"Bodies Don't Last Forever": A Ballerina Takes Her Last Bow

By Christopher Blank for WKNO News (listen to the interview here)

Some forms of art are more considerate of aging artists than others. Painters, composers, jazz musicians often hit their strides later in life.

Not so in the world of classical ballet. The average ballerina has about ten good years on the job.

Which is why Crystal Brothers is... unique.

"I have a vintage vehicle, honey," she says. "She's a classic."

Her vehicle -- her body -- is 43 years old. Over the course of 23 seasons with Ballet Memphis, she has outlasted all of her company peers, and is in a rare club nationally. Magazines have written about her survival tactics.

"We all know that bodies don't last forever," she says. "I sleep in boots. That's uncomfortable."

Therapy boots, she means. They keep her ankles locked in a 90-degree angle to reduce cramping in the legs.

"It's serious. I ice my feet, I take at least three baths a day, I have heating pads attached to my body with elastic bands and thera-bands, and I'm, you know, shoving a heating pad down my pants for my lower back," she says.

Ballet is where the world of the art meets the world of athletics. While age may be just a number, it also does a number on professional athletes. Baseball's "Iron Man," Cal Ripken, Jr. retired at 41. Basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar called it quits at 42. That Brothers is still performing leading roles at her age -- warming up for two hours a day, leaping on pointe, being thrown and caught by dance partners -- is a testament to her regimen of self-care.

The risk of a career-ending injury doesn't lessen with age, despite a dancer's experience.

Brothers knows that too well. Right out of high school she landed a dream job with Boston Ballet's second company. An injury sidelined her shortly after. She was out of work until Ballet Memphis found her at a cattle call audition in New York City.

The 5'-4," 19-year-old dancer with bright red hair would soon transform into a Memphis swan -- and any other role that came her way: Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Giselle (three times).

In Ballet, grace is an illusion borne of sore muscles and cracking joints. But some injuries are harder to hide than others.

The emotional ones, in particular.

A few years back, her husband of 18 years, Steve Reid, died of a sudden heart attack. There was no training, no warm-up exercise, for that kind of devastation. Dancing offered little comfort. Ballets like Romeo and Juliet may turn grief into beauty for an audience, but not necessarily for the ballerina dancing in it.

"The first time I did Juliet, my husband was with me and it was a super awesome experience," she said, "The second time he had passed already, just months before. So that was a huge hurdle. And milestone, if you will."

Brothers is learning to say goodbye once more. This weekend is her last performance under contract as a Ballet Memphis dancer. Retirement wasn't an easy decision, but like everything in dance, it was a matter of timing.

"I want this decision to be mine," she says. "I want to go out on top. I always have. Which means that there is still gas in the tank. I can still (keep going) and people don't understand that and neither does my soul. My soul wants to keep going. But I truly want the epitome of my dancing to be my last note, my last footfall on the stage."

In some ways, the next chapter of her career will be about healing, her body and others. She is studying to become a massage therapist. She also teaches pilates and sells essential oils. She has no regrets about the years she devoted to being a dancer.

"I mean, seriously, every color of the rainbow I feel like I've gotten to breathe in and drink," she says, "and I'm just incredibly grateful to be the one they turn to: 'Hey, C.B. can do this.'"

And if there's one thing that her dance career has born out in countless arabesques, grand jettes and pirouettes, it's that Crystal Brothers really can do just about anything.