The ugly side of ballet doesn't make it on stage.

The audience isn't privy to the turned ankles, torn muscles, calloused toes and the constant push to be perfect.

For Emily Kate Long, pain and perfection have been a lifestyle for seven years as a professional dancer with Ballet Quad-Cities.

“You’re pushing your body to the limit every single day; you’re baring your entire body, mind and soul,” she said. “It’s not exactly like Black Swan, but sometimes it feels like it.”

It's the pull that keeps her going: It's that thing that, years before she heard of the Quad-Cities, compelled Long to ask her parents to see “The Nutcracker” every weekend.

There was something about the stage — the steps, the lights, the music — that made sense to her. And something about the process, pain and all, made sense, too.

“Once I figured out that ballet was a thing you could do as a job and that not a lot of people made it … that was it,” she said. “I decided I was going to be the one that makes it.”

Now that she's made it, Long understands why other aspiring dancers do not. 

"You have to really want it," she said. "And you have to believe in the beauty of it. When you do, there's no limits to what you can do with dance." 

And it turns out the wanting and believing have been keeping Ballet Quad-Cities going, too — for 20 unlikely years. 

The beginning

Joedy Cook was a 40-something stay-at-home mother in 1996 when she decided the Quad-Cities needed a professional ballet company.

She went to the board of directors of the Cassandra Manning Ballet Theatre, where she volunteered at the time, and got the go-ahead.

Ballet Quad-Cities kicked off with one paid dancer and a $25,000 budget.

“We had no idea how we would do it,” Cook said. “It’s like, how do you create something out of nothing?”

One of her daughters was training to be a professional dancer, so Cook was immersed in the ballet world, although she never performed herself.

“It took a lot to get this ballet company off the ground with little money,” she said. “I had a lot of doors shut in my face. I was never afraid of failing or hearing ‘no.’ If something didn’t work, I just wouldn’t do it again.”

During the early years, Cook couldn’t afford employees, so she enlisted her family and friends to produce the music, make costumes, sets and props and clean up before and after performances at the Capitol Theatre in downtown Davenport.

“We did everything ourselves,” she said. “We did everything we could just to perform on stage in front of people.”

By 2000, the company had grown to eight paid dancers. One of those was a recent University of Iowa graduate, Courtney Lyon. A long-time dancer, she has served as the artistic director since 2009.

“At first, no one had heard of us,” said Lyon, 39, a St. Louis native. “There was a lot of explaining ourselves and how significant it was to have a ballet company. For an area this size, we’re really unique.”

Today, Ballet Quad-Cities is the longest-running resident professional ballet company in Iowa and western Illinois. It’s the only professional company between Chicago and Kansas City, Missouri, and the Rock Island studio now employs 11 dancers.

“There are things that are trendy for a second and blow over, and then there are things that quietly stick to their vision and grow little by little,” Lyon said. “I think that's what we've done ... we've grown quietly. And now we're not going anywhere." 

‘Our bodies really shouldn’t be doing that’

A key to the company’s survival has been attracting — and keeping — professional dancers from across the country.

Dancers spend 40 hours per week during their 28-week contracts in the studio, which has been renovated “countless times,” as Cook says, and still doesn’t have air conditioning.

“It’s a hard life and a hard career,” Cook said. “They’re so hard on themselves. They spend eight or nine hours a day looking at themselves in the mirror and trying to be pleasing to the eye. They’re trying to be perfect.”

Even after spending the whole day in the studio, many of the male dancers go to the gym to work out more. Many of the women run or do yoga or pilates. Even when watching TV in the evening, the dancers are working on their bodies, using a foam roller on their leg muscles and icing their feet.

Dancers are paid $175 to $500 per week, which amounts to $4,900 to $14,000 for their 28-week commitments. They are supplied with dance shoes, workers' compensation coverage and pick-up work, doing side performances. Many also wait tables, tend bar and/or teach dance classes at the ballet school part time and find full-time work during the four-month layoff.

When people ask about their daily lives, dancers such as Alexander Kingma frequently are met with confusion. 

“A lot of people are surprised that this is how I make my living and that this company isn’t just a hobby or that it's made of grown-ups,” Kingma, 21, said. “That’s why I wish everybody could go through a week in our lifestyle. I’d be surprised if they made it.”

Take it from Branson Bice, a 24-year-old Kansas City native currently in his second season with the company, who traded in his passion for baseball and football to pursue dance at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He said football is easier on the body than dance.

“It’s not a career for people who want to be healthy," he said. "It’s not yoga or going to the gym. You’re doing things your body is not designed to do. Sports don’t care about aesthetics, and we’re all about aesthetics, so we’ll crank or maneuver our bodies into a certain way that looks good even though our bodies probably shouldn’t be doing that.”

Margaret King, who danced with Ballet Quad-Cities for several years and now works as the company’s ballet mistress (teacher/choreographer), said there’s not much room for sick days or feeling physically off.

“Your physique has to be in top-notch form every day, but your body is not going to feel the same every single day,” she said. “Like any athlete, there are pains and moments where you question if you should keep going. I ask that question all of the time: Why do we keep doing this to ourselves?”

But there is an answer, at least for King.

“It’s our form of expression,” she said. “If we could express ourselves in words, we would.”

Uphill climb

At a time when fewer than 100 ballet companies remain in the U.S., Ballet Quad-Cities has survived. Many attribute its longevity to Cook, its founder.

“She’s a force of nature,” said Carmen Darland, CEO of Quad-City Arts. “It’s a challenge for everyone in the arts to get funding, and Joedy has managed to keep this thing going. It’s incredible.”

