What It’s Really Like To Be A Professional Ballerina

As Greta Hodgkinson celebrates 25 years with the National Ballet of Canada and 20 years a principal dancer, the busy mom of two walks us through her incredible career.

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Greta Hodgkinson started out like many little girls do: dancing around the house and taking part in the standard trio of jazz, tap and ballet classes. “I was a physical kid,” she says. “I was in ice skating and gymnastics and lots of activities. I knew pretty early on, around eight or nine years old, that I wanted to be a ballet dancer. I think people are born to dance. It was something I just knew – I can’t really explain it.”

At 11 years old, she left her U.S.-based family to begin training with Canada’s National Ballet School in Toronto. “I grew up watching the company, and one thing that really struck me was that it had the most varied repertoire. I knew I’d love to be in the company, but there were never any guarantees.”

Until, that is, she graduated five years later. “Reid Anderson, the artistic director at the time, offered me a job right away,” she says. “It was wonderful. To be a professional and have a full-time job at 16 years old, I was incredibly lucky. I got a real head start at that point.”

It was a stepping-stone moment that Hodgkinson hesitates to inflate. “If you say that you ‘made it,’ it starts to be over,” she says. “But for someone who wanted to dance all the classics and be a ballerina, when I was promoted I felt like ‘OK, now there’s way more work to do, but at least I’ve established myself.’ There was a sense of accomplishment, for sure.”

Her Journey To Success

Hodgkinson asserts that her success is due to many factors. “All of the standard responses apply: the discipline, hard work, talent and opportunities I was afforded and luck,” she says. “I’ve had a really lucky career. I was in the right place at the right time for a lot of things and, knock on wood, I’ve had a really cooperative body. But mainly a really, really strong support system has been very important for me.”

In addition to her family, Hodgkinson has found an extended unit within the National Ballet of Canada, helmed by Karen Kain. Some bonds, such as that with Hodgkinson’s coach, Magdalena Popa, go way back to her first days. “It’s been very important to have a home base like this company,” she says. “To be able to grow and to feel that I’m afforded opportunities that are challenging and inspiring after so many years as a principal dancer is very unique and special in the dance world. There aren’t very many companies that give an artist that kind of thing. Karen has been so wonderful in understanding what a mature artist needs.”

This November, Hodgkinson takes to the stage as Tatiana in Onegin. It’s one of the classic roles that she deems can never be danced enough. “The characters are so rich, there’s always something new to find,” she says. “You’re different now than when you danced it four years ago. You’ve gotten that much more life experience and you have something more to bring to the role. Maybe you’re hearing something new in the music or maybe you’re doing it with a new partner. It’s endless, really.” (For a festive treat, you can also catch her as the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker, running December 10 to 31.)

The Day of a Dancer

You’d think dancing for nearly six hours a day would be enough of a workout for anyone. Not so, according to Hodgkinson, who has a young son and an infant daughter. “I’ve learned that doing cross-training has really helped my ballet,” says the Pilates and Gyrotonic devotee. “I’ve been doing Pilates for 20-odd years, but it was only once in a while. When I had my son, I could see the benefits of how it helped me get my body back. This time during pregnancy, I tried to do Pilates even if I felt exhausted – just a little bit to keep my body moving – and, as a result, I feel much stronger.”

Hodgkinson starts a typical day with a 10 a.m. ballet class. “Basically, it’s like taking your vitamins. I go through the same exercises every day just to warm up my body – it’s very routine.” After an hour and 15 minutes, it’s off to rehearsals for the rest of the day. “It’s really intense work, but it also has to be balanced with taking care of your body,” she says, citing physiotherapy, massage and ice baths as part of the regimen.

Proper fuel is also key. “There’s definitely an aesthetic – 
that’s the art form,” she says. “You have to be svelte, but you also have to be extremely athletic and muscular. It’s really important that we’re eating enough and eating the right things. I think there’s a real myth about ballet dancers not eating or just eating yogurt.”

Sleep is equally vital, too. “My body – my muscles – can’t recover the same way and I can’t face the kind of schedule that we have without enough sleep,” she says. Being a ballet dancer is a 24-7 commitment that Hodgkinson describes as more than just a job.

“It’s a lifestyle,” she says. “We don’t go home at the end of the day and leave it here. Everything we eat – everything we do on our off-time – affects what we’re doing.” Still, the self-proclaimed foodie champions moderation. “I don’t ever think about dieting. I eat a little bit of everything, I always have dessert after dinner and I try to be normal in that respect. It’s important to afford yourself those things.”

Head Games

Hodgkinson’s career is peppered with highlights. She has worked closely with renowned choreographers, been honoured with roles created specifically for her and graced historic international stages such as the Royal Opera House in London, England, and the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, to name a few. And she is one of three women, including current artistic director Karen Kain and prima ballerina Veronica Tennant, to be a principal dancer in the National Ballet of Canada for two decades strong.

Looking back, Hodgkinson says her biggest challenge came from her first major role, and the outcome has helped her every step of the way. “I was about to make my debut in Swan Lake and fractured my foot right before,” she says. “I felt like my career was over at that point. I couldn’t see past the fact that I had to be off for six weeks.”

The good news is, she got a second chance months later. The better news is, she learned an invaluable lesson. “Coming back from something like that is just as much of a mental game as it is a physical one,” she says. “You have to be so tough mentally to make it in this career. It’s something that’s not talked about a lot, but it’s a very important part of performing and being consistent on stage. It’s a big part of what we do.”

Hodgkinson uses meditation to get into the necessary headspace. “For me, ballet class is meditative,” she says. “It’s a way to come into myself and listen to my body, figuring out if something is tight and needs stretching – that’s a kind of meditation for me.” Before a curtain call, she seeks out a few minutes of quiet “to be present and let all the work I’ve done for the past two months inform me and my body to deliver.”

Encore

As the ballet world spins into new territory, Hodgkinson is excited to participate in it during this era of Internet connections and social media sharing. “Someone can have so much more visibility now than when I first started,” she says. “Dancers are taking control of their careers in a much bigger way than in the past.” You can find her (@gretahodgkinson) sharing scenes from her professional and personal life on Instagram.

As for upcoming projects, she plans to focus on bringing dance to screens big and small. “I’d like to do more short dance films and explore different ways of getting dance out there,” she says. “Film and online media are where dance is going – where more and more people who can’t get to the theatre are going – and I’m happy to be a part of that.”

To those who think ballet might not be for them, Hodgkinson says this: “I feel like people don’t know how cool it is! There’s this idea that it’s about pink tights and a tutu or that it’s boring or that you’re not going to ‘get it.’ I often tell people there’s nothing to ‘get’; it’s whatever the experience is for you. If you want to see classics, you can, but there’s another side, too. We have a wide range for different tastes. I would say to be open to something you don’t expect.” Brava!

What do you wish you knew then 
that you know now?

“I wish when I was younger I’d trusted myself more and been a little less harsh on myself. It’s a double-edged sword because I think one of the reasons I’ve been successful is because I was so hard on myself, but at the same time I think there’s a point where I could have been more forgiving. It’s OK, though, because I’ve still enjoyed the ride.”

What’s your best advice?

“Someone once told me to not be afraid to ‘just be’ on stage. Just being in the character or being yourself, being really present and not feeling like you have to act is really powerful. Some of that comes with age. Nothing can take the place of experience, and I’ve been performing for so long, I feel like I’m able to be in that place.”

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