Last year, Darren Aronofsky’s psychological thriller “Black Swan” thrust classical ballet onto the Hollywood stage – the beauty, the pain, the deadly need to be the very best, to be bone thin, and the subsequent descent into madness.
But according to Paloma Herrera, principal dancer with the New York-based American Ballet Theater (ABT) and one of the most esteemed working dancers in the world today, the real life of a professional dancer sans the Hollywood drama, is somewhat different.
“It’s not what I expected. I thought it was going to be more realistic, I don’t know. It was more a thriller, not what I was thinking it was going to be,” the South America native told FOX411’s Pop Tarts of the Natalie Portman-starring film.
But speaking of Hollywood, Herrera and her bevy of ballerina beauties will this week descend upon the nation’s film capital of Los Angeles for a string of live performances at the Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, bringing to life the new comic two-act ballet, “The Bright Stream.” And although the L.A crowd isn’t known for its wild support of arts and culture, Herrera has had nothing but positive experiences in her 20 years of touring with the company.
“Every time we go there, we go with a different repertory. I love going and it’s always been a wonderful experience all around,” she said.
And while the life of a dancer seems ethereal and glamorous to the outside eye – yes the touring, grooming, and sequined costumes – the likes of Herrera have been twirling and whirling through blood, sweat and tears since their toddler days.
“It’s not just a performance and that’s it, there’s a lot behind it, and you’ll see that if you come to rehearsal and see the dancers in performance clothes. Also, we are completely normal people – but there’s the combination of being completely normal people and all the dedication that goes into it, all of the effort, all of the hours, and all of the time – since we were very little,” she explained. “On a rehearsal day, you’ll probably go from the morning until 7. If it’s a new production, it will take many more hours, but because you’re learning a lot.”
And maintaining the required taut and tiny physique, as well as a healthy frame-of-mind, is top priority.
“I take very good care of myself,” Herrera said simply. “I love taking class, I love rehearsing. I also take yoga classes and I eat very, very healthy. I really put in a lot of time and I don’t see it as effort because I love it, I love eating healthy because it feels good. I love getting to the theatre really early before performances or class so that I have time to stretch. It’s never been, for me, an effort.”
But not all her leotard-loving counterparts have such a holistic and centered approach.
“I know a lot of dancers that smoke and drink and eat hamburgers. I can’t say that my way’s the only way to work, because it’s not true. I’m just telling you what I do,” Herrera continued. “Different people have different lives and it works for them.”
Moreover, it seems the long-running perception that dancing is a short-lived career is becoming more and more a myth. Dame Margo Fonteyn danced into her fifties, Martha Graham bowed of performing at 75, and Paloma certainly has no intention of hanging up her pointe shoes any time soon.
“I have no idea when I am going to stop dancing, or what I am going to do when I stop. I joined the company when I was 15 years old. I have been with the company for so many years because I love it,” Herrera, who is celebrating her 20 Year ABT anniversary this year, said. “I love the company. I love their work ethic. I love my coaches. I love the artistic director (Kevin McKenzie) who has given me so many opportunities. I’m just enjoying so much right now.”
But one thing Portman’s Oscar-winning character, troubled dancer Nina Sayers, did convey is that powerful sense of perfectionism – no matter how good you are, you can always be better.
“When we’re at rehearsal, we’re working on the same thing we’ve done thousands of times, doing it over and over again, focusing on the details,” Herrera added. “It’s a never-ending process, which is maybe why it’s so great. I love going back to rehearsals and trying to find something more. There are no limits. I think it would be shocking for people to learn that we work so much on something we have done so many times. It’s the details that always can be better.”