Melissa Chapski is still hard on herself but not too hard any more. The talented American ballet dancer with the Dutch National Ballet is bursting with talent and willpower. She attributes her rapid development to the fact that she takes feedback very seriously.
“I was 15 before I realised I wanted to be a top ballet dancer. I had been dancing since I was four, but the will to really go for it came during a camp in the United States. The camp involved dancing from eight till eight, six days a week, for six weeks. After that you either hate ballet and go back screaming to your parents or you love it, like me. After the camp I convinced my parents that I simply had to go to the Ellison Ballet School in New York.
“I really love dancing. There are magical moments when you get an adrenaline rush from transporting the audience away from reality for a while. But there is also satisfaction in rehearsals, thanks to the mix of fun and overcoming frustrations.
“In my two years at Ellison I discovered just how much effort goes into becoming a professional ballet dancer. You are constantly honing crazy details. Even so it was still what I wanted and I knew that I had it in me. I am hard on myself. Edward Ellison’s uncompromising opinions enabled me to grow rapidly. Without that honesty from teachers as well as honesty towards yourself you will never achieve this goal.”
Resilience and perseverance
“Becoming a top dancer has asked a lot of me. One battle I had to fight was against my own perfectionism. It is important to strike a balance in terms of self-criticism: you can’t get there without it, but too much and you become blocked. When I first came to Amsterdam to dance I used to cry a lot at rehearsals because I felt I wasn’t good enough. I was told that this would have to stop if I wanted to be a professional dancer. I taught myself how to relax inside my head. Now when it’s all getting too much, I take a step back from the situation.
“Dancing at the highest level means making sacrifices. It’s tough when you can only see your family a few times a year. It’s also a shame to miss out on college; to be honest, I do kind of miss the intellectual challenge. But you also get a great amount in return: the mental development you go through as a dancer, the inspiring international entourage of a dance company and the modelling work that I get to do for magazines and fashion shows.”
“My colleague Marijn Rademaker, principal with the Dutch National Ballet, made a big impression on me with the comeback he made recently. He suffered a serious knee injury that put him out of action for 18 months. After the operation he wasn’t sure whether he’d ever return to his previous form. I was able to experience up close – he coaches us during rehearsals – how he battled his way through the recovery process. Marijn showed himself not just to be a hard worker, but above all a smart worker. The latter is what we all want to learn to be. The trick is not to cover as much distance as you can regardless, but to take a deep breath now and again and only work on the areas where you still need to make gains.
“My teachers say I’m a tiger. I have this huge drive that comes from within. And you need that. If it’s not your own true self that is pushing you, forget it. You have to get it out of yourself, no one can do that for you.
“If I carry on working like I am now, I can make it right to the top. In ballet you have to have the patience to mature: repeated movements create muscle memory. So reaching the top doesn’t just take determination and hard work but time as well.”