As anyone who has seen Black Swan can attest, the typical ballet dancer appears to be a self-loathing creature who is seemingly at war with her own body. Some starve themselves, turning to anorexia and bulimia to stay thin. Others simply hate the looks of their own bodies. Body dysmorphic disorder is common. And then there are the physical ailments they all seem to suffer from — ruined knees, ankles, and toes — the results of their beyond-brutal workloads and self-imposed standards of perfection.
Black Swan is only the most recent work to detail what can happen when an artist — in this case a ballet dancer — goes over the edge. The movie, while incredibly noteworthy, has nonetheless reinforced the same stereotypes that professional dancers like Deanna McBrearty often confront over the course of a ballet career.
During her days as a professional dancer with the New York City Ballet, McBrearty saw it all — the backstage dramatics, the bad behavior, and the disorders. But over the years, she kept her eyes on the prize and avoided tripping over these roadblocks.
Her story is not as melodramatic or as fanciful as the one of Nina Sayers, played by Natalie Portman in the Oscar-nominated film. Instead, it is a story of how a clear-headed girl survived in a cutthroat industry and got everything she ever wanted along the way, thanks to a little sacrifice, a lot of dedication and talent, and a series of lucky breaks.
A Daniel Island resident, McBrearty is now happily married with two children, following a 12-year career with the New York City Ballet in which she danced with Benjamin Millepied, the choreographer of Black Swan and the fiance of actress Portman. She also produced a successful workout DVD and is working on a book and a top-secret television project.
At the age of 12, McBrearty, a resident of the coal-mining town of Hazleton, Pa., was a late entrant into the world of ballet, where some girls are perfecting double pirouettes when they are as young as eight. She believes that getting involved at an older age made her mentally stronger. “I was like, this is what I want, and the only person who can get me there is me,” McBrearty explains.
McBrearty’s mother Helen knew there was nothing in Hazleton that could help her daughter reach her true potential. So she sent McBrearty to the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet in Carlisle. It was two hours away, and the distance from home tested McBrearty’s dedication and endurance. Helen did everything in her power to nurture her daughter’s dreams, including avoiding the transformation into the dreaded stage mother.
“She always stayed on the sidelines,” McBrearty says fondly of her mother. This turned out to be an unexpected blessing for McBrearty, who explains she never felt like she was pursuing dance for anyone but herself.
But aside from starting behind her peers, McBrearty would stumble upon another serious challenge at age 12, after being sent home from the Pennsylvania Youth Ballet with discouraging news. She had been told that she had scoliosis, and correcting it would require surgery and a metal pin in her back. It also meant she would never be a dancer.
“I said, ‘I won’t do it. I want to dance. I’m moving away,’ ” McBrearty recalls. That summer, instead of undergoing surgery, McBrearty was allowed to attend a three-month-long summer ballet course, and she stayed with an elderly couple. They would remove her back brace each night, place their hands on her back, and tell her it wasn’t enough for them to believe her dream was meant to happen. She had to also believe.
“I swear the chills went right through me the day that I said, ‘OK, I’m going to believe in this,'” McBrearty admits.
Three months later, she went back to the doctor. Her spine had zero degrees of curvature.
McBrearty knew the next leg of the journey was the School of American Ballet, but there were problems. The 16-year-old would need to move away from home. To make matters worse, her family could not afford the tuition. However, during her auditions, McBrearty found herself in the right place at the right time.
A recently widowed man was watching the classes with the intent of offering a scholarship to a dancer in memory of his wife, an Irish step dancer. McBrearty was chosen and given a full ride to her first year at the School of American Ballet. It was a free pass into the exclusive world of the primary New York City Ballet feeder school.
“When I look back at it, I don’t know how I was so determined,” McBrearty says. “I just kind of knew it was in my stars.”
She adds, “I was not afraid to move away from friends or family, but if you love what you do, then you don’t question it.”
The competition at the School of American Ballet was fierce, but McBrearty says that didn’t faze her in the least. She knew the goals she wanted to reach.
“If you get competitive with others, you get caught up in the wrong thing,” she says.
Two years later, she was selected by the New York City Ballet to join the company, a honor given to only three to five dancers every year. And that was a good thing. She hadn’t made any other plans, and unlike other kids her age, she hadn’t even taken her SATs.
“I was like, ‘I am going to be in the New York City Ballet. That’s all I want to do, and that’s it,'” McBrearty says.
