Creativity On Pointe: Ballet with Erin Mesaros
Erin Mesaros is a 22-year-old dancer currently in the second company of the Orlando Ballet. I’ve known Erin for her entire life — because she’s my “little,” taller-than-me sister! Even though we have a lifetime relationship and ballet has always been a huge part of her life, I really looked forward to doing this interview with her to dig down deep into what her experiences are with this gorgeous form of expression. Ballet is one of the more unique choices of art to include in this series so far, since even though it obviously falls into the category of “the arts,” it’s an extremely physical, technically challenging and perfectionistic sport as well. What stuck out to me in this conversation with Erin was her attitude about having the “long game” in mind. No matter where you are currently or how far away your ultimate goal may seem, there is ALWAYS something to learn from and enjoy in the present. And this was coming from someone who openly struggles daily with frustration and self-confidence and perfection in an extremely competitive environment! If she can face those hurdles every day and still have a positive outlook on her journey as a creator, I think we all have the capacity to learn the same.
How did you fall in love with ballet?
I didn’t really love it at first — the only reason I stuck with it for a long time was because of my cousin who used to do ballet, and I was always really competitive with her because she was so cool and I wanted to be like her! Then she quit, but I stuck with it. It was a way to get out of the house regularly. Then there was another ballet friend, and I was really competitive with her — so for the longest time I was just doing it because I was really competitive. After I had been going to another studio for about six months, I heard that my other friend quit ballet, and I remember being in class when I found out and just thinking, “I guess I can stop dancing.” But then I really realized, “No, I actually do want to do this. I love this. I want to do this for the rest of my life.” I guess that was all in my head… I never really planned on stopping. I loved it but didn’t realize it until I wasn’t “competing” anymore.
What do most people not know about your type of work or your personal creative process?
I think most people don’t know that it’s an all-day, every day, all-life kind of thing. You have to be in it all the time. You can’t just take a day off. You can’t just use your day off to go to Disney World — you have to stay home, soak your feet in an ice bath, and catch up on chores and stuff while you can. I think most people realize it’s physically hard, just not the extent of how much it is your life. If you’re a dancer, that is your life. There’s the other huge component of cross-training work you have to do, too: yoga or pilates or running or lifting weights, beyond the dancing.
What helps you recharge your creative batteries?
Going to church, actually. And being in a different environment that doesn’t require “effort,” I guess. Last weekend a friend and I walked around the lake close by. Being outside! We’re inside all the time, so it’s so nice to be out in nature. We always talk about going to the beach, but it’s like an hour away so we don’t want to go to the effort of driving. [laughs]
What always gets you excited about your craft?
A new work of some sort, like a new choreography or a new piece. It’s not always exciting afterwards if you find out you’re in the same position for like 5 minutes, but it’s exciting beforehand when you wonder “What are they going to do next?” Or if you’re working with someone who’s really passionate about what they’re doing. There are just certain people that have something that really motivates you and inspires you.
For more the everyday, class kinda gets me excited because there’s ALWAYS something new to fix. [laughs] You’re always getting corrections. I always look forward to class because I think “this time I’m really going to do it.” It’s a new challenge every time.
What is a daily (or regular) discipline you’re following right now, related or unrelated to dancing?
There are a lot of those! Class every day is mandatory — an hour and a half ballet class. That gets you on top of your legs so you can do the work of rehearsing and stuff, that’s pretty obvious. In the morning I like to have a lot of time to warm up, so before class sometimes I would warm up 3 hours beforehand. It got to the point where I wondered “maybe this is too much,” but it’s definitely a good discipline for me. Some people can walk into class five minutes after class starts and they’re ready to go. I can’t do that, and I don’t want to do that — I do need that time beforehand (preferably at least half an hour, but even just five minutes) to prepare my head, mostly. But I definitely need to warm up my body, too, stretching and doing certain exercises to straighten my legs.
That all starts when I wake up. I try to get up early so I don’t feel rushed — I hate feeling rushed in the morning. I like to sit and enjoy my breakfast and coffee… that’s a big thing for me because I can get so upset easily. A lot of times I’m the one who’s holding myself back. I’m fighting myself, saying, “Oh you can’t do it, it’s not working today,” and my brain is distracted by stupid things, or I’m worrying, so it takes away from my focus as a dancer. I’m working on that now actually, trying to be more focused in class and on what my body is doing. A lot of times you can go through the movements and your brain will be somewhere else. So yeah, trying to be mentally and physically prepared before the day starts.
In what ways have you improved over the past few years? What do you still struggle with?
