I dragged myself off the plane after the 12-hour flight to Melbourne, stiff, fuzzy-headed from jet lag, and wondering if I could ever get pointe shoes on my swollen feet again. At the same time, I was bursting with excitement. As a 20-year-old corps dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet, I was embarking on my first major tour, which would turn out to be a challenging, exhausting and thrilling 10 days in Australia.
For any ballet company, large or small, contemporary or classical, touring is a fact of life. My tour to Melbourne as a young dancer was full of ups and downs (literally—the rehearsal studio was so slippery that I fell out of a tour jeté the first day and was sore for a week), but navigating my way through it gave me both insight and a suitcase full of strategies I’d use for the rest of my career.
What took me back to those early days was a recent trip to Seoul, South Korea, with Oregon Ballet Theatre. Though now retired from performing, I went on this tour as a ballet master, charged with coaching a cast of Korean children for their roles in OBT’s production of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. I had the opportunity to watch a new generation of OBT dancers confront the challenges—and reap the rewards—of touring. What does it take to not just survive a tour, but want to go on another one? Mastering the practicalities is key, of course (see the sidebar), but having the right mind-set can enrich your experience both as a dancer and as a person.
Every tour I’ve been on has inevitably hit snags, minor or major, that required flexibility and teamwork to get through. OBT’s arrival in Seoul coincided with a major storm that flooded the Seoul Arts Center, wreaking havoc and drastically reducing stage rehearsal time. After taking stock of the situation and seeing that it would require a massive team effort to prepare for opening night, the dancers adopted a can-do spirit and got to work: The corps de ballet strategized offstage how to space Snow and Flowers to save precious rehearsal time, and many soloists and principals prepared to perform without even setting foot onstage first. “Everyone cheered each other on,” remembers OBT soloist Julia Rowe. “I looked around during class one hot, miserable day in the rehearsal studio, and everyone looked just like I felt. I knew we’d all get through it together.”
That togetherness can be a positive aspect of life on tour, but the constant company that comes with sharing a hotel room, mealtimes and travel schedules can be wearing—particularly if, like many dancers, you’re something of an introvert and are used to having your own space. During my touring days, I found that spending time alone helped me clear my head and recharge. Armed with a neighborhood map, I liked to wander on my own, sit in cafés and get a feel for what life was like in every city I visited. If you need “me time” but find there aren’t opportunities for such escapes on your busy tour schedule, try getting up early before your roommate and slipping up to the hotel roof for some meditation before the start of the workday. In Seoul, I spied dancers carving out alone time in various corners of the hotel lobby, taking advantage of the free WiFi to reconnect with family and friends.
Staying in touch with home was always important to me on tour, but I also made an effort to experience local culture. It can be tough, when tomorrow’s performance is on your mind, to will yourself to break out of your familiar routine and experiment a little—but some of the best memories come from trying new things. Dancers are often (justifiably) timid about new foods, for example, but OBT soloist Javier Ubell loved sampling Korean food. “One of the best nondancing experiences was trying things I never would have if we hadn’t been on tour!” he says. In fact, so many of the OBT dancers developed a taste for Korean barbecue that a bunch of us sought out a Korean restaurant in Portland for comparison when we got home.
There will be other kinds of culture shock on tour, but don’t be intimidated. The audiences in Korea confused the OBT dancers at first because they were almost silent. But apprentice Kelsie Nobriga stayed after one performance to sign autographs and saw a completely different side of the Korean ballet fans. “It was sweet to see how excited everyone was,” she says. She realized that their behavior in the theater was actually an expression of respect. “I was happy to know all our hard work was appreciated!”
Soak up as many experiences as you can. What do I remember of that long-ago Australian trip? Going to the Melbourne Zoo with my friend Kim, tasting Vegemite for the first time, learning to love black tea with lemon and chatting with Australian Ballet dancers after watching them rehearse. And I will never forget the thrill of feeling the warm, enthusiastic Aussie appreciation come across the footlights—worth every minute of that 12-hour flight.
Practical Tips for Life on Tour
Don’t Forget to Pack…
-Any potentially hard-to-find necessities, including things like toe tape, eyelashes and glue and hairnets. I once tried to buy hairspray in Finland and ended up with air freshener because I couldn’t read the label!
-Travel-size packets of laundry soap, in case that elusive laundromat can’t be found. Shampoo works in a pinch, too.
-Your own protein or granola bars, trail mix, crackers, instant oatmeal, cups of dry soup mix, protein powder, cans of tuna or jars of nut butter in case you’re stuck at a theater in the middle of nowhere and need nourishment.
-A portable medicine cabinet. Searching for a drugstore is not what you want to do in between performances or on your day off. Bring any prescription medication you need, of course, but also over-the-counter items like ibuprofen, cold medicine, Pepto-Bismol and antihistamines.
On the Plane, Bus or Train
-Traveling always hurts—but just how much depends on what you do in the air or on the road. Sleeping is good; moving around is better. Get up and stretch, wherever you can. (I’ve been known to do grand pliés in the galley of the airplane to stay loose!) Give yourself a mini leg massage to keep the blood flowing. Wearing compression stockings can also prevent swelling.
-Planes especially are notoriously dehydrating. Drink plenty of water at regular intervals as you travel. I like to take a travel mug and keep it filled up with hot tea on a long flight.
Going with the Flow
-Dancing in a new place will be disorienting. Even if you hit the jackpot and tour to a place where the theater, studio and stage are ideal for dance, you will still need to adjust quickly to the unfamiliar surroundings. Try not to break in brand-new pointe shoes until you’ve tested the studio or stage and know if the floor is hard, slippery, sticky or uneven.