The career of a professional ballerina can be both irresistible and almost impossible to achieve, but Madison Steel is dancing in that direction — with her head squarely on her shoulders.
Madison is a student at The City Ballet of San Diego, and she has been honored with multiple roles in this year’s “Nutcracker,” including roles traditionally only granted to City Ballet’s professional dancers. However, she knows better than to put all her eggs in one basket, and — like most CHS students — she has a lot of dreams, a lot of plans, and is a remarkably talented and driven individual.
Madison and I met at last week to chat about being a serious dancer and a high school student in Coronado. She also discussed her role in “Nutcracker,” which opened downtown at Spreckels Theatre this past weekend.
1. To begin, tell me about how long you have been a ballet dancer. Have you always been at City Ballet, and why did you choose that ballet school?
I’m 16 now, and I’ve been dancing for about 12 years. I lived in northern California before moving to Coronado, and I danced at Lareen Fender’s The Ballet School in Walnut Creek.
Just about a year ago we moved here, and then I started dancing at City Ballet. We used to come down to San Diego every summer, and I trained with a lady who danced with New York City Ballet. We did private classes with her, both my sister and myself. She said, “You should go to City Ballet,” and so I did. It’s the top company in San Diego. They have a school within City Ballet as well as the professional company. I’m in Level 6, the top level of the school.
2. What is your practice schedule like now?
It’s crazy with “Nutcracker”! Usually I practice every day except Sunday. During “Nutcracker” I go to practice every day. Class is about two hours, and now with rehearsal that adds three or four more hours.
As for a company dancer, they start between 9-10am and practice till 4pm. If the dancer has a show that night, he or she also has to warm up and do the show.
3. When did you start going en pointe? Can you tell me about pointe shoes?
I was 10 years old. It is so exciting! When you are little you just want to be en pointe. It’s just the best thing in the world.
Pointe shoes are very interesting. There are a ton of different types, different brands, and then within the brands are different makers. I wear Suffolks, and then within the Suffolk brand I wear Stellars. Each shoe maker designs their shoes a little bit differently; for instance, if you have a really bendy foot you need a shoe with a harder shank.
The pointe shoes die pretty fast, but it kind of depends on your dancing intensity, how strong your feet are, and the shoe. One pair of pointe shoes lasts me about two weeks, although it depends on what I am doing. The company dancers get their pointe shoes for free, but mine are $80-$100 a pair.
The shoes are sold without ribbons and elastic, so you have to sew those into your own shoes. I also do something really weird: I cut the shank because I think it makes my foot look better, and it gives me more support. It makes my shoe last a bit longer than it used to.
4. Have you ever been in “Nutcracker” before, or other ballet performances?
Last year was my first year in “Nutcracker.” Before that I did a spoof of the Nutcracker called “Once Upon a Christmas” for many many years.
Last year in “Nutcracker” I was in the Party Scene at the start of the show. I was also a Mouse (that’s my favorite part because I just get to be crazy, so different from how I regularly am!), a Sugar Plum Fairy Attendant, and I was in the Chinese Scene.
This year I am a Mouse, a Sugar Plum Fairy Attendant, part of the Chinese Scene, and one of the Flowers. I don’t play all those roles in each show, though. There are four different cast arrangements (Cast A, B, C, and D), and in Cast A I am just a Sugar Plum Fairy Attendant. I am in every single “Nutcracker” show that City Ballet will be performing.
Sometimes I’m in the Flowers Scene which is so exciting. I have wanted to be in Flowers ever since I started because it is cool to be in the school but doing a corps role. That is a huge honor, and very exciting.
5. How do you balance being a 10th Grader and being a ballerina? Do you have other sports and hobbies, or is this it?
It’s very busy and a little bit stressful sometimes. I am pretty good at getting my work done because I have been doing it since I was really young. I come home from school, get my homework done, and then go to ballet.
Ballet takes up most of my time, but I try to do things with my friends. I love being a normal kid sometimes. I went ice skating on Saturday and said, “Oh I feel so normal, this is great!”
6. What do you want to be when you grow up? Would you like to be a professional ballerina?
At this point, I don’t really know. It’s definitely a hard career to pursue in the sense that it may not work out. It’s risky, and it’s good to have a back up plan. I am really interested in psychology, so I would like to be a psychologist.
I have done a lot of summer intensives because they help you to see, “This is what my life would like every day.” This past summer I went to Joffery in NYC, and I also did City Ballet’s summer intensive.
To become a professional ballerina, if they don’t automatically accept you into their company, you could audition for a traineeship or apprenticeship at a company. That is really risky too because then you could just end up moving around between companies.
7. What would be your advice to other young people who want to dance? Or their parents?
I think you should definitely put your kids in ballet. It’s such a great thing for their discipline, and to learn to use your body and how to move. It’s very good for your brain, too; it’s definitely helped me mature and do really well in school. It takes a lot of focus and dedication, which are are great qualities. The only thing is that you don’t want to be too caught up in it or else you are going to miss out on a lot of other things.
Thanks so much, Madison! Catch Coronado’s Madison Steel in City Ballet’s “Nutcracker” now until December 23rd with matinee and evening performances.
All images courtesy of Madison Steel.