Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Offstage with Pa. Ballet dancers

It was last summer when Brooke Moore figured she and her father had probably scared away a mountain lion.

It was last summer when Brooke Moore figured she and her father had probably scared away a mountain lion.

The deer they discovered was freshly killed, its leg just torn off; there were no bugs and the blood trail was visible. The two didn't pay it much mind, though, and continued their weeklong, 85-mile backpacking trek through the Pennsylvania Laurel Highlands.

Just another day in the life of a ballerina.

Moore, a soloist with the Pennsylvania Ballet, is one of many in the Philadelphia-based troupe who use their limited time away from the stage to fulfill very distinct needs and passions.

Some dancers are practicing vocations that might follow a career known for a short life span. But many say the goals of their free time are decidedly different from those in the non-dancer world. Ballet is their hobby, their passion and their career, so having an interest outside dancing is a must.

Ballet is "very emotional and mentally challenging," Moore said. "We, as dancers, have to take that passion elsewhere. . . . It will take over your life if you let it."

Such a physically demanding job requires hefty emotional energy as well - something that's difficult to summon without off-the-stage experience.

Martha Chamberlain, 37, a principal dancer, says she has found her outlet. When the ballet appears on the Merriam Theater stage to debut a performance by choreographer Matthew Neenan early next month, it will do so in costumes she has designed.

She has been sewing since she was 5 and has designed for the ballet since 1992. It is, she said, "more than just a hobby."

"Dancing is such an active career; I see people like me who need a different kind of challenge."

Moore has always found that challenge outdoors. Whenever she gets time off, she's in pursuit of a mountain.

The father-daughter adventure of 15-mile days was just her latest outdoor adventure. She has trekked national parks the country over, including Yosemite.

"If dancing was all I ever knew, I think it would be hard to show the expression necessary in ballet," Moore, 27, said.

Hobbies for most professionals are an escape, Moore said. That's less the case for dancers.

"I don't think you could be a dancer at a high level if you didn't love it," Moore said. "Dancers have hobbies to try something different. . . . We aren't running from our jobs."

Yet some dancers are preparing for new jobs. The life of a professional ballet dancer rarely lasts much later than 40. And the faltering economy may have quickened the awareness young dancers have of the importance of diversifying their future options.

Julie Diana, a principal dancer, has perhaps found a post-ballet career by combining her two great loves. While pregnant last year, she began blogging for Dance Spirit magazine, for which she then began writing features.

Now that her daughter is 8 months old, she's back dancing and has become a regular freelance contributor to Dance Spirit.

"I would definitely like to write professionally when I am done dancing," said Diana, 33, of Cheltenham. "Seeing my words in print is such a satisfying experience."

Jonathan Stiles, 32, a chorus member who is married to Chamberlain, the costume designer, also is exploring life after dance.

"I've done catering for garden parties a few times," he said.

One of the reasons he enjoys cooking and entertaining: creative decision-making.

"At the ballet, you spend a career kind of being told what your schedule is and what you're going to dance. So I see a lot of people in their hobby taking on things that they have some more determination in doing," Stiles said. "When I'm doing a lot of cooking, it's great fun to sit down and plan out a menu. What flavors do I want to do and things like that. That ability to have a little bit more self-determination is key."

So, many dancers find something else they love and develop their skills while they still dance. In generations past, dancers often found future careers more directly associated with dancing: Jeff Gribler is now ballet master for the Pennsylvania Ballet, Roy Kaiser is now artistic director, and Barbara Sandonato opened her own dance studio.

Chamberlain is busy designing costumes for the ballet's May performances, but she won't reveal much about them. The male costumes are still being discussed, and the costumes for the women are a surprise. All she'll say is that they're "opulent, brightly colored and fiery."

"I love building dresses. That just may be my next step," Chamberlain said. "I guess all dancers are trying to do that - figure out what's next."