Ever since Lori Hernández started dancing ballet at the age of 3, performing in the “Nutcracker” ballet has been an annual, uninterrupted ritual.
But this fall — for the first time in 22 years — the Chula Vista resident isn’t dancing in any production of “The Nutcracker.” The pandemic has dried up all opportunities for the independent professional dancer, as most ballet companies have either canceled their holiday productions or reduced them to small castings of company artists.
For Hernández, who last year danced in two regional Nutcrackers in the lead role of the Sugar Plum Fairy, it was devastating.
“It’s absolutely heartbreaking,” Hernández, 25, said. “Dealing with the changes emotionally was the hardest part for me. You have to stay motivated without any promise of anything to come. It takes a lot of mental toughness. It’s very isolating.
Hernández began taking ballet lessons at an early age. She was very shy, so her mother thought dancing might help her socialize more. She cried during her first performance because the darkened theater scared her. But after that, there was nothing else in the world she loved more. She loved the discipline that ballet required and she had the steely determination she would need to succeed.
“I feel absolute joy when I dance – just happiness,” she said. “I love performing, working on something for so long and being able to present it in front of an audience and make them feel something inside.”
At age 10, she began her pre-professional training at the San Diego Academy of Ballet under the direction of Sylvia Tchernychev. As part of the Kearny Mesa company, she danced lead roles in numerous ballets and competed nationally in the American Youth Grand Prix for five consecutive years.
By age 16, Hernández was attending high school online so he could dedicate up to eight hours a day to practice and dance. For her, it was not a sacrifice.
“I loved it. I wanted it,” she said. “For me, from the age of 3, it was always ballet. That’s all I ever wanted.
At 18, she joined the Ballet Arizona company in Phoenix as an apprentice. It was a great experience but short-lived. She suffered a dance injury after four months and had to return home. After recovering, she was hired in 2016 as an apprentice at Oklahoma City Ballet, where she spent two years.
In the spring of 2018, Hernández was ready to move on. She missed her family and missed San Diego, so she decided to move out and work as a freelance dancer. The job involved being her own booking agent and traveling the country performing in regional productions while supplementing her income between gigs by teaching young students at the San Diego Academy of Ballet and Southbay Dance Academy.
Life as a freelancer worked out well in 2019, when she spent a combined eight months rehearsing and performing in four regional productions, including two “Nutcracker”, one “Swan Lake” and a mixed program of ballets. For these jobs, the dance companies paid not only his salary, but also his transportation and housing costs.
But since the pandemic hit, virtually every penny of Hernández’s earnings has disappeared. Dance companies have canceled their performance seasons and closed their studios and the two schools where she taught have temporarily closed.
Because Hernández lives with her parents and received unemployment benefits, she did not go hungry or homeless. But she had to improvise to stay in shape. She bought a wooden pole and floor from Home Depot and turned her bedroom into a makeshift dance studio where she practiced every day for many months.
“I think people underestimate how hard it is to keep your body in shape for ballet,” she said. “You can’t just run. It’s not the same thing. There is technique. You have to shape the muscles. It starts to go very quickly.
The San Diego Ballet Academy finally reopened its studio in September, which allowed Hernández to practice outside of his room, but very few students returned, so there is no had demand for his teaching skills. Southbay Dance Academy has not reopened.
Hernández said she is grateful to her family for giving her the time and space to weather this storm. Many of his dancer friends weren’t so lucky. But spending so many months away from the stage was one of the lowest points of his life. She hopes that 2021 will see her on stage again.
“I think ballet companies should at least be able to put on some sort of socially distanced performance in theater next year,” she said. ” I hope this. I can’t wait for this.