Every dancer from professional to adult fitness to students at all stages in training will be able to quote at least one phrase from every teacher they have had. You know that one phrase the teacher says again and again and again. You might even be able to do a really good impersonation of that teacher saying that one phrase because you’ve heard it so many times!
I am awful at impersonations however the phrase that comes to mind when I get asked about that one phrase is “You make your own good luck” by the late Errol Pickford, my graduate teacher from Elmhurst ballet school. Errol was a fantastic teacher with a career equally as fantastic. Errol had a career that was filled with so many moments that everyone says “Errol was so lucky to have done …….”
Errol Pickford was so lucky to have done…
Errol Pickford was lucky enough to make ballet history by being the first western male dancer to perform the Don Quixote grand pas de deux with the Bolshoi’s Principal dancer Nina Ananiashvili on The Royal Opera House main stage for a live broadcasting of the Armenia Gala back in 1988. Errol was so lucky to make ballet history back in 1988. Errol was extremely lucky to start his career by graduating from The Royal Ballet School 2 years early and joined the Royal Ballet company. The luck he had that Frederick Ashton, Kenneth Macmillian and David Bintley created multiple new roles for Errol to dance. How lucky he was to be promoted to the rank of Principal dancer at the Royal Ballet as well as being principal dancer for West Australian Ballet before retiring from performing on stage and carried on being lucky by becoming one the UKs most renowned classical ballet teachers.
“How do I make my own good luck?”
I asked the same question to Errol after I got injured just before the Christmas holidays in 2015. This was after Errol gave me a prep talk which ended with his world-renowned phrase “you make your own good luck”. He answered in a typical Errol-fashion “start by resting your calf, eating good food and sleeping. After the Christmas holidays you don’t want to be walking like a lame duck still when you can be in the studio doing a lame duck. You’re in training to leave Elmhurst with a job, not an injury”
Making my own luck resting?!?
At the time I didn’t really understand how that was “making my own good luck” but I trusted him and I followed his advice. After the Christmas holidays I was no longer walking like a lame duck and I was able to dance again. I continued improving my technique, started attending auditions and no longer worrying about my calf being in so much pain that I couldn’t dance. Throughout the remaining months of my final year at school, I got really lucky and had 2 exciting opportunities come my way! I was invited to be a guest artist for Japan International Youth Ballet performing Kennith Macmillans ‘Elite Syncopations’ and extracts from Macmillans Swan Lake. I also got offered a full-time contract with Ballet Theatre UK where I debuted as a professional dancer performing the title role of Romeo in Romeo & Juliet.
It wasn’t lucky that I got injured, and being injured was not me making my own good luck. You can’t dance in an audition if you are injured. You can’t dance on stage if you are injured. You can’t work to the best of your abilities if you are in pain with an injury and can only move in a very limited way.
Errol Pickford with dancer Maria Almeida (Image: REX/Shutterstock)
I didn’t understand how Errol answered my question at the time but looking back I finally understand what he meant. Errol told me in his own way that I couldn’t make my own good luck if I was injured. If I had not spend my Christmas holidays resting and letting my body recover, I would not have been able to seize the opportunities that came my way afterwards. Also by undergoing proper rehabilitation for my calf, I learned more about injury prevention, changed a few things in my approach to training, technique, warms ups and cools downs. Which now means that people say to me “you’re lucky that you haven’t had a major injury”.
It is also safe to say my calf injury back in 2015 and the knowledge I gained about injury prevention was not the only way I made my own good luck to graduate from Elmhurst and starting my career as a professional dancer. After all, being told multiple times that I am “lucky to have a job after graduation” would lead many dancers to believe it is only luck that plays a key role in getting a contract.
Good luck starts with your attitude in the studio
It turns out that I’ve been making my own good luck from day one in my very first ballet class! I was making my own good luck by working on my technique and every single class after that I would always work to be better than I was the class before! I would do body conditioning and research on anatomy for movement. I would spend time after class working on what I found difficult to do during that class. I would watch other dancers and performers and try recreating the movement quality I wanted to have as a dancer. I would listen to all my teachers, try out the corrections and found out what works best for me and my body. So many times, I would wobble like jelly, fall over, stand back up and then try again.
