My Most Frustrating Year of Dance Training: How 3 Pros Handled Major Setbacks

March 16, 2020

Classes, cross training, summer intensives, performing—we put our all into our ballet training. Yet, sometimes things just don’t go as planned. Injuries, prolonged emotional stress and audition struggles are just a few things that can make us feel like our ballet journey has ground to a halt.

But that doesn’t mean you won’t break through. We spoke with three professionals who had major setbacks as students. Read on to see how they handled it—and how they grew from their experiences.

Battling a Long-Term Injury

Margaet Mullin, in a long green tut and sparkly green tiara, kneels onstage with her palms up and crossed in front of her.
Margaret Mullin in Balanchine’s “Emeralds.” Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB

Margaret Mullin, Pacific Northwest Ballet

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” says Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Margaret Mullin. “I was doing a quick petit allégro combination, slipped on the floor, fell down and heard a snapping noise.” Then 16, she sustained torn ankle ligaments. She was supposed to go to PNB’s summer intensive later that summer. “After you’ve been going away to summer intensives for years, you feel like that’s a trajectory you can’t stop, especially at an age when you hope to be getting a professional job soon,” she says. “Instead, I spent nearly a year being a beginner again.”

At home, Mullin would cry on her couch while watching a video of New York City Ballet’s Swan Lake featuring former principal Miranda Weese. “I thought I would never be able to return to where I was technically, and I’d never make it as a professional dancer,” she says.

As part of her recovery, Mullin took adult ballet classes at her home studio in Tucson, Arizona. “I learned a lot from those classes, especially from being in an atmosphere where people were dancing just because they loved ballet,” she recalls. “I also took classes with younger students as I started doing pointe again—that was a little harder for me as teenager, but it was a great opportunity to focus on the basic mechanics of technique.”

Through the whole experience, Mullin learned how to deal with being injured. “I’ve seen other professionals go through a major injury for the first time as adults, and it can be very challenging if you’ve never been through the process before,” she says. “In the end, spending a year in beginner classes did not permanently set me back—a few years later, I was dancing with Pacific Northwest Ballet.”

In fact, Mullin ended up dancing alongside Miranda Weese, who had by then joined PNB. “If you had told me that when I was injured, I wouldn’t have believed you,” says Mullin.

Navigating a Gap Year

Anna Carnes, wearign a long-sleeved green leotard, balances on pointe in a turned-in fourth position with both knees bent and her arms lifted high.Anna Carnes. Rose Eichenbaum, Courtesy State Street Ballet

Anna Carnes, State Street Ballet

Anna Carnes graduated from the University of California, Irvine, with BFA in dance in 2007, the beginning of a rough period for both the economy and the arts. The financial crisis had caused many dance companies to either close or not hire new members, and while Carnes attended many auditions, she didn’t receive any contracts. She second-guessed the decision she’d made to attend college instead of taking one of the several second-company positions she had been offered years prior. “I had hoped I would be a professional by this time, but now I didn’t even have a foot in the door,” Carnes recalls.

Instead of entering company life, she packed up and moved to San Francisco for a year of independent training. “I had taken a workshop at Alonzo King LINES Ballet and really liked the style and philosophy,” says Carnes. “So, I trained there and with other teachers in the city.” She juggled dance classes with teaching and retail jobs. “It really changed my approach to class. After dancing all day at college, I went to taking maybe one class a day, depending on my work schedule and finances. It forced me to prioritize my time in class and who I chose to work with.”

She also honed the aspects of her dancing that she had control over. In auditions, Carnes, who is 5’8″, had often been told that she was too tall. Now, instead of worrying about her height in class, she focused on her ballet port de bras. She got out of her comfort zone by working in different styles and asking teachers for feedback. “It all helped me refine both my classical and contemporary sides.”

Carnes spent the next four years freelancing and taking seasonal company contracts. Finally, in 2012, she received a contract with State Street Ballet.

“Training in San Francisco was a year of doubt and frustration,” she recalls. “But, sometimes, it’s good to take a step back, instead of blindly following one path.”

Training Far From Home

u200bLamin Pereira, wearing white tights and an embellished off-white tunic, poses in tendu derierre with his left hand on the small of Taryn Mejia's back. Mejia wears a sparkly off-white tutu and tiara and stands on her left leg in B plus, looking towards Pereira.Lamin Pereira and Taryn Mejia in Balanchine’s “Diamonds.” Savanna Daniels, Courtesy KCB.

Taryn Mejia, Kansas City Ballet

At age 16, Taryn Mejia embarked on a ballet student’s dream: moving to New York City to train at the School of American Ballet. What she wasn’t prepared for was how different life would be away from her support system. Back at home in Kansas City, Mejia had attended a local high school and danced in the evenings. She went to football games, had friends who weren’t involved with ballet and, most of all, lived with her supportive parents.

“At SAB, ballet was my whole life,” says Mejia. “What happened in the studio affected the rest of my day. All of the students at SAB are so talented and everyone is working hard for the same jobs. Naturally, competition arises. So many days, I would come into class already frustrated and upset. It affected my ability to dance.” While she was still able to call her family every night, it wasn’t the same as being at home with them.

Living on her own also meant that her parents weren’t planning her meals anymore. She struggled to properly nourish her body for the amount of dancing she was doing on a daily basis, and alternated between not consuming enough food and binging.

Mejia went on to dance with New York City Ballet for three seasons, but the emotional toll of her first year away from home ultimately sent her down a path that led her to step away from her career at age 21— before coming back six years later to join Kansas City Ballet.

“The technical training I received at SAB was invaluable and helped me be able to return to professional dance years later. What I learned, though, and what I hope students and parents understand, is that being a dancer is about emotional health, as well—being a whole person.”