My Very Last Stage

By Noriko Zaragoza

This is my final blog post as a professional ballet dancer.

I am about to finish my professional dance career in 3 weeks, and I’m very happy about the decision I made. This season I had the chance work very close with my Director, Javier Velasco, and I leaned so much. He gave me a very clear guide on what it takes to become a Ballet Mistress and when I was slightly lost he always showed me the right way. It wasn’t easy for me to do and sometimes I needed to follow through on some very difficult decisions even though I felt slightly uncomfortable.

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Jazz Dancing on Pointe

By Noriko Zaragoza

I am a classically trained ballet dancer, but I’ve had many opportunities to dance in different styles such as contemporary, modern, and jazz. My ballet studio back home, “Sasaki Mika Ballet Academy,” was wonderful and exposed me to many of these styles. They taught me to be diverse and that I would need to learn many different styles/techniques in order to be a successful dancer in today’s dance world.

 

Noriko Sweet Synergy BalletSan Diego Ballet has a wonderful connection with local jazz musicians and we collaborate with them every year. So far this season we have had a chance to bring back one of our favorite collaborators Gilbert Castellanos, San Diego’s hottest Latin Musician! This jazz ballet is difficult technically and it needs to be performed with a high level of understanding of both ballet and jazz technique. When I teach or help clean up choreography, there are a lot of movements that I can’t be described with words and I have demonstrate them in order to get the point across. It is also a different story when dancing on pointe and it can become very tricky. For example, you need to be able to transfer your weight on pointe to off pointe very quickly.

 

Dancing with a live Jazz band is very different compared to dancing with live orchestras. I believe it is harder to dance with jazz music than classical music. You can’t really listen to melodies and dance according to the musical phrases because it is not guaranteed that the band will play the same every single show. However, it’s fun and I get to play with different expressions every single night I go on stage, but can get confusing sometimes and it requires a strong ability to adapt, similar to the improvisation of the musicians.

The Importance of Intensive Training Programs

This month, Company Dancer, Noriko Zaragoza, shares the benefits of taking intensive training programs and some tips on what most companies are looking for in young dancers.

San Diego Ballet has decided to do a Trainee Audition Program this year. It is a new program and I’m happy to be organizing it. I was thinking about trying to bring back a Summer Intensive Program we used to have for pre-professionals dancers every August. However, this year we have decided to make it a one week program in June. We are looking for classically trained dancers with performance experience in a professional or pre-professional company or school.

Most of the pre-professional programs at other companies are looking for dancers to be in their second company as a trainee for the next season. As the director of this program, I will be looking for dancers that are classically trained in ballet with the potential to be a professional ballet dancer. This is the key for me. As long as they have a solid foundation I can train them however we need and get them ready for the stage.

It is very beneficial for dancers to learn from teachers that are different than what they are typically used to. Most likely, dancers will not have the same teacher for company class every day, so it is a very good experience for them. They may also get to learn some of the company repertoire. I think it is very exciting for dancers to learn the company’s taste and what are we are actually performing. Our “Trainee Audition Program” will give dancers a chance to learn from our very own Artistic Director and Choreographer, Javier Velasco, and I am very excited to see how they do.

Some tips to make your audition and program a success:
• Simple leotard that shows your lines well, two of my favorites are from Audition Dancewear in Peach or Black
• Pink tights
• Pointe shoes, have several pairs
• Pink or nude ballet flats
• Simple ballet skirt that shows your legs in a nice way, I like this skirt from Audition Dancewear
• Practice tutu and character skirt just in case
• Avoid jewelry, simple and clean is the best
• Put on some everyday make up (you never know when a Company Director may show up to watch class)
A final note, make sure you have plenty of pointe shoes. You will be wearing them every few hours. My shoes would die in one day if I wore the same pair all day long. I like to have a few pairs ready and alternate every few hours. This way you don’t need to wear brand new shoes every time a pair of your shoes dies. I recently changed to Bloch Axiom HRD and I really like the way they fit and look on my feet. I can’t believe that I am still looking for better shoes during my last season, but that’s what ballet dancers do.

