Grace Under Pressure

Paloma Herrera in Swan Lake. Photo: Gene Schiavone

Four Lessons We Learned From Principal Dancer Paloma Herrera

Herrera in Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Gene Schiavone

Is there anything that a businessman or woman can learn from an internationally recognized ballerina?

Surprisingly, the answer is Yes! There are valuable lessons to learn from great practitioners, no matter their field.

Here are four important lessons we learned from talking to Argentina’s Paloma Herrera, who has danced as a guest artist on major stages from Tokyo and Moscow to London and Milan. She now resides in New York City, where she is a principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre.

Lesson 1:  Learning never ends.

Paloma Herrera, at 43, wanted to dance from the time she was a small child. Fortunately, her mother’s careful inquiries led to Herrera’s enrollment at age 7 in classes supervised by Olga Ferri, a dancer with an international reputation. Ferri’s Giselle is considered to be one of the great interpretations of that role. Many of Ferri’s partners, such as the late Rudolf Nureyev, were the great dancers of their generations.

The ballerina’s respect for her first teacher, whom Herrera still describes almost three decades later as my teacher, is almost without bounds.

But for great practitioners, learning never ends.

When Latin Business Today caught up with Herrera in New York on a beautiful early morning, we didn’t want to take more time than she could allow. Asked what time she had to leave the interview, she said that she had to be in class by 9:00 o’clock.

 

 

It was natural to ask: What would she be teaching?

Oh, I’m not teaching a class, was the world-famous ballerina’s instant reply. I’m taking a class.

Lesson 2:  Process matters, not prizes.

Aware that Herrera’s dance repertoire includes title roles in Swan Lake, Giselle, Romeo and Juliet, and Coppélia among others, we asked what she considers to be two high points of her career.  Herrera didn’t even have to think to answer. Her eyes lit up. (There was only one other time in the interview when her eyes lit up, even glowed but we’ll get to that.)

 

The surprise?

Neither high point had anything to do with being selected for a leading role or winning a major competition. The high points were acceptances into renowned training programs. Both brought the promise of hard work under the tutelage of demanding, world-class teachers.

Specifically, Herrera recalls with undimmed relish her acceptance to Teatro Colón, Argentina’s famed dance school. There were some 500 applicants; only 15 were selected, including Herrera. She was 8 ½ years old.

Some seven years later, at age 15, Herrera got her second high point, her acceptance as a corps de ballet dancer in New York’s American Ballet Theater.  In 1995, she became the youngest dancer ever to become a principal ballerina there.

The right roles, the right partners, the right conductor are all important but only because they support something that’s transcendent and not readily describable. To dance is my life, she says.

Those five words are the only way Herrera can describe her transport to that special place where body, mind and soul unite. To learn and to work with the best in the world to reach that place is what matters most.

 

Paloma Herrera in Le Corsaire. Photo: Nancy Ellison

Lesson 3:  A comfort zone is important, and so is leaving it.

Take risks! Paloma Herrera’s renown is a passport to any ballet company on the planet. Yet for 20 years, she has remained with New York’s American Ballet Theatre (ABT).

Why?

The ballerina is mindful that the ABT is a place of continuous learning and instruction. Dancers the world over come to it. They bring nuances and ideas that enhance her own dancing.

At the same time, Herrera continuously works with the same ABT dancers, dance partners, conductors, choreographers and others. She knows them well, ensuring a level of comfort that makes for first-rate performances, night after night.

But she knows it’s wise to leave one’s comfort zone from time to time.

When her schedule permits, Herrera seizes the opportunity to be a guest artist on other world stages. The conductors will be different. So will her partners, the other dancers and all the support people. Often the language is different. Rehearsal time may be scant.

Herrera loves her ABT home. It’s her professional comfort zone. But she also knows that she learns new things every time she dances a world away. She embraces the frisson, even danger, that comes from moving toward the unknown.

Taking risks makes her a much better dancer.

Lesson 4.  Other things are more important.

Gratitude. Family. Friends.

A profound sense of gratitude permeates Herrera’s life and thought.

She is deeply grateful for the gift she was born with. She acknowledges it, including its rarity. Herrera is grateful to have grown up in the midst of a supportive family. As she began teaching other young dancers, she found that some had experienced such poor early training that it is unlikely they can ever overcome it.

This makes Herrera even more grateful to her mother for identifying classes that set her up for success.

Herrera has never felt adrift in New York. When her great opportunity to join the ABTs corps de ballet came when she was 15, friends of her family insisted that she live with them. They’re my other family, says Herrera with real feeling, grateful for the three years she spent under her other family’s aegis.

Herrera returns frequently to Buenos Aires. She loves being with her parents and visiting with her older lawyer sister and her two nephews.  She relishes visits with long-time friends, including Olga Ferri. She is grateful that she can surround herself with so much love as well as with great emotional and professional nourishment and support.

But even when she’s in New York, Herrera stays close to her flesh-and-blood family. Her lawyer father still reviews her contracts. She speaks to her parents several times a week, and they visit New York frequently.

Indeed, when she mentions her parents, Herrera’s eyes glow.

It is clear that of all her roles, daughter is her favorite.

One of Paloma Herrera’s favorite place to appear was the ABT next in Washington D.C.  see The American Ballet Theatre site.

 

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