Welcome back to Pointe of View. For today’s episode/post, I am excited to sit down with one of our company dancers, David Odenwelder. This is David’s 10th season with the Alabama Ballet company. You have seen him on stage in roles such as Roper in Agnes De Mille’s Rodeo, Hilarion in Giselle, Gurn in La Sylphide: A Witch’s Revenge, Blue Bird in The Sleeping Beauty, Von Rothbart in Swan Lake, and the Soldier Doll in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®. He has also been seen in Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room, Jiří Kylián’s Sechs Tänze, Sir Fredrick Ashton’s Les Patineurs, Anthony Tudor’s Lilac Garden, George Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante and many more.
Join me as we chat with David and get to know him and his pointe of view.
AB: Let’s start by letting everyone get to know you a little bit more and tell me about your background and your history with dancing.
David: Awesome. Yeah, so I started dancing when I was three. My sister wanted to learn how to do a cartwheel and so she wanted to go to dance classes and she is older than I am. So my mom brought me there as well. And then they saw me moving around and being very crazy and they were like, you should put him in dance classes. So I started with gymnastics, then moved to an all boys class where we did ballet. No, we did tap and jazz. And then I was, I, they quickly saw the, the natural talent that I had and I, cause I was able to pick things up much faster than the other boys were. And then so they moved me to a competitive class where I danced, twice a week. And then, from there I then went to the university of Cincinnati where I graduated with a degree in ballet, and then got a job here, which is pretty exciting.
AB: And you’re originally from Massachusetts?
AB: So you moved to Cincinnati from there and then down to the South. So that was a little bit of an adjustment.
David: Yeah, it was really funny. The first experience I ever had down here was at a grocery store and someone asked me if I needed a buggy and I was like, no, I just need a shopping cart. And they were like, yeah.
AB: What is it like being a professional dancer? Like what does a typical day look like for you?
David: It’s, it’s very much the same all the time. It’s, one of those things where it’s, it’s very consistent. I wake up in the morning, like sometimes I, if it’s on a Monday or Wednesday I teach in the morning, so I teach before coming to the ballet. Then, every day we have a ballet class, which is like our 45 minutes to just get ready for the day. We have rehearsals util five and then I teach until either eight or six that evening or don’t teach. And then if I don’t teach, I then go to the gym and then have dinner and then go to bed.
AB: And then repeat.
David: And then repeat.
AB: That’s a busy day.
David: Yeah. But it’s a lot, it’s a lot of fun and it’s, it’s one of those things where like as athletes we have to be so focused on, on our art, on our profession that you kind of just, you have to streamline it as quick as possible. Like my breakfast is the same breakfast every day. My lunch is the same lunch every day, just to ignore the variable so that you can just streamline and be focused.
AB: So speaking of what you eat, do you have any favorite go-tos for breakfast, lunch or snacks that you have here on hand in the studio or anything?
David: Protein. Like I eat a tuna fish sandwich for lunch, cheese, a protein bar of some sorts. I think the one in my bag right now is chocolate mint. So it tastes like a thin mint, but it’s tons of protein. Lots of water. Breakfast, it’s an egg and toast. And then dinner is everything. Chocolate always chocolate. You have to have something sweet.
AB: Balance. It’s balance. So you’ve been here for 10 seasons now. And like I said in your introduction, there’s a lot of roles that you’ve had the opportunity to perform, not only here with the Alabama Ballet in those 10 seasons, but in your career before you came here and of those, do you have any favorites that you’ve gotten to perform so far?
David: Yeah, my favorite was, when we performed Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room, I was a ballet boy and it was one of those cool, full circle things because the first time I ever danced for a professional company was with Cincinnati Ballet. I was a trainee there and that year they did In the Upper Room. So I got to learn it and like, the music is so cool. And, dancing to exhaustion is something that I really enjoy. It’s one of those weird dance mentalities where I enjoy suffering with a group of people. It’s good suffering, it’s exhaustion, but you’re so happy and you’re just like, it just feels so good. I was so excited that I actually got to perform it here. Which was incredible.
AB: Are there any that you’d say were the most difficult role that you’ve ever performed?
David: I’d say that was also it, that was also one of the most difficult roles. The physical demands. It’s a 30 minute ballet where you don’t stop dancing from the beginning to the end. It’s nine segments, as a ballet boy, I did all the odds, plus at number nine, it’s everyone and we repeat the ballet double time. Yeah. And it’s constant. It showcases all types of movements. So it wasn’t a strict ballet vocabulary, which we’re used to. It was more of a, there’s some times I’m doing yoga poses. There’s like the Stompers are doing tap steps and they’re doing like martial art work. And so it was both a physical game and a mental game plus with the whole entire theatere smoked out. So it’s kind of foggy and then everything’s black. So you’re, you get confused where like, okay, where’s front now? So it’s, it was both mentally and physically challenging, which I think made it more so rewarding because it’s such a feat to accomplish. When you accomplish it, it’s like if someone that runs a marathon for the first time, it’s like once they passed that 26.2 miles and, and they’re done, you just like, it’s exhilarating. Like you’re exhausted by the same time, you’re just like, oh goodness, I could do that.