Six Essential Teaching Tools

Mixed RepertoireNoriko Zaragoza shares her Six Essential Teaching Tools.

Happy New Year. This is the time of year when people are thinking of what they want this year to about. Many make resolutions to do new or different things.  As a dancer and ballet teacher, I’m in the middle of the season, and my resolutions for my career and well under way.

I would like to shift focus this month and introduce you to a few work essentials I routinely use when I teach. Most of them are like my little helpers and make my life much easier!

 

  1. Apple Watch: It connects it to my phone and I can control music from anywhere in the studio. When I forget this I have a really hard time dancing and teaching at the same time.
  2. Nice workout clothes: My go to is lululemon or Lorna Jane. I had a chance to teach a class for Ivivva Athletica (lululemon’s kids brand) and it was a wonderful experience. I am also sponsored by Audition Dancerwear this year and they keep me stylish on and off the stage. Thank you Audition Dancewear for all your support this season!
  3. Good teaching shoes: I usually wear dance sneakers for advanced student classes and jazz sneakers for younger student classes so they can see my feet well. I like to have heels when I teach because I have naturally bad posture and the heels help me keep my weight in the right spot.
  4. A big notebook: I take lots of notes when I am the Ballet Mistress of a production. It is important for me to take notes for the current production as well as future shows.  Sometimes I can’t remember all the changes our director/choreographer makes, so it is important for me to write them down. It is difficult to remember corrections for 20 different people at the same time!
  5. Good quality hot tea: It helps me relax and clear my mind.
  6. My phone and extra battery pack: I can’t live without this.

 

My Last Nutcracker

Noriko-DanceIt’s the time of the year when we celebrate the holidays and San Diego Ballet is getting ready for “The Nutcracker.” We started rehearsing this production a little over month ago. It takes quite a long time to set everything especially since it’s a big production that uses students from the San Diego School of Ballet. This year I got a chance to rehearse the company dancers and students, an opportunity I enjoyed very much.

I made an official announcement at the beginning of this season that I am going to retire from being a dancer and focus on doing more work behind the scenes. I started getting opportunities to work more closely with Javier, our Artistic Director, and training to be a Ballet Mistress for San Diego Ballet. It’s a big change for me, especially since I have been dancing for over 30 years. I learn so much everyday from Javier, along with Miss Robin the School Director, and from our General Manager, Miss Karen.

Often times I have to teach and take class at the same time. It’s very tricky, but I have gotten used to it. Class in normally an hour and a half everyday with Mondays off. We have rehearsals after class and stay until 3pm. Weekends are longer with rehearsal lasting until 5pm. I have been doing this for over 13 years, so I am pretty used to it, but I can see our younger dancers having a hard time memorizing steps, which can be very difficult with a two hour long production like the Nutcracker. I try to give them helpful advice such as the importance of writing down steps and taking video if needed. I also stress the idea that they shouldn’t leave the studio until they feel comfortable with all the steps, and that it’s important to practice over and over.

SDBNut3Every year when we go on tour there is always a full house that is very excited to see us. Shows are pretty much sold out and sometimes we need to add shows so more people can come and see us! It is very exciting to see the house full of people and we can really feel the energy they bring. It actually helps us stay focused when performing and gives everyone a great energy to work with. In each city we rehearse with the local kids chosen to collaborate with the company. This year we traveled to Billings, MT, and thankfully the local kids were all well behaved and well trained by their school directors that worked with us to put the show together. I want to say thank you to all the schools we worked with!

Getting to Know Me

Hello, welcome back! This is Company Dancer, Noriko Zaragoza again.  I am going to talk a little bit about where I am originally from, why I love dancing so much, and about how food affects my life and body.

Growing Up in Japan

I grew up in a very strict Japanese household and my parents believed that success meant going to college, getting a degree, and working for a big corporation.  They wanted to me to make a decent amount of money in order to support myself then eventually find a husband that could take over the financial responsibilities so that I could become a full time housewife.  Somehow I ended up doing something completely opposite of their beliefs!

