In this Together: Amanda Assucena

I'd like to introduce a new series inspired by the incredible people I find myself surrounded by. The more I talk closely with my friends and colleges, the more I notice the similarities in our journeys. We all have hopes, we all have fears and setbacks, we all are slowly trying to be better and do the right thing. We're all in this together, in life as artists and life in general. Its extremely comforting for me to remember this and interesting to find out how others cope and learn and rest and soar. 

One of the things I love most about Amanda is the pure delight that she takes in being a ballerina. I've known her since she was fourteen and seen her grow tremendously since then. And while one could become jaded and overwhelmed by the difficulty of professional dancing, Amanda stays starry-eyed. The magic of ballet is never lost on her, even up close. She generously shared a few secrets with me for On Ballence. Enjoy!

 Amanda as the Sugar Plumb Fairy in Joffrey's production of  The Nutcracker.  Photo by Cheryl Mann. 

Amanda as the Sugar Plumb Fairy in Joffrey's production of The Nutcracker. Photo by Cheryl Mann. 

Mahallia: You were born in Brazil and moved to the U.S. to attend boarding school at age 14. In what ways did this early independence and exposure to a new culture shape you as a dancer and as a person?

Amanda: I think moving to a new country so young helped me mature faster than other people my age. I had to learn how to go through hard moments of life on my own, like first heartbreak, dealing with injury, and of course homesickness. I actually loved having that independence so early, but I also needed to constantly remind myself of what was right and what was wrong. I had to learn to trust the right people. It helped me become a better dancer not only because Harid is a great school, but also because being on my own that early made me get into every step and detail of training to the deepest level. I still love the task of getting to the bottom of why a certain step isn't working. 

M: How do you prepare yourself for a show? Any special rituals that make you feel calm and ready? Any superstitions? 

A: I have quite a few weird quirks when it comes to show day, especially if I'm dancing a big role. In the morning I make sure that I put my rings on in the same order that I do every day. I told you, it's weird! I'm usually not the most punctual person, but on a performance day I get to the theater at least 40 minutes before class, to make sure that my spot is organized and things such as my costume and hair pieces are in order. I don't want to rush for anything when it's time for a big performance. One of my superstitions is my "theater warm-ups". It's a onesie I have been wearing since I was 14 and I don't wear any other warm-ups in the theater. I do everything in the same order, from the way I put my costume on to the steps I take when applying stage makeup. I don't ever go on stage without praying, jumping three times, and doing two grand battements to the back on each leg. 

M: Favorite food?

A: Pizza and ice cream. Forever. 

M: Favorite fuel? 

A: A good nap, or a shower. If the day is too hard, both.

M: Unfortunately, self criticism seems to be ingrained in most dancers. How do you address feelings of doubt or negativity when they come creeping in?

A: I had to learn how to manage negative thoughts while in ballet school, and it is still a constant challenge. I think I'm still learning and teaching myself to be nicer to my own image. I try to remember that everybody feels down about themselves sometimes, and that it's ok for a little bit, it means you are trying to be better. I try to remember that if I am working my hardest, there is no reason to think that I am not good enough. If I feel these thoughts starting to creep in, I try to ignore them away by hanging out with good friends who remind me how lucky I am. I remind myself of all the POSITIVE things in my life. When I think of all the friends, opportunities, and luxury I have, I can't help but smile and be grateful. Negativity and doubt are a part of life, and they are here to help you learn about yourself. If anything, that is already something to be grateful for. Try this: Every time you think something negative, just say to yourself, "POSITIVITY". It's a new exercise I've been trying, and it helps me remind myself that positive energy gives me the courage to push for bigger, better goals. 

M: Do you have a role model that you look up to? How have they influenced you on and off stage?