Want to be a pro? Behave like a pro
Many years of working like this got my ability as a dancer to the standard needed to become a professional dancer. Errol helped me make the transition from a student to professional by also making sure I understood that my job as a performer, is to do my job: to dance and to perform to the best of my ability. My job is to keep working to make my best, better than what it was yesterday. To keep my personal disliking towards the people I work with outside the studio. Inside the studio I try my best to always be professional and do my work at the highest level, regardless if I personally like or dislike the people I work with.
It is also extremely important to me that I have open communication with my dance partners. If a lift didn’t go well I make sure to ask if we can practice that lift again. As well as making sure my partners feel comfortable to ask me to practice anything they want to practice. I will then make myself available to do what needs to be done. I can’t forget to mention that we are able to have a conversation about what we may think caused a issue during a lift and be clear on what changes we are making to improve ourself. This means that both myself and whoever I am dancing with feel comfortable with each other and we have a bond of trust created. After all we are working toward the same goal: performing a Pas de deux on stage.
When rehearsing and dancing with other dancers, from corps de ballet roles to Grand pas de deux. You are one person in team, with everyone you work with, and the importance of teamwork is more important than you being able to do four pirouettes or not – unless you’ve got time spare when you can work on your own technique or you’ve been asked to practice them by your ballet master/mistress for a certain production.
Which brings me to my last important part of being a professional dancer which Errol made sure I knew and understood with crystal clear clarity. Listen to the director, rehearsal director, ballet master/mistress when they give corrections during a rehearsal or about a performance. There is so much more to getting a promotion or being trusted with more reasonability within a company than relying on pure luck and what I’ve mentioned is only a brief outlining of the most obvious but easily forgot parts of working in a company.
Be the master of your own life and luck
Everything I’ve mentioned so far is how I’ve made my own good luck, how Errol created his own luck and how you can also make your own good luck. The success you have as a dancer often gets spoken about as if it was just good luck and I can take a lucky guess at a phrase you would have heard time and time again as a dancer is “you are so lucky ……..” followed by mentioning the success you are celebrating! From being offered a place at a Ballet school, contract offers, promotions, basically any form of success you can have. I would not say this is being lucky or these moments of success should be belittled by being called lucky moments. It is the result of your hard work and ability to seize the opportunities that come your way.
Being lucky is not making your own luck
Luck by Oxford dictionary definition is “Good or bad things that happen to you by chance, not because of your own efforts or abilities” and the definition of Lucky is ‘“Having good luck”. So being lucky means you have good luck and luck is when something happens to you by chance and it is not because of you it is happening. This by default means you can’t make your own good luck… or can you? Errol used the “luck” as replacement for the countless words you can use to describe every professional performer (basically anyone who is successful in their chosen career regardless if the are in the performing arts or not).
One of the very few times I can recall which I would say I got lucky was when I was making my way to Pineapple Dance Studios. When I got off my bus, I found a £10 note on the floor. This lucky £10 was then used to pay for my class at Pineapple where I was able to work hard, work smart and work on my abilities as a dancer. I turned a lucky moment in my life into making my own good luck for my career.
The biggest difference between finding money on the floor and my career is the overall context in which it all happened. Yes, being given a contract or promotion involves a decision that is out of your control. The same as finding money on the floor it is a situation out of your control, you can’t decide to suddenly find money on the floor. Yet, the fundamental difference is that nothing you can do would increase the chance of finding money on the floor, but you can do so much to increase your chances of getting the success you deserve.
Put on the work and effort and make it happen
From the hard work and effort you put into gaining the ability required to become professional dancer, actively attending as many auditions as you can, being respectful for the people you work with, being a respected and enjoyable colleague, everything I have already mentioned earlier on is how I have been able to make my own luck. All of this will increase your chances of gaining an offer to train at the ballet school of your choice or getting a contract or performing a solo or becoming a legend within the dance community.
Whatever you desire as a dancer, you cannot rely on being lucky, but you can make your own good luck.