Noriko Zaragoza

Noriko Zaragoza

When I was five years old I told my parents, “I would like to be a professional ballet dancer,” and they didn’t take me seriously.  From the very beginning my parents thought I was wasting my time and I should be doing something else.  Although they did not fully support my decision to dance, they did offer me financial support that allowed me to receive formal classical ballet training.  I know that was their way of showing love but it’s a little sad to think that was the only kind of support they showed me.  I can barely remember my mom coming to my recitals and my dad would never stay for my performances.  To this day they have never seen me dance in a professional performance and whenever we talk they always want me to stop dancing and stay home to raise children.  I realized this is how it was going to be very early in life and this is why I needed to “grow up” quickly in order to become independent and support my own dream of becoming a dancer.

At the age of eight my parents decided they would continue to pay for my ballet classes but would not take extra time to drive me back and forth.  I decided I wanted to continue, so every day I took the train and bus two hours to get to my ballet school.  When I was 14 I had a life changing experience when I visited New York with my dad. I took a class at the Broadway Dance Center, and at the end of the visit I talked with one of the instructors.  I asked for her autograph, but what she gave me instead was a memo saying, “You have talent.”  I clearly remember she also said, “Don’t be afraid to visit here again.”  I still have the memo from her and look at it sometimes when I question myself or need a reminder of why I love ballet so much.

It is very difficult to say that your occupation is a “professional ballet dancer” back home in Japan, but it seems very possible here in the States.  That was one of the main reasons I came here and it was a lifelong dream of mine to become a professional dancer in the USA since that visit to New York when I was 14. I had a very busy schedule growing up and I used to dance until 11pm on top of attending regular school. I continued training in Japan up until graduating high school because I had promised my parents that I would at least get a high school diploma.

When I first came to dance in the States it was on an O1 Visa. I was not allowed to work outside of the company listed on my visa, so I would go home to Japan every summer to make money in order to support myself.  I was a good waitress and cake cutter.  It is so funny that we have jobs in Japan specifically for cutting cakes, but I was one of them and they sent me to special training to learn this skill.  I learned most of my baking skills over there and also got some ideas for cooking.

My Love of Food

My mom is a wonderful cook but she only makes Japanese food.  I learned to cook by watching her and helping her whenever I could in the kitchen. My love for food definitely comes from my parents.  My mom would always cook three meals a day no matter what and my dad maintained a really large garden on our property in Japan.   I grew up eating farm to table style and I now believe fresh organic food is so important.  I love supporting local business, such as shopping at the local farmers markets.  There is a reason quality food is slightly more expensive, and you can really tell the difference when you try it.

The Artificial Woman, January 23, 2016 - White Box TheaterThe reason I am talking about food here is because I wanted everyone to know how important home cooking is to me.  I want to feed my husband safe, healthy food and we even feed our dog’s human grade organic dog food.  Home cooking is the best advice I have for all of you trying to be healthy.  How are you supposed to know what is actually in the food you eat if it is pre-made or processed?  Every once in a while it is ok, but cooking your own food is definitely the way to go.

I don’t have a specific diet that I follow.  For breakfast I eat pretty much the same thing every day.  Some kind of carb (bread, oat meal, even rice sometimes), some type of probiotic (yogurt, drinking yogurt), a little bit of fruit, coffee with milk or black tea and a few supplements such as multivitamins or Chinese herbs if I need them.

Lunchtime is tricky.  I can’t dance with a stuffed tummy, so I snack most of the time. When I am busy I don’t even have time to snack, so often I make smoothies with plant based protein powder.  My favorite is a green smoothie made with almond milk, seasonal fruits and coconut water.  Sometimes I eat apples and bananas when I don’t have a smoothie, and I love vegan health bars.  When work is done I have a light lunch.  It could be just salad with some protein in it or even a bowl of soup.

