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Elitsa Zafirova: “Dancers are performing elite athletes”

Bulgarian-born ballet dancer Elitsa Zafirova is a rare example of a many-sided artist who enjoys being on stage, doing a Master’s at university and working on her own dance science project “Ballet Universe”. We have discussed with Elitsa the peculiarities of working

conditions in the USA, Canada and Europe, advantages and disadvantages of being a freelance dancer and talked about challenges that modern dancers face on their way to success.

Elitsa, you were born in Bulgaria and started studying ballet at the age of 6. Was it your decision or your parents’? Did you have Russian teachers? How did you find motivation at such an early age to continue with this difficult profession?

Back then when I was 5 years old I saw on TV a ballerina in a beautiful white tutu, who was effortlessly turning fouettes on stage. Her spins seemed so magical and inspiring to me that I started trying them myself and then I told my parents that I wanted to do the same like the ballerina. I guess this is where the spark for ballet originates from. Later on I was taken to my first ballet performance, which was Swan Lake“ and I couldn’t take my eyes off of the Ballerina Swan. Then I took my first ballet training and my first performances on

Stage followed along. All of my first ballet teachers were Bulgarian, except one Russian ballerina who was preparing me for the entry exam at the National School of Dance Art, Sofia Bulgaria, where I was accepted with honors and first on the list at age of 9. What has kept me motivated throughout my 10 years of professional ballet training and in my career afterwards are my aim for perfection and my competitive mindset. I guess this is a very typical gene I inherited from my parents.

Could you please tell us about your studies in the USA? Was it different from what you were doing in Bulgaria?

After being honored with the award ‘Anastas Petrov’ for best young dancer in Bulgaria and several successful appearances in international ballet competitions, my way leaded to the US. I was awarded with the 100% scholarship at The Kirov Academy of Ballet of Washington DC. This is where I spent my senior year and graduated with awards in 2008. Just as in Bulgaria, there I also had academic as well as dance classes, except all of the classes were led in English and the amount of dance hours per day was about 4 times greater than what I was used to by that time. My day would start at 6 o’clock with preparation for the first academic class at 7:30,

lunch break at around 1PM and from 2 until 7PM we would have 5 astronomical hours of ballet training. Kirov in DC, USA is basically the Vaganova ballet school overseas. All my teachers were Russian and strictly followed the Russian methods. I have to admit that during my time in Kirov my technique and stamina improved immensely, and I understood that I was able to do much more than I expected, and also to overcome all circumstances in order to be the best I can. Of course, I was always looking forward to making my parents proud. However, it took me a while to adapt to the workloads of the schedule. I remember that I had no energy to climb up the stairs to my room in the dorms. Besides this, I was in a cultural shock - people’s behavior, food, world perception - everything was so much different from what I was used to at home in the East. This made me extremely homesick, I think at some point I was crying every single day. But I still made best friends with some lovely kids with whom we are still besties today!

What was it like to work in American and Canadian theatres? They say teachers there are more liberal than in other theatres, there are no certain rules about ballerinas’ weight and looks. Is it true?

Working across the ocean was a very precious experience. I definitely enjoyed my time there. I experienced heavy touring schedules and busy rehearsals, but the work was enjoyable and I met some wonderful dancers. The social system there is not as ‘accommodated’ as it is in Germany, for example. This makes everyone work longer and harder in order to show that they are reliable and reasonable employees. There is no time to be sick or injured, therefore the competition on the higher professional levels is very strong, which respectively calls for results of highest quality. Of course, the teachers there are more liberal, simply because the laws require respect and good manners within the society. Verbal and physical contact is very delicate and it has certain borders, that is why good behavior is so highly appreciated there.

Regarding the weight of the ballerinas, I think nowadays weight is just a cliché. Nutrition and dance science have improved so much lately that every dancer can reach out to a specialist if needed.

Could you tell us about your dancing experience in German theatres? What did you dance in Berlin?

Germany is where I have spent most of my career and where I have experienced the best working conditions so far. I worked in Aalto Ballet theatre Essen, Ballet Dortmund, Semper Oper, Friedrichstadt Palast Berlin and Deutsches Fernsehballett. Almost all companies are grounded in classical ballet, but perform contemporary and neoclassical pieces too. In Berlin I had the chance to leave the borders of the classical ballet and to master every other possible dance style such as jazz, hip hop, street, classical dances, modern, show, commercial, even pole and acrobatics. All of these enriched my dance movement vocabulary as well as my choreographic experience and let me take full control over my artistry.