballet simply does not get easier. Despite (or maybe because of) these challenges, my life in ballet has rewarded me with more success and satisfaction than I could ever have imagined. The most important lesson I have learned so far is this: Practice will not lead to perfection. If it did, our work would stop.

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