Dinnertime is the biggest meal of the day.  I always eat a full meal no matter how late.  A typical meal is rice with some kind of protein and soup, pasta with salad, and when I have time some sort of appetizer and glass of wine.

I cook pretty much every day.  Sometimes I don’t come home until 10pm but I still cook.  I do grocery shopping on Sunday night or Monday afternoon and I do food prep on Monday, which is the Company’s day off.  I love cooking and I can’t eat food that isn’t good quality.  It is my lifestyle now to cook and feed my love ones quality, healthy food.

Check back next month when I will talk about what is going on behind the scenes at the studio everyday as we prepare for the upcoming performances of The Nutcracker.

Getting Ready for the Season

Hello and welcome to San Diego Ballet’s 2016-2017 Season! My name is Noriko

Zaragoza and I am a long time company dancer with San Diego Ballet as well as a ballet teacher with the San Diego School of Ballet. I will be writing a series of blog posts this season and am very excited about reaching out to all of you.

Along with being a dancer I am also a happily married wife. For almost 6 years I’ve been married to my lovely husband who works a full-time day job and goes to school full-time at night for a DACM degree in eastern medicine. I can’t leave out my four legged kids, Ringo and Krush, both dogs are shiba inu breeds.

My first post is about getting ready for the start of the season. Here are some things that I do every single year before the big season starts or after coming back from a break.

I’m often cast in the roles that require a lot of stamina in our repertoire and it’s very important for me to build up my stamina before the season starts. I try to go to the gym 5 days a week and stay for about 1 to 2 hours. My typical gym workout consists of light running, upper body exercises for my bad posture, and core work. I’ve learned how important it is to be consistent even in the off season so that when it’s time to return to the stage I understand where my body is and what it can handle. I happen to have a nice gym where I live and thankfully it’s open 24 hours. I thank my husband for access to this.

What kind of ballet dancer would I be if I didn’t take class? I take ballet class at least 4 times a week during the off season and self-practice when I have time. During self-practice I usually focus on pointe work or brush up on repertoire that I already know we will be working on for the season. I am the type of dancer that learns very quickly physically, but mentally I need to take a little bit of extra time to get ready separately. I have to practice on my own a lot to get prepared for the next rehearsal. In fact, I don’t leave the studio until I feel comfortable that I can do it.

I also believe in Chinese medicine. I try to get regular acupuncture treatments at least once a week. It helps to keep my body on track and keep me injury free. I love seeing my acupuncturist every Monday, she is great! It is very important to find someone that you can trust and that understands your body and lifestyle. Two years ago my appendix ruptured and it left me with a 7 inch long scar in the middle of my stomach.  I stayed in the hospital for 11 days and wasn’t able to do basic things such as walking for about a month.  I needed to train myself to walk again, but 11 weeks later I was on stage. I can’t say thank you enough to my specialists that helped me during this time and continue to help me, including my primary Dr. Rebecca R. Rodriguez, D.O. from San Diego Sports Medicine and my lovely friend Stephanie Duerkopp-Faddis from Ouchie Acupuncture. They were vital in my recovery, given my special needs as a dancer.

When it comes to my diet, I don’t have a specific plan that I follow. I like to eat healthy, and I naturally crave fresh fruits and vegetables. I really don’t like to eat processed foods, but like anyone, everyone once in a while I like to eat out or have some junk food. I try to cook everyday using fresh ingredients so know exactly what I’m eating and what’s going into my body.

Check back next month were I will talk more about how food effects my life and my body. I’ll also introduce where I am originally from, why I am still dancing, and why I love this so much!

I’d love to hear from you. Please share your comments below.

5 Top Tips to “Werk” While You Work

steffi carter werk while you work2 

1. Find an employer who will work with you and flexibility in your schedule! It is essential to have someone on your side who understands the artistic condition and will not only keep up with your constantly changing hours by allowing you to split shifts or leave early to get to rehearsal, but will encourage you to keep your dream alive. That’s the boss you want.

