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.
What is it like to be a freelancer comparing to being settled down in a theatre?
Working as a dancer in a theatre is a very busy and responsible task. One has to be devoted to the company and to strive for higher achievements every day, but also it is work that puts you in a comfort zone, because the schedule is done for you, training is pre-organized, shows are pre-planned, all of the tax papers are calculated for you and you are socially secured, which gives you freedom to also plan and create your own family. You just have to be your best at being an artist. Whereas the life of a freelancer is very much of a competition for your career every single day. You have to plan and pay for your training yourself, you have to apply for auditions in order to get jobs on stage, sometimes there are no jobs matching your skills, sometimes you have to travel across the country from one performance venue to another, you have to be your own tax declarer, and you have to take care of your insurance bills. It is a whole life adventure for highly multi-skilled dancers who can deal with frustration and be strong self-developers. I have experienced both and I can find pros and cons in both lifestyles.
How did you benefit from your studies in Dance Science at the University of Bern? Did it change your attitude to your style of dance somehow?
The Master studies in Dance Science is one of the best choices in education that I have made so far. It is a very innovative and a well-thought program that looks at dance not only as an art form, but also as a rigorous complex physical activity. During my studies I was able to learn in detail the physiology, anatomy and biomechanics of the human body and how it develops throughout a dance career. I could also learn all about teaching, training techniques and learning methods, and how to implement them in a way that classical ballet
becomes healthier for the human body activity. Since I started my studies I have changed a whole lot of my understanding about training principles. I also started treating my body as my temple by applying the optimal knowledge I earned at the University. I do try everything I learn on my own body first and then I give it out to the rest of the dancers I work with. The results are, of course, stunning and I very much enjoy my own as well as my students’ progression in the ballet studio.
What is “Ballet Universe” about?
“Ballet Universe” is a huge dance science project that started by myself and now I am developing it into a company. It embraces all spheres of dancers‘ lives and serves innovations in dance for better training, development and progression of the ballet society. The main activity of the company for the moment is to run dance health screenings, which provide a full, detailed body/mind mapping. Via highly developed scientific methods I create protocols in order to collect, measure and analyze every aspect of the dancer’s body-anthropometrics, alignment, flexibility, joint mobility, balance and proprioception, ballet technique, strength, endurance etc., etc. One part of the screenings are questionnaires on important factors such as training routines, nutrition, sleep and recovery. Based on all of
these data I then create a personalized training/nutrition/recovery plan for each dancer and consult them on its completion. The final goal is improvement in ballet/dance technique, physicality and performance. In the world of dance this is so far the most efficient and optimal way of assessing one’s body, strengths, weaknesses and lack of knowledge in order to balance out and polish their skills. I plan to expand the program for all dance styles and genres, so that it is beneficial for the whole dance society. Private one-to-one, group as well as online sessions and consultations are provided.
Do you think the old school methodology in ballet should be revolutionized?
As we all know, the traditions in ballet are as old as the art itself. Most of the professional schools follow them blindly without realizing that most of the basics need to be brought up to the real-time requirements of professional dance in 21st century. The demands put on professional dancers today are much higher than the demands they were expected to fulfill 50, 30, even 20 years ago. If we look at the movement vocabulary used by the choreographers nowadays, we will see that dance language is the most diverse than we have ever seen it before. The dancers simply aren’t just dancers anymore, they are performing elite athletes. The problem is how are the old dance training methodology and mindset meant to prepare young dancers to clash these high standards and expectations? Next dance generations need to receive basic education in anatomy, physiology, nutrition, training routines, recovery and self-care before they leave schools and jump onto the levels of elite performances. They need to be well prepared to deal with high amounts of stress factors in order to prevent injuries and early career drop-outs. After all, a good preparation calls for a good performance. This is how stars are born. So in this sense, yes, the old school methodology definitely needs to be actualized and optimized, and that is what dance science is there for.
What are you planning to do in the nearest future?
I plan on working on my company “Ballet Universe” in order to spread the dance health principles to the broad dance society and to expand my team, so that we can accept all requests for our Dance Health Screenings from around the world. I will also be actively coming back to dance, since I have been recovering from an injury for a while. I am also open to see what life brings on my horizon.
What dance styles are you interested in? What are your favorite classical and modern ballet pieces?
I will always love classical ballet since I have been strictly classically trained from the age of 6. I am also very much interested in neoclassical ballet. It is such a 21st-century dance style, which is challenging, innovating, twisting and turning over every classical step in the most precious way. Breathtaking. But I also look forward to choreographing modern pieces. There are so many ideas that I would like to bring to the dance floor, to tell stories, to touch hearts and to mix tears and smiles. I will always enjoy watching and dancing the big classics in ballet like “Swan Lake”, “Sleeping Beauty”, “Don Quixote”, “Giselle”, “La Sylphide”. And I will always be emotional while watching “Onegin”, “Manon”, “Romeo and Juliet” and “La Dame aux Camélias”. And I will forever enjoy seeing “Petite Mort” and “In the Middle Somewhat Elevated”.
What advice can you give to young dancers?
I would like to advice all young dancers who are still in school to strive for more knowledge. Their bodies are their only instruments and the better they know what processes they are going through while growing up, the better they will understand why and how their bodies change. They need to know how to build strong muscles and hearts outside the ballet studio. I would advise them and every professional dancer, too to reach out to dance health sources, to reach out to dance science trainers and nutritionists in order to ensure their own stable physiological development. This will then be the stepping stone not only for their future success as professionals/principals, but also for their health and life after the dance career. After all, working smart and not hard will bring you faster to your dreams and it will automatically turn you into inspiration for the next dance generations to come.