Dancing & Surviving in New York City: One Dancer's Journey

27-year-old dancer, Laura De Rubeis was born in Philadelphia, PA. She grew up dancing in Narberth, PA at Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet, headed by John White & Margarita de Saa. After years of hard work, she found herself studying Russia. Eventually, Laura felt the pull to New York City, where dance was calling her name.

Today we discuss with Laura the question a lot of dancers wonder about: What is it like dancing and surviving in The Big (expensive) Apple?

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Photo: lauraderubeis.com

What made you want to move to NYC?

I first came to NYC for Joffrey Ballet's Summer Program between my Sophomore & Junior Year as a Dance Major at Cincinnati Conservatory of Music at University of Cincinnati. They offered me an apprenticeship. Simultaneously I decided to audition for New York Theatre Ballet on a whim, because a fellow dancer was auditioning. They also offered me an apprenticeship. I asked my dance professor Qi Jiang what he would do if he were me, and he told me to take the opportunity and move to NYC, instead of completing my four year program.

What steps did you take to make that happen?

I did not register for my junior year classes at college, and I looked for a 1-year lease apartment as fast as I could. I remember getting advice from my parents, and boyfriend at the time. I remember having less than a handful of days to pick my apartment, and because I had no experience, I picked the tiniest one room studio possible. I also slept on an air mattress my first year in NYC.

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Photo: lauraderubeis.com

What were you most nervous about?

First, I was nervous about finding an apartment before I moved to NYC for good. Second, I was nervous about making friends, which I first made through dancers at New York Theatre Ballet.

Do you remember the first moment you realized you were by yourself in the Big Apple?

Honestly, I do not remember what I did my first night alone. I do remember the first thing I did when I moved was move all my things into my apt. with the help of my parents & my then boyfriend.

What feelings did you have about moving to NYC?

I was more excited than anything, and just a little nervous. When I was barely 18 I moved to dance at the Mariinsky Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg, RU. The Mariinsky Ballet Theatre's Ballet Academy. (Note: The same school that Baryshnikov & Balanchine graduated from.) I stayed for 1 year to finish my dance training before moving to Cincinnati, OH to dance at CCM. For me, NYC was the ultimate place to continue my dream. This way I wouldn't have to fly out to make auditions like I had before. All the dance auditions come to NYC for the most part.

What was it like dancing at the Mariinsky Ballet Theatre's Ballet Academy?

It was very challenging, one of the most difficult periods in my life. I learned a lot, and my technique improved tenfold, but it was not easy, by any means. They had dorm mothers, or "Babushkas" that sat at the front desk, and demanded we have a curfew every night. I would dance for 10 hours each day Monday through Saturday, and only had Sunday off each week. I would wake-up around 6 AM every morning to call my boyfriend back in Philadelphia. We only had a few minutes on the phone each morning, and I did not have a computer with me. I remember having to wait, sometimes weeks at a time, on my Sunday off to go to Internet Cafes.

What were classes like?

Zabalkanskaya was my variations teacher. She was incredibly hands-on, and was extremely detail-oriented, down to the minute detail. I will always remember her unique style of teaching/coaching. The only downside to Zabalkanskaya's teaching was that she would always tell me to "eat half." Living in the dorm setting was embarrassing. I was the only "normal-sized" American coming to live with other girls, many of whom had eating disorders.

Many dancers struggle with eating disorders. Is competition the problem?

We were all competing with one another, and we would all eat in the same kitchen. I remember one day I ended up eating a cracker with a slice of cheese and putting it in the microwave for dinner as my "grilled cheese." It sounds crazy as I am writing this, but this was the norm for many of the other foreign dance students. I have never had an eating disorder, but that was the closest I have ever come to having one. I was the skinniest I have ever been, and have never eaten as little as that ever since. I gained some weight back, and when I moved back to the U.S. I started eating more normal, but I never gained all of my weight back. Now I make it my mission to encourage and enforce healthy eating and lifestyle habits in young dancers.

We need to be role models. One of my most important missions is to help combat eating disorders in the dance world. I am grateful that the dance company I am with supports healthy dancers and healthy bodies.

How did your parents feel about you studying in Russia, so far from home?

At first they were scared, and were reluctant to have me live so far away at such a young age. I did not know anyone there. But after my dance coach, Tatiana Kudrjavcev, came to our house on a number of occasions to explain to them how important it was for me as a dancer to go, and that it was a chance of a lifetime for me, they finally agreed. The fact that I was staying in a safe dorm setting, and was looked after every single day helped. I did not get to enjoy "typical" festivities much, because my schedule was so regimented. I only got to enjoy tourist attractions the first week of my stay when my parents stayed to help me move-in, and at the very end of the year when my father came to visit.