 

2. Do something that doesn’t drive you insane! Lots of people were surprised when I said I adored working for Starbucks, and everybody’s confused when I say I genuinely enjoy the office. Historically I happen to love my day jobs, but remember that they never define you. Do it for the dance! Or the benefits! Or the free coffee! I definitely recommend being a barista because shifts can be short and sweet (every day or twice a week), dancer coordination comes in handy for rush hour, and the performing arts perfectly arms us for excelling in customer service. The office is quieter, but my duties still have me running around and problem solving. I get to ditch the hobo-chic look we rock for morning class, indulge my fashion disposition and dress like a Real Adult, work at my own pace, talk to people, pay dem bills, and think about my next blog post or ballet piece. It’s a good situation for me. Know yourself, do what you like, and like what you do.

 

3. Get your fix! To stay professionally sharp, develop relationships with local studios or academies to get daily training, teaching, and guest artist gigs. This way you get to be a hero to baby ballerinas, a big sister by virtue of working on your own technique. You get to be the mentor you needed at that age. And besides, you can only call it your day job when you’ve got other jobs to go to, just as you’re only a starving artist only if you’re still making art. Hitting the gym keeps you fit, but nothing beats taking class. You have to dance to keep dancing because if you don’t use it, you lose it. How nervous are you putting on pointe shoes after just a couple weeks’ neglect? EXACTLY. Put ‘em on. Get in class.

 

4. Keep moving! Even if you do get tons of time in the studio, no one should be slouching in front of a computer screen for eight hours a day. Stretch often and take walks. Be okay with being the weirdo who works standing up doing degages under his/her desk. They can’t tell when you’re in cubicles anyway! Take advantage of health and wellness schemes your company provides, such as yoga or pilates OR ZUMBA.

 

5. Stay inspired! Complaining about work is sooo the-lame-phase-of-your-early-twenties. Drop the pout and flaunt that positive attitude. Be thankful that you can have your cake and eat it, too. Werk your work ethic! Nurturing all your interests only enhances your artistry, so keep your eyes open and an ear to the ground.

Fill your heart, and happy dancing!

Steffi Carter

San Diego Ballet, 3rd year Independent Contractor

“Date a Girl Who Dances”, Author

4 Big Benefits from Taking a Break

And the value of the vole!

 leaping in front of the bean

Obligatory ballet photo with The Bean! Chicago, IL

I was casually translating a petite allegro combination last week when I froze, utterly failing to remember the meaning of volé! (voh-LAY, as in brisé vole.) I’m a BIG nerd when it comes to ballet because I trained in the Cecchetti Method, an incredibly academic style of ballet known for its insane attention to detail. It was like an eight-year-long class of ballet as history, physics, and foreign language so, while far from fluent in French, our vocabulary rocks because we learned the literal translation for every single step. So you can see why drawing a blank on volé might bother a supernerd so much! I froze again a couple days later, this time possessed by the ballet gods/demons to belatedly define, loudly, and to no one in particular in a very quiet office, “VOLÉ: FLYING. FROM VOLER: TO FLY.” I knew that! But I forgot.

 

What else do ballet dancers forget? We forget to take a break! I think it’s because “taking a break” sounds lazy, even cowardly to such intense creatures, but I’m not talking about sleeping in or running away from responsibility. Taking a break isn’t about doing nothing, but about doing something new!

You have fun.

Ballet dancers work hard. We dance six days a week, most all of us juggling a full-time (or a few side) job(s) to pay bills and stuff that keep the dream alive. This doesn’t normally leave a real day to rest because the rare day off always fills up fast! Even ballerinas have to do laundry and attend appointments and run errands and catch up on sleep (or Netflix, but never ever both). Blink twice and it’s already 10pm and we’re worrying if we’re ready to return to our barre-battle stations tomorrow morning. Are you burning out? Give yourself more than one day away! Do something you don’t have to do, something totally irrelevant, for as long as you want, and just because you feel like it. Enjoy your agency!

 

You learn more about yourself.