AB: So before a performance, I don’t know if you’re the type that gets nervous or not, but if you do, how do you channel those nerves?
David: There, there has been shows where I’ve been a nervous wreck and I like, and my partner is usually like “David, breathe, breathe.” Like dancing with Ari one time she used these percentages. She’s like, okay, just dance 75%, cause it’s one of those things that it’s like all this energy is bottled up and especially dancing 35 hours a week and then when a performance comes, we only get one weekend of shows. So it’s like all of that four weeks of 35 hours of rehearsing into four shows, as dancers, as semi perfectionist, we want that to be our best show. So there’s, there’s tons of nerves that inundate your body and you’re just like, okay, okay. Ah, okay, focus, let’s go over the choreography. Like last minute checks. Like, make sure you’re sewn into your costume, your shoes are tight, like they’re ready to go. And so it’s hard. But I also feel too, which is that weird moment as well as it’s like you’re so nervous up until that point and then when you have to go on stage, it’s gone. So it’s like all for nothing. Because then you become not necessarily robotic, but that like your whole mental game of oh no, what if this happens? What if this happens? Erases and you just do it. And that’s, and that’s why we repeat and, and have so much repetitions because Tracey and Roger one, our bodies suggest do it, not stress me like, oh, what if this happens or oh this is going to happen. Like just almost make it very like, not necessarily, I don’t want to say mechanical, but very like this is like your body just goes into automation.
Interviewer: Right. So as we’ve touched on, ballet requires so much of both mental and physical strength. So, I know you said you, you go to the gym almost every day, but how do you stay strong both in and out of the studio?
David: It’s a, it’s a very tough balance. Especially for the guys where we also have to do a lot of lifting, we also have to strengthen our upper body. So that’s, we’re doing a lot of outside, cross training to keep our upper bodies strong and also to, to either build on that strength, or just maintain it. And with having such demanding days at the ballet, it’s a weird balance to make sure that you can still push your upper body at the gym so that you can, so you can achieve your lifts that you want to, but at the same time not fatigue your upper body so much that when you come to come to rehearsals you’re unable to because your body is or cause you’re off your arms or your legs or your body is just too fatigued to do that. And then you kinda get in trouble. You don’t get in trouble, but it doesn’t look best on your part cause you can’t be like, sorry, I was having a really good workout at the gym and I just, yeah, sorry.
Interviewer: I don’t think your partner would appreciate that, you know?
David: No, they would not. So it’s a tough balance but like, for a lot of our stuff it’s like how I help that is I do more endurance lifting. So I’m doing lighter weights and higher reps, which, allows my body to slowly build the strength but also never necessarily fatigues my muscles so much that I can’t, that they’re shot for when I have to do a rehearsal. And also I tend to go to the gym in the evening. So that I have the whole day to tire out my body at the ballet and then I just try to push it harder at the gym.
Interviewer: So David, you’re also a heavily involved in our outreach programs and that includes our dance discovery program especially. But I wanted you to talk more about outreach and your involvement in those programs. And kind of how, how you’ve been able to get involved in the community and use your talents and your skills to translate to younger audiences as well?
David: Yes, definitely. It’s, it’s been a blast. I started with, city dance probably eight years ago. It’s funny to see, because I’ve done multiple schools within the Birmingham City and I’ve also gone to schools, gone to a different schools, then came back to the school and to see the kids. One time when I went back to Glen Iris, some of the kids that I saw when they were like kindergarten or first graders were fifth graders. And I was with my current first to third graders there and we were dancing in the hallway. We, have very unusual dancing regimen sometimes with the schools, but the kids are just happy to be moving. So it doesn’t matter. And I saw some of the kids from like two years ago and they were like, “oh, Mr. David!” Like they remembered me. It’s always a, it’s always fun and they, and they enjoy it so much, which is wonderful.
Interviewer: And for those that don’t know what dance discovery is and city dance and these programs, explain a little bit more about what those are.
David: Yeah. So, for our dance or city dance is a program where, dancers from the ballet, Alabama Ballet go to different schools in the Birmingham area. We do a two, eight week sessions, in their afterschool program where we teach them, either ballet or just dance in general. And then at the end of those two, eight weeks, we have a final performance here at the ballet studios where they get to perform what they learned to their parents.
Interviewer: And these are mostly inner city schools in the area that don’t otherwise have the opportunity to experience the arts and dance, which is great.
