Into their 40s, Joffrey Ballet’s Deborah Dawn and Willie Shives have
stayed in a business dominated by people half their age. What’s their
By David Murray
What was once a revelation has become a cliché: Ballet is as brutal backstage is it is beautiful onstage.
Books like Gelsey Kirkland’s memoir Dancing on My Grave and
countless articles, documentaries and movies have shown how
professional dancers are used, abused and then tossed to the side as
still-young men and women by heartless ballet masters and company
directors. The wings and rehearsal studios, we have learned, are filthy
nests of infighting, eating disorders and injuries.
The world of dance is indeed “very melancholy,” says Robert Altman, director of The Company,
the recent film portraying the life of dancers at the Joffrey Ballet of
Chicago. “The girls start at age six, and by the time they’re 18, they
walk like a duck. The regimen is so difficult, and then suddenly,
you’re 32, and lucky if you’re teaching other four- and five-year-old
But there are exceptions in the dance world—and at the Joffrey.
Their names are Deborah Dawn and Willie Shives.
At 45 and 42 respectively, these two principal dancers at the are both
happy and healthy. Neither expresses regrets about having devoted their
lives to dance. And though both acknowledge the rarity of their long,
injury-free careers—they’re twice the age of many of those they dance
with—they don’t discourage children from getting into dance, or parents
from helping them do it.
Although dancers as old as Dawn and Shives are seen in the ballet world
as freaks of nature, they’re more inclined to see how they’ve helped
themselves over the years.
First, of course, by avoiding catastrophic injuries.
Aches and pains are a daily reality for dancers—and the older the dancer, the more chronic the soreness.
You can tell Dawn is older than the rest of the dancers when everyone
is on the floor and they’re directed to stand. Most of the dancers pop
to their feet as if launched by invisible springs. Dawn staggers to her
feet, occasionally using the barre to hoist herself up. Once a dancer
reaches his or her 30s, stiffness and soreness is unavoidable; aspirin
and ice are constant companions. During breaks in a recent rehearsal
(for the Ashton Anniversary performance in February), Dawn shifted on a
heating pad, warming her hamstrings, loosening up her back.
When, in the very same rehearsal, a much younger dancer fell heavily
and dragged herself off the floor holding her knee and crying and
moaning pitifully, “something’s wrong,” Dawn explained that her injury
was probably the result of overcompensating for another injury the
woman had suffered before. “She probably shouldn’t have been dancing at
all,” Dawn said.
While both Dawn and Shives acknowledge luck as a factor in avoiding
injuries, they also feel they’ve been justly rewarded for all the
careful icing and heating and stretching they’ve done over the years.
“I’m proud of being 42 years old and keeping up with 19- and 20-year-olds,” Shives says.
One reason he’s able to keep up with the kids is that he has always
better care of himself than most of them, he says. Shives estimates
that more than half of dancers suffer from anorexia or bulimia, adding
that the problem is most prevalent in dancers “who are insecure.”
That’s not Shives. He credits his difficult childhood in Texas with
forging a strong personality that made him immune to some of the
insecurities other dancers suffer. “Being a male dancer, swimmer and
cheerleader,” he recalls, he was teased mercilessly. “Getting through
that gave me the confidence to handle myself.”
Not that food and eating isn’t an issue for every dancer. No dancer can
afford to eat a morsel more than his or her body absolutely needs.
Dawn, for instance, ate only a tangerine before a recent eight-hour day
spent taking class, dancing in two rehearsals and teaching a class. In
fact, she only ate the tangerine, she says, “so the body will burn
calories. If you don’t eat anything, the body goes into hibernation
mode.” She didn’t eat the banana she brought for lunch.
Shives has to be careful, too, partly because he’s only five-feet-eight
and has a naturally muscular body; he says he eats plenty of protein
and “no breads.”
Dawn and Shives are careful in many ways. A ballet company is as
political as any other organization, and in order to last, you have to
know how to get along with the bosses. “I’ve been a good girl as
opposed to a bad girl,” Dawn says.
Shives has been a good boy, too. “I’ve always had a good rapport with
my ballet master,” he says, referring to the instructors who direct
dancers in class and in rehearsal. He’s been rewarded for his
cooperation with a degree of respect the other dancers don’t get, he
says. While Joffrey ballet masters routinely shout corrections to
dancers in front of all, they’re more likely to correct Shives in
private, “under their breath,” he says.
Still, Dawn wonders if she could have had more and better parts had she
been more assertive. “But maybe my career would not have lasted this
long,” she says.
Dawn’s agreeable attitude is no doubt one reason she has been thrust
out front by the Joffrey as a public relations emissary. Since she
played an aging dancer in The Company,
she has accompanied Altman and Joffrey artistic director Gerald Arpino
to several premiers. “She’s a good representative,” Altman says. “She
speaks well. She’s gutsy, and not shy. And she’s truthful.” But try to
get her to utter a truth that includes a negative aspect of the
Joffrey. It won’t happen.
Part of the reason Dawn is so circumspect may be that she shares the
feeling most dancers have: They need the company more than the company
needs them. Though Arpino gives Shives and Dawn their due—“they’re
truly magnificent examples of American artists,” he says—he partially
credits his company with their longevity.
Shives was ready to retire five years ago from the Milwaukee Ballet; he
was sore, he was tired, and he was ready to quit, he says. Arpino
attended what was to be his last performance and approached him
afterwards and said, according to Arpino, “No you’re not!” He recruited
Shives to the Joffrey, where, Arpino, Dawn and Shives all boast, the
culture is generally more loving, less cutthroat than other top
American ballet companies.
However loving the Joffrey is, one thing the company can’t offer its dancers is security.
Unlike professional sports stars, dancers don’t retire with millions.
Most of them don’t even retire with mortgages. Shives’ future is more
secure than most; his wife works, and he says he’s already been told
that when he retires, he’ll be hired as a ballet master.
But although Dawn has been a principal dancer at the Joffrey most of
her long career, her future is uncertain. As she eases out of dancing
over the next year or two, she hopes to become a ballet mistress at the
Joffrey; she has already begun teaching apprentice dancers there. “They
know I want to be a ballet mistress,” she says of Arpino and his
management team. But, she says, she’s waiting to learn “what the
company has in store for me, as they reveal it, inch by inch.”
Meanwhile, Dawn is giving private lessons to one teenage dancer, which
she describes with glassy eyes as “one of the greatest experiences of
“There are days when I cry,” she says. “I can see that what I have to say to somebody can really work.”
Dawn, who also teaches during summer layoffs at the Joffrey school in
New York, often has occasion to advise young dance pupils on how they
should approach a career in dance. In a word, carefully. “It’s a
difficult world,” she tells them. “You’re vulnerable to elements of
judgment from inside you and outside you.”
What she does not tell them is more revealing: “I don’t tell them that
every one of their hearts is going to be broken. I don’t say only one
of you will make it. I say, ‘I want to feel you.’”
What Dawn also does not tell her students: A career in dance precludes
many other options in life. The low wages, the layoffs, the rigorous
rehearsal schedules and the intense competition makes life difficult
for dancers who want to have families.
Shives, who has been married for two decades and has two kids, describes himself as “the lucky one.”
Dawn’s dance life has been more typical. She was married once, to
another dancer. When he quit dancing and went to law school, he wanted
kids and she wanted to dance—a disagreement that split their marriage,
she says. Though she says she’s looking for a relationship, she says
she doesn’t regret not having had children. Indeed, she expresses no
regrets at all about her life in dance.
Asked about other possibilities in life she might have missed because
of her devotion to dance, Dawn replies, “What other possibilities?”