Being in a new place/predicament can be so illuminating, if you allow it! It gives you the chance to challenge your own existence, to get to know yourself outside the daily grind. Normally drive everywhere? (I know you do, THIS IS SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA.) Try using public transit. Your usual streets set up like a checkerboard so it’s impossible to get lost? Take a whack at navigating winding, spiraling roads without your smartphone. Order the same drink at the same cafe around the same time every day? Go to where you’re not a regular and find the unfamiliar. How will you deal with strangers, language barriers, new rules, no rules, stress, freedom, the unknown, being alone? You won’t know until you put yourself in a position where you can see for yourself. Revving up your mind for this kind of learning is good for you, and great fun.

 

You never know what will happen.

I just came back from jolly old England, but no matter where you go you’ll get dizzy with how often Serendipity smiles. You just never know, y’know? Maybe you’ll get lucky, have coffee and a bubble (a laugh) with the bloke who plays Carabosse in your hero Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty. Maybe you’ll bump into an actor you recognize from a few of your favorite TV shows (Doctor Who, Sherlock, etc) Danny Webb on the stairs, but he’ll apologize and wish you luck for your first company ballet class in London. Maybe you step into another class abroad and realize that the instructor here and your mentor back home danced together for Balanchine. Sometimes you split the lift (elevator) with Edward Watson from the Royal Ballet on his birthday. Maybe you won’t catch Drew Jacoby when you take company class with the Netherlands Dance Theater in the spring, but later that summer you’ll take a selfie with her after she picks you to perform her original choreography. Sometimes you spot a familiar shade of maroon across the room nearly 4,000 miles away from your alma mater and smile because that means two University of Chicago alumni walked into a the same room to read about Henry VIII (which sounds like the start of a solid joke). Sometimes busking guitarists play songs that remind you of home and perhaps the moment is so perfect it’s worth freezing your fingers a little while recording clips to share. Maybe you’ll connect the dots, make friends, miss trains, have fights, and perhaps people along the way will tell you you’re beautiful and brilliant and you’ll never want to leave and who knows but you gotta GET OUT THERE because there are some seriously magical moments to be had.

 

You come back refreshed, refocused, redefined.

You have to introduce yourself more often when you’re somewhere else, someplace new. Fact! Sometimes you fall into the regular rhythm of the first-date or first-day-at-school game and toss no-brainer, icebreaker questions back and forth, but sometimes strangers knock you right off balance. We get too comfortable on our own turf with our usual crowd, turning to automated responses to brush off big questions like, “What’s your real job?” (Well I’m glad you asked, Grandpa, because while I do ballet for the money my REAL passion lies in scanning and shredding paper at the office OOPS SECRET’S OUT). But when we’re meeting new people, we can’t help but want to make a good impression. What’s a hello but being able to say, “This is who I am. Who are you?” Every introduction gives us the chance to reflect, redefine, and hold ourselves accountable to the best version of ourselves. What is the hardest part of dancing? How would I classify my style? How is the dance scene different in the States? Can I see myself moving abroad? New places and people inspire us to speak more clearly, think more deeply, and make quiet decisions. This exercise is refreshing, relieving.

BACK TO BEING A BIG NERD REAL QUICK. I reread John Milton’s piece “On Time” the other night, like you do, which begins with the word “Fly.” The poet’s not telling Time to grow a pair of wings or get on an airplane – he just means GO. Taking a break doesn’t need to mean stamping your passport! We all dream of casual getaways to the Caribbean and faraway epiphanies found in Asia, but you don’t need to go far to get somewhere new. Emotionally or geographically, just take a break and do something different. GO. VOLÉ. FLY, MY PRETTIES.

It’s the off-season! Consider disrupting your routine. Surprise yourself. Escape. Explore. Go, because you’ll come back feeling more confident in yourself, more comfortable in your skin. Go, because you’ll actually come home feeling more at home.

Steffi Carter

San Diego Ballet, 3rd year Independent Contractor

“Date a Girl Who Dances”, Author

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