Into their 40s, Joffrey Ballet’s Deborah Dawn and Willie Shives have stayed in a business dominated by people half their age. What’s their secret?
By David Murray
What was once a revelation has become a cliché: Ballet is as brutal backstage is it is beautiful onstage.
Books like Gelsey Kirkland’s memoir Dancing on My Grave and countless articles, documentaries and movies have shown how professional dancers are used, abused and then tossed to the side as still-young men and women by heartless ballet masters and company directors. The wings and rehearsal studios, we have learned, are filthy nests of infighting, eating disorders and injuries.
The world of dance is indeed “very melancholy,” says Robert Altman, director of The Company, the recent film portraying the life of dancers at the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago. “The girls start at age six, and by the time they’re 18, they walk like a duck. The regimen is so difficult, and then suddenly, you’re 32, and lucky if you’re teaching other four- and five-year-old girls.”
But there are exceptions in the dance world—and at the Joffrey.
Their names are Deborah Dawn and Willie Shives.
At 45 and 42 respectively, these two principal dancers at the are both happy and healthy. Neither expresses regrets about having devoted their lives to dance. And though both acknowledge the rarity of their long, injury-free careers—they’re twice the age of many of those they dance with—they don’t discourage children from getting into dance, or parents from helping them do it.
Although dancers as old as Dawn and Shives are seen in the ballet world as freaks of nature, they’re more inclined to see how they’ve helped themselves over the years.
First, of course, by avoiding catastrophic injuries.
Aches and pains are a daily reality for dancers—and the older the dancer, the more chronic the soreness.
You can tell Dawn is older than the rest of the dancers when everyone is on the floor and they’re directed to stand. Most of the dancers pop to their feet as if launched by invisible springs. Dawn staggers to her feet, occasionally using the barre to hoist herself up. Once a dancer reaches his or her 30s, stiffness and soreness is unavoidable; aspirin and ice are constant companions. During breaks in a recent rehearsal (for the Ashton Anniversary performance in February), Dawn shifted on a heating pad, warming her hamstrings, loosening up her back.
When, in the very same rehearsal, a much younger dancer fell heavily and dragged herself off the floor holding her knee and crying and moaning pitifully, “something’s wrong,” Dawn explained that her injury was probably the result of overcompensating for another injury the woman had suffered before. “She probably shouldn’t have been dancing at all,” Dawn said.
While both Dawn and Shives acknowledge luck as a factor in avoiding injuries, they also feel they’ve been justly rewarded for all the careful icing and heating and stretching they’ve done over the years.
“I’m proud of being 42 years old and keeping up with 19- and 20-year-olds,” Shives says.
One reason he’s able to keep up with the kids is that he has always better care of himself than most of them, he says. Shives estimates that more than half of dancers suffer from anorexia or bulimia, adding that the problem is most prevalent in dancers “who are insecure.”
That’s not Shives. He credits his difficult childhood in Texas with forging a strong personality that made him immune to some of the insecurities other dancers suffer. “Being a male dancer, swimmer and cheerleader,” he recalls, he was teased mercilessly. “Getting through that gave me the confidence to handle myself.”
Not that food and eating isn’t an issue for every dancer. No dancer can afford to eat a morsel more than his or her body absolutely needs. Dawn, for instance, ate only a tangerine before a recent eight-hour day spent taking class, dancing in two rehearsals and teaching a class. In fact, she only ate the tangerine, she says, “so the body will burn calories. If you don’t eat anything, the body goes into hibernation mode.” She didn’t eat the banana she brought for lunch.
Shives has to be careful, too, partly because he’s only five-feet-eight and has a naturally muscular body; he says he eats plenty of protein and “no breads.”
Dawn and Shives are careful in many ways. A ballet company is as political as any other organization, and in order to last, you have to know how to get along with the bosses. “I’ve been a good girl as opposed to a bad girl,” Dawn says.
Shives has been a good boy, too. “I’ve always had a good rapport with my ballet master,” he says, referring to the instructors who direct dancers in class and in rehearsal. He’s been rewarded for his cooperation with a degree of respect the other dancers don’t get, he says. While Joffrey ballet masters routinely shout corrections to dancers in front of all, they’re more likely to correct Shives in private, “under their breath,” he says.
Still, Dawn wonders if she could have had more and better parts had she been more assertive. “But maybe my career would not have lasted this long,” she says.
Dawn’s agreeable attitude is no doubt one reason she has been thrust out front by the Joffrey as a public relations emissary. Since she played an aging dancer in The Company, she has accompanied Altman and Joffrey artistic director Gerald Arpino to several premiers. “She’s a good representative,” Altman says. “She speaks well. She’s gutsy, and not shy. And she’s truthful.” But try to get her to utter a truth that includes a negative aspect of the Joffrey. It won’t happen.
Part of the reason Dawn is so circumspect may be that she shares the feeling most dancers have: They need the company more than the company needs them. Though Arpino gives Shives and Dawn their due—“they’re truly magnificent examples of American artists,” he says—he partially credits his company with their longevity.
Shives was ready to retire five years ago from the Milwaukee Ballet; he was sore, he was tired, and he was ready to quit, he says. Arpino attended what was to be his last performance and approached him afterwards and said, according to Arpino, “No you’re not!” He recruited Shives to the Joffrey, where, Arpino, Dawn and Shives all boast, the culture is generally more loving, less cutthroat than other top American ballet companies.
However loving the Joffrey is, one thing the company can’t offer its dancers is security.
Unlike professional sports stars, dancers don’t retire with millions. Most of them don’t even retire with mortgages. Shives’ future is more secure than most; his wife works, and he says he’s already been told that when he retires, he’ll be hired as a ballet master.
But although Dawn has been a principal dancer at the Joffrey most of her long career, her future is uncertain. As she eases out of dancing over the next year or two, she hopes to become a ballet mistress at the Joffrey; she has already begun teaching apprentice dancers there. “They know I want to be a ballet mistress,” she says of Arpino and his management team. But, she says, she’s waiting to learn “what the company has in store for me, as they reveal it, inch by inch.”
Meanwhile, Dawn is giving private lessons to one teenage dancer, which she describes with glassy eyes as “one of the greatest experiences of my life.
“There are days when I cry,” she says. “I can see that what I have to say to somebody can really work.”
Dawn, who also teaches during summer layoffs at the Joffrey school in New York, often has occasion to advise young dance pupils on how they should approach a career in dance. In a word, carefully. “It’s a difficult world,” she tells them. “You’re vulnerable to elements of judgment from inside you and outside you.”
What she does not tell them is more revealing: “I don’t tell them that every one of their hearts is going to be broken. I don’t say only one of you will make it. I say, ‘I want to feel you.’”
What Dawn also does not tell her students: A career in dance precludes many other options in life. The low wages, the layoffs, the rigorous rehearsal schedules and the intense competition makes life difficult for dancers who want to have families.
Shives, who has been married for two decades and has two kids, describes himself as “the lucky one.”
Dawn’s dance life has been more typical. She was married once, to another dancer. When he quit dancing and went to law school, he wanted kids and she wanted to dance—a disagreement that split their marriage, she says. Though she says she’s looking for a relationship, she says she doesn’t regret not having had children. Indeed, she expresses no regrets at all about her life in dance.
Asked about other possibilities in life she might have missed because of her devotion to dance, Dawn replies, “What other possibilities?”