A: I think my role model in ballet will always be English National Ballet's Alina Cojocaru. I don't know her as a person, but when she is on stage, she completely gives in to whatever role she is dancing. She doesn't only embody the character, but transforms into it. She doesn't play Giselle, she IS Giselle. In addition to her amazing acting, she manages to do everything effortlessly, with perfect technique. Every time I have a problem with a certain part I am dancing, I try to think of how she would do it and inspire myself this way. Of course there are many other gods of ballet that inspire me, but Alina is one I always go back to. I want to achieve that effortless energy she has. 

M: Favorite ballet blooper: 

A: I have three. The first one is when I was dancing the female variation from Coppélia. I was in the middle of it, doing a renversé, right on center stage, when my bottom foot slipped out from under me, and I fell face first. I was only eleven, and it was my first time falling on stage. It was humiliating at the time, but it's really funny to watch the video now. The second one happened when I was watching two of my colleagues dance "One for my Baby" in Twyla Tharp's Nine Sinatra Songs. They're supposed to play a drunk couple, and there's one part when the man walks backwards pulling the woman with him, but this time, they tripped and fell over each other. The best part about it is that they just played it off like it was part of the choreography, they were supposed to be drunk anyway! The third one is of this guy who know he is going to be fired, so he gives the performance of a lifetime in the back during the Arabian dance in The Nutcracker. You should definitely watch it. Here's the link

M: What part of day to day ballerina life do you most enjoy?

A: I like the concentration that goes into doing our job. From the moment we start class, my body and brain automatically work together to make something truly remarkable. I like that nothing else goes through my head while I am dancing, it's one of the few things that captures my complete attention. I like the attention to detail, and the problem solving part of it. There's nothing more interesting and rewarding than to see a pirouette finally work because you only needed to move your knee a little further back. 

 Photo by Gina Uhlmann   

Photo by Gina Uhlmann


M: Do you have a go-to remedy for aches and pains? 

A: When I am tired and feel my muscles are heavy, I am a sucker for pamper nights. I love to draw myself a bath, pop a great muscle soak in, and add lots of bubbles. I do a face mask and, most importantly, disconnect from my phone. Then I put on some Friends, slip into comfy pajamas, and fall asleep like a baby. I actually do this about once a week, because I feel like it's a great way to reward my body and mind for the hard work they do every day.

M: What aspect of your own personal talent are you most grateful for? What parts of ballet do you most enjoy exploring?

A: I am grateful that even though I am a dancer with a lot of flexibility, I am lucky enough to be strong and not too prone to injuries. I love exploring the hidden parts of ballet, like the artistry in a piece where there is no specific story. I love to make it my mission every day to put the person on the other side of the studio or the theater on the edge of their seat. If I don't accomplish that, I have not done my job right. In my opinion, it order to make the audience go home remembering your performance, you have to make it a unique experience for yourself. It can't be forced. It has to be real and sincere. That is what art is all about after all.

M: Have you had a pivotal moment in your career? A moment when you gained fresh understanding or something just clicked? 

A: About two months after moving to America, I was in the middle of class at Harid, when I realized that I could work way harder than I thought I could. Before coming to America, I was used to putting in some effort, and I would still have amazing opportunities. When I arrived at Harid, I realized that if I wanted to get to be the ballerina I aways dreamed of being, I would have to try much harder than my usual. I learned that reward feels so much better when it's not just handed to you. It feels amazing when you know you fight for what you want with all of your effort. It helped me see myself as a person that is way more powerful and awesome than I ever thought I could be! I still have to remind myself to keep pushing harder every now and then, but I'll never forget the huge difference in my work I felt on that day.

M: Any advice you wish you'd been given before joining a professional company? Any advice you still whisper to yourself on a daily basis?

A: I would say to work your ass off every single day, especially in your fist year. Don't let other peoples' opinions affect your work. Listen to the people who want good things for you. Your heart and intuition know who those people are. Be nice to everyone, even if it's just by smiling at others. Bring a positive attitude with you every day into the studio. And as for things I whisper to myself, "Keep pushing, you know you can!" "Be nice to people." And of course, "POSITIVITY!"