To see Kim Sonderegger on-stage-- her elegant face covered in layers of make-up, her slender body wrapped in net and tulle--you'd never think she was just a "grunt." You might guess she used to prance around her parents' living room, dreaming she was a prima ballerina.
You might guess, from her practiced steps and perfectly poised hands, that she's been at this a long time. Since she was ten, as a matter of fact. You'd never guess she's got a rough life.
"There's a huge bulk of dancers like me--good dancers," Kim says matter- of-factly, "but at the low end of the pay scale. You have to really, really love this to even have a chance at making ends meet. But this is all I ever really wanted to do."
She and the other 31 dancers of the Ballet Arizona dance company are finishing rehearsals for performances February 16-18 at Arizona State University's Gammage Center. The shows start at 8 p.m.
Now 28, Kim has been one of the Phoenix-based company's "grunts," or core dancers, for more than three years. "It's such a chancy sort of profession," she acknowledges. "Even Martha Graham's company, a national treasure with some of the greatest dancers in the world, they get laid off. It's a real battle."
She learned just how real last week when Ballet Arizona announced it is going to let her and two other dancers go after the Gammage performances.
"There's a lot of very good dancers who don't have jobs because there are very few jobs," she said in an interview shortly before she learned she was on her last leg with the financially troubled troupe. "You're always reminded of that fact. You strive to dance as much as you can, of course, but I don't think of it as a monetary thing. I'd better not. You try hard to keep on working and you get used to going on unemployment. It's not an easy life."
It's been the only life Kim has known for about a decade. Born in Minnesota and raised in Tucson, she quit high school to dance full-time with a Tucson company. (She later earned her diploma through correspondence.)
In every way, it's a constant struggle. She's almost always strapped for cash, and the job security obviously is nil.
That's the financial and emotional stuff. Then there's the physical pain.
Kim broke a foot dancing about four years ago and was in a cast for eight months. She still goes for regular therapy, withstanding the pain because there's no option if she wants to keep dancing. "When I broke my foot, it was a very bad break," she says. "I didn't know if I could dance again. But I said, `What the hell, I'll give it a try.' There was a lot of therapy and work, work, work. And I made it back. Every now and then I wonder why I went through all that." Still, Kim insists, there must be a good reason she's hung in there all these years.
"I'm at the age when you wonder what you are doing," she says. "You say to yourself that if you're still dancing, you must love it or you must be out of your mind. Some would say that 28 is old, but others go until their forties. "
Kim says she has enjoyed the choreography of Jean Paul Comelin, Ballet Arizona's current director. "You go where you can find work, and this is a good company," she said before the devastating layoff. "It helps things a lot that Jean Paul is interested in movement that has meaning. So am I. I feel that I can express myself through his work."
She relishes performing. "I feel better when I'm on-stage," Kim says. "That's what we work so hard for. I don't get stage fright. If you feel well-rehearsed, you should do fine. The worst feeling is feeling that you're not ready--that you're doing a new part, that someone else got injured and you have to pick it up. That happens all the time."
Kim knows she may well have to take a "day job" to pay the rent. All she has guaranteed right now is a few bucks from teaching classes here and there. "To stay in dance shape, you have to dance and dance and take classes constantly," she says. "But you also have to eat."
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Last summer, Kim saved enough money to study dance in New York City. A waitress job in Manhattan tided her over until she returned to the Valley.
"You could dance in Vegas and make a ton of money," she says, "but that's not what I want to do. I don't put anyone down who does do it. That's their business. I never say never, but I'm not tall enough and I don't have that kind of figure anyway.
"For a lot of people, the struggle of daily living gets wearing after a while. That's usually balanced out for me when I perform. I don't think about the hard times when I'm dancing."
"If you're still dancing, you must love it or you must be out of your mind."