My attitude has improved. I used to cry a lot and Juan [her home studio teacher] makes fun of me for it [laughs]. I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror because I thought everything looked terrible or wrong. So that’s improved a lot — I only cry in a current teacher’s class now, but I’m not the only one, she kills us and it’s just emotional for everybody. [laughs] I used to get really angry with myself when I messed up, and then my whole class would go downhill because of just one little thing. I’d think, “No, I can’t do anything else because I have to fix this one little thing.” But now I try to do what Juan would always say: “let it go, let it go, let it go.” My dad would sing that Frozen song, too. All the things I’ve improved on still come up every now and again, but it’s not as bad as it used to be.
I’ve improved physically, too, obviously, but I still struggle with my legs. They change shape really easily, and my quads get big because my legs are hyperextended. The way you stand can affect your muscles and everything, so since my knees go back, it pulls my muscles back in a way that my quads start to grip — you need to pull them in a different way to help with turnout for dance. There are a lot of times I go into what’s natural for me, so my quads get really big and that’s not a good line for ballet. You want your lines to look really long — it doesn’t matter if it’s skinny or whatever, it’s the muscle itself that needs to have a long, lean shape.
For struggles, I still get really angry in class. I’ve improved, I have ways of calming myself down now… it’s nice that we have a big window at this school, because if there’s a window I can just face it and look outside. But that’s something I still struggle with, getting so upset about things that don’t matter. I get upset about the technical things. I understand in my head what I’m supposed to do but my body doesn’t do it. I focus so much on that, that I don’t give enough attention to the artistry about it. It’s interesting to watch it in some other dancers — I have a friend whose technique isn’t very good at all, which is surprising, but you don’t see it because he has so much artistry. I don’t know if it’s because he’s a musician or what, but he interprets the music really well. He puts himself into the dance, but he’s also the character and portrays that. That’s what I struggle with because I’m always so focused on technique, making it technically perfect. Everything’s turned out and pointed and long and I’m not gripping in my neck and my face is relaxed, all that stuff, but in the end, the technique isn’t what inspires other people or makes the audience want to watch you.
Even if you never “succeed” in your field, what would keep you creating?
You have to enjoy the process. Everybody’s different and the journey’s different and you have to learn along the way. It’s your own story. Principal dancer with the Royal Ballet is often the main goal or dream for some people, but a lot of people don’t want to go through second company to get there, they just want to go straight to first company. Every part is important, and every step, and I just love going through every bit of it.
What are your creative goals right now?
I want to get certified in gyrotonics, and pilates, too. Maybe those aren’t super creative, but they do help dancers a lot. I want to get more experience teaching, and take teaching courses. I want more experience with choreographing. Of course I want to dance in more ballets and pieces and contemporary works, just more dancing of different things. There’s so much dance that I haven’t done — I haven’t done very much Balanchine. The style that I did when I was younger was Vaganova, and what the school teaches here is the ABT style.
There’s always an aspiration for dancers to be choreographed on — creating a new piece for the first time and having it choreographed for you specifically, for your way of dancing. That’s always exciting, because you can be the first one who did it, and then when people reset the piece, they have to learn from you or watch the video of you, since you’re the one who almost created the movement. [Have you ever done that before?] When I was at Juan’s, a friend choreographed and he created a contemporary ballet piece. He did give me a solo that was inspired by how I dance — it was his choreography interpreting the music, but it was also stuff he knew I could do well, so he gave that to me for a solo. So yeah, that’s the type of thing where you would say “I was choreographed on.”
Are there any tools, books, or other resources you would recommend to others starting out with dancing?
Google search! Maybe that sounds dumb but I always use that. I use Juan and Stefani a lot [from her home studio], so just having a trusted mentor or two who know what they’re talking about is extremely helpful. It’s important to have someone who can be honest with you and tell you how you’ve changed in your dancing and what needs work… who can give you advice on where to go, what direction to go in, what new thing you should be doing or how you should be pushing yourself.
I try to look at books — like I recently picked up Misty Copeland’s memoir. It’s always interesting to hear from other professional dancers. I always learn something from them.
What other advice or words of encouragement would you give to other creators in your field?
I want to say something along the lines of “believe in yourself, believe you can do it,” because anybody can dance. I don’t know. You’re not really a failure unless you give up. You’re always going to be working toward something, it’s always going to be hard, it’s never going to be easy. Like I mentioned earlier, it’s important to enjoy the process of it, because that’s the whole point. Once you get what you want, you just move on to the next thing, right? You need to enjoy the inbetween, the life stuff, not just the end product. I was talking to a girl the other day who was saying, “I take so many classes, I just want to dance more, I want to perform,” but performing lasts like two minutes. The work you put into it is hours and hours, so you really need to learn how to enjoy that part. For me that’s the most fun, working on it and perfecting it — sure I love performing, you have to have an end product at some point, but I really enjoy the work leading up to it, too. Just enjoy it!