What followed was the kind of career every dancer dreams of, coupled with a strenuous rehearsal and performance schedule that would bring mere mortals to their knees. With only Mondays off, McBrearty performed in four ballets every night for 12 years. Oftentimes she was assigned to understudy principal and soloist roles and thrown on stage with a limited time to prepare.
McBrearty’s success as a dancer opened the doors for other endeavors. After several rounds of auditions, she was chosen to star in Zoya, a movie based on the Danielle Steele novel of the same name about a Russian dancer. When she approached New York City Ballet Director and Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins for permission to take two weeks off to be flown to Russia to film, he was unimpressed.
She recalls Martins asking her, “Do you know what Balanchine would have said to me, dear? Do you want to be a dancer, or do you want to be a movie star?” She chose not to appear in the movie.
While McBrearty was a dancer with the New York City Ballet, she was something of a Big Apple celeb in her own right. She was a representative for Danskin — her face even appeared on the brand’s tags — and she modeled evening wear for Geoffrey Beene. During the summer of 2000, when the New York City Ballet company was not touring, she filmed a role in the movie Center Stage and choreographed two Mattel dance-along videos. McBrearty got a writing gig with Dance Magazine when she unknowingly sat beside an editor on a bus and chatted with him about her year as an apprentice at the New York City Ballet. Later, she wrote articles for Dance Spirit and Pointe Magazine. She built an impressive freelancing career out of being in the right place at the right time.
McBrearty relished these extracurricular activities and was inspired by these experiences when she danced. But other dancers, she says, drew from darker places. McBrearty admits the problems dealt with in Black Swan are very real, but she avoided the woes other ballerinas faced. She also says the New York City Ballet did not tolerate the type of troubles we see in Black Swan. Their rigorous rehearsal and performance schedule did not allow for it. “You get weeded out,” McBrearty explains.
That said, McBrearty talks about situations in which dancers were seemingly rewarded for bad behavior. She explains how girls in the company who struggled with their “health” might be rewarded with ripe principal roles if only they overcame their troubles, while, on the other side of the spectrum, a dancer might be offered a lead role as an incentive to shed her post-injury weight gain.
“That’s a bit of a catch 22, because what if you don’t have any vices? What if you work really hard? What if you’re not falling? Then, OK, where’s my reward?” McBrearty says.
However, McBrearty notes that dancers have to be prepared not to get the parts that they want. “You have to have some inner strength because roles come and go, and there could be no rhyme or reason why you don’t get to do it anymore,” she says.
Throughout her career, McBrearty witnessed a revolving door of dancers, some as young as 15, joining the New York City Ballet and stepping up to the barre beside her. “You hit 30, and you feel old,” she admits. “If you’re not getting new roles or getting promoted up the ladder, you kind of end up going, ‘OK … I’m done then.”
For McBrearty, the ballet began to lose its freshness after more than a decade and more than 500 performances of the Nutcracker. By the time she hit 30, she was exhausted, but she couldn’t give up dance cold turkey.
Enter Balocity, a DVD workout program created by McBrearty that was inspired by the New York City Ballet’s own workout. “The thing I missed the most that I knew I would was the physical aspect,” she says. “The sense of accomplishment every day is such a challenge, really having your body be your creative outlet, and that’s the reason I love to dance, to have that escapism and creative outlet. So being able to create my own workout video did that for me.”
Rather than partnering with a company, McBrearty decided to see what would happen if she went out on her own. After all, she already had the dance connections, magazine contacts, and plenty of photographer friends. Balocity was a hit. (Her brother-in-law Derrick Mackey also helped her with that project.) Prevention magazine named Balocity one of its Top 10 DVD Workouts of 2008. McBrearty says she may return to another fitness project in the future.
Following the success of Balocity, McBrearty was on to her next challenge, probably the most important one of her life: starting a family. She married Steve Parker, co-founder of Levelwing Media and a former colleague of McBrearty’s sister. Parker later decided to expand his internet advertising business to Charleston. McBrearty says she never expected to move to the South and slow down, but for her, the Holy City just clicked. Shortly before the move to Lowcountry, McBrearty learned she was pregnant. And so McBrearty moved on to her next career, being a mommy. She’s also writing a book and developing a potential TV show.
“Even now my dream is to be involved with television in some way with children and dance. I mean, obesity is a huge issue with children, and I would just love to focus on that,” McBrearty says, although she remains mum about many of the details of the proposed show.
While Deanna McBrearty has been the beneficiary of a series of seemingly lucky breaks, the truth is that this former ballet dancer is not only skilled at what she does but she is a supremely tireless worker. More importantly, failure has never been an option for her. Or as McBrearty herself says, “I just didn’t see it any other way.”