David: Yeah. And it’s during the afterschool program, which the kids love because they’re usually in the cafeteria, either doing homework or coloring. And this allows them to, to do something, like what you have said, not that they’re able to do, but also to just, that, that afterschool care can be a long time, that they’re not doing anything active. And I think doing something active is what they’re all very excited about doing. Yeah. And then, with Dance Discovery, it’s, this is when, where we, as of right now, we go to libraries during the summertime, and we teach, just about the daily life of a dancer. And last year we did 11 libraries within, Birmingham city and then also in some of the neighboring cities. And, it’s been very fun because a lot of these students, a lot of these, children have not seen a ballet before or they’ve not seen a toto or they’ve not seen, point shoes or like known that there’s male dancers in ballet. It’s always one of the funniest things that I get when I walk into these, either with dance discovery or, city dance and they go, “oh, I thought this was ballet. Why are you a boy?” And I go, “well, boys dance too. And also most of our, like most of our story ballets are, are similar to those Disney fairy tales. And you need a Prince like Cinderella can’t save herself Sleeping beauty like she’s asleep.” Yeah. And it’s, and so it’s one of those, those wonderful things where we’re constantly educating people and especially for both those programs, we bring it so close to, to these students and these young people that they’re able to grasp and actually touch it like, for we allow them to like hold the point shoes during the dance discovery and they can like feel the costumes and see them up close so they get a, a much better understanding for the art that we do. And it’s, especially wonderful too because a lot of stuff in dance, we almost kind of assume that people know it. And unfortunately we’re not that, we’re not that fortunate to know that these people don’t, don’t completely understand. So having like, one thing that I always do is we teach them miming in ballet we didn’t do, we do not speak. So you have to understand what our hand gestures mean. And if you don’t know it just looks like someone is flailing their arms. So that’s always good to understand. And then also too, which I think is very relatable in the South in Alabama and of a football state is to know the demands of it, as a, as an art form, we, we’re supposed to make it look easy and so when we show them how hard a pointe shoe is and how they are like banging it on the floor and trying to do these tricks that dancers do, like I always, if there are boys in the, in the a room, I try to, I ask them to do a tour and so they try to jump in the air and do one rotation. I go, okay, now here’s a challenge. Can you do it and go around twice? And they try. I’ve had one boy actually did really well for a double tour. It’s usually not the case.
Interviewer: He was the exception.
David: He was the exception. He was, he was taller, played basketball. So he has a good, good jump. And, and then I do it with ease and they go, oh.
Interviewer: That was a lot more difficult than I thought. Yeah.
David: And, and I think that’s one of the wonderful things about doing these outreaches is, is they then understand, Oh, this is actually something challenging that they are doing very well. When you make it look easy, it, for a lot of people in our day and age, it, it’s, they seem to get less interested. And so in having them see the actual demands and how we make it look easy, when it’s actually very hard, I think gives them more respect for it.
Interviewer: And as more of an appreciation.
David: Oh, most definitely. And then that then forms a person that is interested and that’s, that’s what we always strive for. To become a professional dancer is very challenging. So I think, most of our mission is to gain respect and to build people that appreciate it and not necessarily the next dancer. Like we, we still always look for that cause we’re looking for talent to continue the profession. But we also are just mainly looking for people that respect it and want to be a part of it as an audience member.
Interviewer: And sometimes it’s not even just the children, it’s the adults in the room and the parents that sit back and they’re like, and they kind of have that moment like, oh, like I didn’t realize. And then also we’re educating through these programs, all different ages and groups of people, which is amazing to see. And we’ve even had some of the, like city dance families come to our performances because of these programs and get to know you guys more. And they want to see you on stage and they want to see what it’s like to perform and do your job. And so they, they, I think gain that appreciation and that knowledge, which is so awesome. And not only with outreach, but you, you are a teacher at the Alabama Ballet School as well as in other outlets outside of the school. And you’re involved with Alabama Ballet Tappers, so you’re a very busy guy and, you’re very involved. So talk a little bit more too about what that’s like being a teacher and teaching dance to the younger generation.
David: Yes. So that’s, very fun and I’m, I’m very fortunate with the classes that I teach are the elective classes being a, an RAD syllabus school, their ballet classes are extremely regimented. I teach modern and jazz, and then I teach tap for the adult tappers. I’m fortunate to then take their knowledge, especially in ballet, to take their knowledge and then manipulate it to make them become creative movers, which is surprisingly difficult, in a great way. But when, when, when your training is so, so strict on this is classical ballet, which, which it has to be. That’s one of the beauties of the art form. These young dancers have, a vast vocabulary of dance movement in their body and they don’t know how to do it in a creative different way. So with my classes, I get to then make them take these basic ideas of vocabulary that they have of dance and then manipulate it to make them look goofy and weird, which is like, obviously they’re not, they don’t look goofy and weird,
Interviewer: But they feel that way.
David: They feel that way and especially when they start. But then as they, as they grow and, and that’s another one of the wonderful things about me teaching all the elective classes is I teach the students from grade four all the way to their, senior year of high school. So that’s at least six years, cause I think it’s, yeah. Or maybe 10 years actually. Wow. So it’s, it’s one of those incredible things where I get to see that. I get to see that progression because a lot of the teachers, they teach one or two levels, but they don’t have that person after that. I get to really see the, their progression as a, as a mover.
Interviewer: And their growth and their, they gain a lot of confidence I think as young dancers.
David: Yeah. And they enjoy those classes because like I get to like in jazz class we play more current music. So that’s one of the, those wonderful aspects about that and definitely seeing them blossom into these creative dancers. Because it’s not just about, it’s not just about the technique of their, of their movement, but also what comes from inside of how they, of how they want to project their movement, which is also always more important.
Interviewer: Well, David, thank you so much for joining me today and letting everyone learn more about you.
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