Tell us about your dance life.

My first full company dancer position was in New Generation Dance Company, which I auditioned for within my first year living in NYC, while I was still an apprentice. It was there I met my two best friends: we all auditioned together and became company members. NGDC combined neoclassical dance with Argentine Tango. I danced with NGDC for 2 years, dancing alongside Luciana Paris and Elizabeth Mertz, both dancers with ABT, and alongside the "Tango King," Carlos Copello. Then I danced with Neville Dance Theatre for almost 2 years. In between I freelanced, did guest dance gigs, Nutcrackers, a Segway commercial & several music videos.

A close friend took fitness classes from Ranardo-Domeico Grays (now my director), and raved to him on her own without telling me of my dancing ability. She set it up so I came with her to watch a show of his. Afterwards, she brought Ranardo with us to eat dinner after the show, where she introduced me, and the rest is history. He in invited me to a company rehearsal, and I have been with VISIONS Contemporary Ballet for four years now performing all over NYC.

What is it like living and dancing in NYC?

Dancing in NYC is no joke. It is hard. It tests your patience & how much you want it. You must have a thick skin to survive. Dancing in Russia prepared me for it. The audition process is brutal if you are not ready to fail often. You are lucky if after 10-15 auditions you may walk out getting called back once or twice. I am lucky that I didn't have to audition for VCB and anything I have gotten since. I am also lucky to have gotten an extra dance role in a IFC Network Documentary: Long Island Serial Killer from a stranded producer at the bar where I tend bar in Midtown.

How do dancers continue to dance while also paying bills?

They dance mostly in Non-Profit Dance Companies, getting mostly no pay, or little pay for rehearsals, usually only getting paid for performances, which with the recession can be few and far between. We take on outside work. You can spot us working as servers, hostesses & bartenders. I have been bartending between dance gigs since before I moved to NYC, when I was 19.

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Photo: lauraderubeis.com

How expensive it is to live in NYC? Vaguely, what a monthly bill expectation would be?

An average studio runs for $900 to $1,200 a month. Add another $100 for cable/Internet. Classes are anywhere from $16-$20/class. A gym membership costs between $50-100/month. An unlimited monthly Metrocard: $114. And this doesn't include food!

What would you have done differently or the same?

I am so grateful to have been given the opportunity to train in Russia, but I might have auditioned for SAB, ABTII, or San Francisco Ballet School if I had to do it over. This could have gotten me into premiere ballet companies in the US earlier. But then again, I would not have had the life experience. I also wish I would have found yoga earlier as it helps keep me balanced and centered.

What advice do you have for someone looking to move to NYC for dance?

Go for it. If you really want it you should not stop until you try, but make sure you really want it. It will not be easy, many people will inquire while you serve them food or cocktails: "Why do you do what you do," or "What is the name of the company you are with again?" But you should live for yourself. You only get to live once, so you might as well live to the fullest and search for what fulfills you and what makes you happy, with no regrets. Life is too short. Even though I told you what I would have done differently, honestly, I would have it no other way. I just try to live in the moment, and to express myself and work on my art and my craft.

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Photo: lauraderubeis.com

What is your favorite part of NYC?

I love that all kinds of people from all over the world come to one city. You hear all sorts of languages all the time on a regular basis. There are foods from all over the world, some of the best businesses, restaurants, stores, and merchandise are found here. I love that people are by and large more open here than most any other city in the U.S. I also like how unique the city is to the rest of the U.S. You will never cease to be amazed at what you will see in the subway, and on the streets of NYC, and you can get away with wearing almost anything at any time here. I like that you can make of NYC what you want. It is one of the few cities where you do not need to have a car to get around, and many do not. I love that there are so many shows, dance companies, artistic outlets to be found here, and so many creative people come to live here. I like that even in a big city like NYC, that I can randomly bump into a long lost friend, or close friend on the street. It has a small town warmth to it as well.

Is there anything advice you have to dancers about living and dancing in NYC?

The longer you live in NYC the smaller the dance world gets. On a side note, if I were never an apprentice, I would have never realized how I excel at teaching. We had to put time in doing work to benefit the company. Other dancers had to file papers, but they saw I had a knack for teaching. I started assistant teaching, and then I got my first job teaching adult ballet classes at Bridge for Dance when David Fernandez left. Ever since then almost every single teacher, ballet mistress or substitute teaching job I owe to David Fernandez. If you dance long enough, you may have to start thinking of what you can do when you can no longer dance, or to supplement dance. Teaching is one way to go. Not everyone is cut-out to be a good teacher. It takes lots and lots of patience and persistence.

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