Professional ballerinas appear to be confident and elegant on stage but off stage their lives are filled with body shaming and injuries. Kristen Shear pulls the curtains back to shed light on life behind the scenes as a professional ballerina and what happened after she took her final bow on stage.
“For as long as I can remember, I wanted to dance. There were other girls in my nursery that were going to dance, so I begged my mum to take me. We drove around to different ballet schools around Glasgow, then we found the Elizabeth Henderson School of Dance.
I trained there for 13 years, I loved dancing so much I wanted to continue. I wanted to be professional, so I auditioned and got into one of the most prestigious ballet schools in London, the Central School of Ballet. The semester started in September, but I had to audition in December the year before. It was a long slog of a process, there were two auditions, a physio examination to make sure your body can cope with the training, and then you have to figure out all the funding. By the end of it, you’re just ready start training.
Leaving on my own for London at 17 could have been daunting. I’d never left home for more than a week.I didn’t feel anxious. I knew two girls that were going from Scotland with me, so it was exciting more than anything and felt more like a holiday. I’ve remained best friends with the girls I went with. My parents never expressed it but I remember coming home and our neighbor telling me: Oh your mother worries about you. My parents didn’t guilt trip me for wanting to achieve a professional career they just supported me. That is the best thing they could’ve done. Some of mypeers didn’t have the same support from their families.
Everyday at school was training-at least in the first year. We all went back to basics to improve and unify our technique. Second year was when they really cracked the whip, it was tough and a lot of people left. Ballet takes no prisoners, it’s hard but you do it because you love it. Your body was so sore, but there was nothing better than achy overworked feeling you’d at the end of the day, I loved it because when you woke up the next day, you knew you had to do it all again. Again, it’s the love that made you do it. It’s crazy to think back to how overworked my body was but I just wanted to dance so my passion pushed me through each day. By the end of third year, I was me readyto start my journey out into the big bad world of performing professionally.
My first job with The Estonian National Ballet, I was there for just under a year and it was tough especially when you’re twenty. I remember it being cold-the lowest being minus 35! I remember snow, lots of snow, four months out the year. Most of the classes and rehearsals were in Estonian or Russian, so it was difficult to understand.
While it was a great opportunity that I’m truly grateful for, it made me learn what I don’t want to do. Yes, I love dancing but I was so far from family and friends, I wasn’t enjoying it enough to be worth it. I didn’t love it enough to sacrifice my happiness. It was a sort of a realisation, coming from ballet school you’re so eager to dance, you’re hungry for it, you crave it, so you’re ready to take any job that’s offered to you. By being there, I realised I’m not willing to go across the world just to be a ballet dancer.
I then moved back to London and was lucky enough to get a job performing with the National Ballet in their production of Swan Lake in the round, which meant that the stage had a 360 audience. It was the best feeling to dance on such a big stage, it was and definitely still is one of my favorite opportunities ever. I finally felt that spark again, like ok, this is what I’ve given everything up for and why I trained so hard, this is why I dance. There’s nothing like the feeling of performing. Once you stepped on stage it feels you with joy. I’ve never taken drugs but I imagine performing on stage is like that, it’s addictive, and a rush.
In Estonia and the National Ballet, I was a corps de ballet dancer, which meant I didn’t do the main parts-but don’t get me wrong, Corps de ballet dancers are the hardest working dancers in the business! When I joined Cork Ballet in Ireland, I got the chance to dance solos, which was such an incredible experience as well.
It was while I was in Ireland that I got injured. It was during one of my performances, I remember leaping on stage and hearing this creak in my neck, but the adrenaline carries you through the performance. Once I got off stage, I remember thinking, ‘oh this doesn’t feel right’. Yet, I kept dancing because as a dancer you never want to admit that you’re broken because there’s always someone ready to take your place. I eventually sought help, the doctor said it as wear and tear over time it was due to my neck was really flexible. I could have gone back to dancing, but while I was healing I dabbled at teaching ballet and pilates. I enjoyed giving back and seeing the joy dancing can bring. I didn’t appreciate it until I started teaching. I was chained to ballet but teaching gave me a freedom I’ve never had. It’s a different life, when you’re a ballet dancer it’s tough on your mind on your body, and it’s very negative because of all the rejection and body shaming you get. I wanted to escape that and love myself again.
It’s been three years since I stopped dancing, and I haven’t looked back.”
*Retold by Shakiyah Branch