“Joedy is the one of the most determined people I know,” Lyon said. “She’s made it unlike any company in the country. We’re not in debt, and we’re established.”

Ballet Quad-Cities’ annual budget sits at $510,000. About 15 percent of that comes from ticket sales. The rest comes from grants, foundations and sponsorship.

“We simply don’t spend money we don’t have. That’s how other companies go bankrupt,” Cook said. “We’ve always been in the black, and we’ve found creative ways to do that.”

Marty Kurtz, founder and CEO of a Moline-based financial planning firm, signed on as president of Ballet Quad-Cities' board of directors last year. 

“For any nonprofit today, it’s a precarious situation,” Kurtz said. “There’s lots of uncertainty and trials and tribulations out there that we need to walk through. There’s always work to do. There’s always a need for new costumes and new music and new shoes.”

Ultimately, Ballet Quad-Cities relies on the kindness of others in the community. But first, it has to reach the community. 

Cook has launched outreach and educational programs, exposing the community — whether in elementary schools or nursing homes — to a form of art some find boring or old-fashioned, she said. She has partnered with other organizations, such as Quad-City Arts, Figge Art Museum and the German American Heritage Center, to do special events.

"We're not just tutus and fairy tales. We're about the movement, the music and the lights," she said. "We'll do just about everything to get the word out about us." 

About five years ago, Ballet Quad-Cities partnered with Orchestra Iowa, which is based in Cedar Rapids. This way, audiences in both communities can see a professional ballet perform with the accompaniment of a live orchestra.

“Sadly, almost weekly you hear about the collapse of an orchestra or opera or ballet company,” said Tim Hankewich, musical director at Orchestra Iowa. “I think there’s some industry envy when other organizations look at Ballet Quad-Cities. I think there’s a lot of people wondering how they have managed to do this.”

Still, not every performance at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids or the Adler Theatre in Davenport is sold out. Sometimes, there are hundreds of empty seats.

“One of the challenges is to introduce audiences to works other than ‘The Nutcracker,’” Hankewich said. “When we experiment with new concepts, it’s an uphill climb. One of the challenges in Iowa is population density. We have a disadvantage when it comes to the arts, so we have to find ways to support each other. We have to find ways to reinvent ourselves." 

Giving dancers a voice

Emily Kate Long didn’t plan on staying in the Quad-Cities for seven seasons.

Before she arrived in 2009, she got a taste of dance in a bigger market as a trainee for two years at the Milwaukee Ballet, where dancers are ranked from lowest to highest.

“I know what it’s like to be one of many,” she said. “Here, we’re all part of the process and part of creating. We all have a voice.”

Lyon, her artistic director, also was a trainee at Milwaukee Ballet.

“You’re the lowest tier in terms of dancers,” Lyon said of her early days. “Your job is to stand in the back and basically learn how to not draw attention to yourself. I started thinking, 'I’ve done all of this training, and all I do is just wait to be noticed?'”

Those experiences in the lower ranks make the opportunities at Ballet Quad-Cities all the more appealing.

After dancers go through training and a grueling audition process in which they can be rejected for their weight, body shape, height or neck length — finally hearing “yes” can feel surreal.

Last year, Lyon offered that “yes” to Kingma, the 21-year-old who said he doubts most people would survive a week with the ballet. He studied dance at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, and knows other dancers who trained their whole lives and never made it this far.

“You go through the training programs making nothing, and you work at restaurants to make ends meet … and it’s all worth it when you get a job,” he said. “As much as you want it, I never thought it would actually happen.”

Once it happens, the company’s team-like approach keeps some in the Quad-Cities.

“I didn’t need to go anywhere, because I had so many opportunities here,” Long said of her seven years here. “You can grow as a dancer and an artist. You’re not just some wallpaper in the back of the stage.”

Bice, the dancer in his second season, said his initial dream was to perform on Broadway.

“In a lot of ways, I’ve surpassed that goal being here,” he said. “Having a steady job is the number-one goal. And the other goal is the art. You’re having an effect on someone else’s life.”

Just like other dancers, Bice has been hooked by Ballet Quad-Cities’ small-but-mighty charm.

“It’s just amazing that it’s here,” he said. “For a fairly small company in a fairly small town to be able to sustain professional dancers ... it’s quite a huge thing.”

What’s to come

Today, the CEO still makes some of the costumes, irons most of them and helps paint props.

But other things have changed for Cook.

She could spend hours talking about the impact Ballet Quad-Cities has had on the community, but she focuses on its future.

Just last week, she got an idea for the upcoming June production of “Ballet Under the Stars,” which officially wraps up the company’s 20th season. For the first time ever, a solo violinist, Jenwie Yu of the Quad-City Symphony Orchestra, will play live on the Lincoln Park stage with dancers as they perform original choreography created by Lyon.

“This is how things take shape in the world of Ballet Quad-Cities,” Cook said. “It happens a lot where we get to do something we didn’t think was possible a day ago. It’s why we love our job; we never know what the day will bring.”

During the early days at small theaters or churches, Cook could look into the audience and point everyone out by name. She fought for every one of those seats to be filled.

In recent years, during shows at the Adler Theatre, when she stands on the balcony and sees people sitting shoulder to shoulder, she sees mostly strangers.

“I look out and think, 'This company isn’t mine anymore.' It’s for the the dancers, the directors, the people behind the scenes, the community,” she said.

That’s the moment, in a dark theater with no rehearsals to watch or phone calls to make, when Cook remembers why she started this 20 years ago.

“There are some things you can’t put into words, and the beauty of the ballet is one of them,” she said. “It’s something you see and you feel.”

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Amanda Hancock is a reporter covering food, arts and entertainment in the Quad-Cities (and beyond).