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Ballerina Janica Smith gulps water from a plastic bottle and dabs the perspiration from her face with a towel shortly before noon on a recent weekday. She has just finished a rehearsal for City Ballet of San Diego’s production of The Nutcracker, the ballet that’s as much a part of the holiday season as Santa Claus and Christmas trees. 

Moments earlier, as a recording of Tchaikovsky’s instantly recognizable music filled City Ballet’s Pacific Beach studio, Smith teamed with another company member, John Henry Reid, in the spectacularly demanding, 12-minute-long duet between the Sugar Plum Fairy and the dashing Cavalier. She twirled, pranced, soared and plunged inches from the floor as Reid supported her in a “fish dive” — the swooping motion that’s among the most thrilling sights in classical ballet.

Resident choreographer Elizabeth Wistrich watched them intently, offering suggestions and encouragement. Smith and Reid already knew all the steps. So Wistrich focused on details, such as how Smith should take hold of Reid’s hand in a particular passage. Then she told them to practice the sequence again.

“That’s better,” she said after they master the gesture.

When the two-hour rehearsal ends, Smith can’t just head home to Encinitas and relax for the rest of the day. Making it as a ballerina in San Diego often means getting an extra job to bring in more money. City Ballet members do everything from working at bars or bookstores to teaching dance and appearing as guest artists with other companies. In a few hours, Smith will be at the Encinitas Ale House, where she’s a server. Though she had been up since 6:30 a.m. and had already gone to the gym, a ballet class and a rehearsal, she is scheduled for a six-hour shift starting at 5 p.m.

“Yeah, it gets really tiring,” says the 24-year-old dancer who’s barely 5’3″ and 105 pounds. She’s accustomed to working at restaurants, having done that off and on since she was about 17 years old.

Smith knows all about the contradictory nature of ballet, in which fantasy bumps up against reality. As the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker, she’s the magical creature who presides over the dance-filled Kingdom of the Sweets. Her body is supposed to seem weightless; her movements, effortless. In person, however, Smith is gutsy and resilient, a down-to-earth woman who hasn’t let financial challenges, eating disorders or painful injuries lessen her passion for dancing.

“I love ballet,” she says with wide-eyed enthusiasm. “I love the art. I love watching other ballerinas. I feel so pretty out there. I get to be the center of attention. I’m a lucky girl.”

Smith is one of 36 dancers in City Ballet, a leading local company that pays dancers for 28 weeks of the year and has an annual budget of nearly $700,000. Like many other nonprofit arts organizations, it has struggled to raise money and sell tickets in the wake of the recession.

The company had to postpone its showcase of ballets by legendary choreographer George Balanchine, from May to November because of financial hardship. For a while this fall it looked like City Ballet would use recorded music for its Nutcracker performances rather than hiring musicians — a cost-cutting move that was averted thanks to local donors. The company will have a live orchestra, as it has in the past.

Smith is in her ninth year at City Ballet. As one of its top dancers, she earns nearly $17,000. Each season she receives 13 pairs of pointe shoes, ballet slippers with reinforced tips that allow ballerinas to dance on their toes. The shoes, which wear out quickly, cost about $50 per pair. If she needs additional pairs, she must foot the bill.

Pretty as they are, toe shoes can be brutal on the feet. Smith lost three toenails this season, including the ones on her big toes. The rigors of November’s Balanchine program caused them to turn black and blue and fall off.

“Now they’ve grown back about halfway,” she explains after the rehearsal, gently stroking the pink toe shoe on her left foot. “It still hurts when I dance. Imagine going to work and shoving your feet into toe shoes. Ouch! Ibuprofen is my friend.”

Hearing about her toe traumas is enough to make you vow to never again complain about anything as minor as a blister. Whatever the discomfort, Smith will be on her toes for Nutcracker. She will alternate with other cast members in the roles of Clara, the ballet’s young heroine, and the Rose (the lead part in the lilting Waltz of the Flowers) in addition to the Sugar Plum Fairy.

Smith has a strong work ethic, natural ability and outstanding versatility, says choreographer Wistrich, who helps run the company with her husband, artistic director Steven Wistrich. “Janica is one of the most talented girls who has ever walked through these doors,” she says.

Ever since Smith was a little girl, the native of Monterey has excelled at movement. She began gymnastics at 3 years old, ballet lessons at 5, and later won dance scholarships as well as roles in student productions.

“My mom kept pushing me and saying, ‘You’re good at this. You should really stick with it,’” Smith says.

After moving to San Diego with her family when she was 16, she started dancing with City Ballet. It’s where she has spent her career, progressing from a teenaged trainee to an apprentice and ultimately, a full-fledged company member who performs major roles.

She doesn’t spend much time pondering the future. With rare exceptions, ballet careers don’t last very long and Smith prefers to concentrate on the present.

“I don’t think about five, 10 years from now — not at all,” she says. “If people ask how long I intend to dance, I say I don’t know. I just go year by year.”

And hour by hour. On this particular day, Smith takes a break at home before her evening shift as a server. She drives her Toyota 21 miles from City Ballet’s headquarters to the rented Encinitas condo she shares with her mother, sister, two nephews and an English bulldog that the family is fostering until a suitable owner is found.

“I usually don’t have time for a bite to eat before I go to work,” she says in the kitchen as the bulldog sniffs the floor, searching for a stray treat. Smith’s snack: microwavable popcorn and coffee with non-dairy creamer.

Eating — or rather, not eating — has been an issue for Smith. In a profession that prizes slenderness, many ballerinas have an ambivalent relationship with food. Some even starve themselves.

“I’m definitely not comfortable in my body,” she says. “You’ve got to stare at yourself in a leotard and tights every day, and make sure that the costumes that fit you last year fit you again. Oh, it’s a struggle. I’ve been in and out of eating disorders. Now I’m finally healthy.”

How did she achieve that?

“I got hungry,” she responds with a laugh. “I started eating more.”

The shift was surely not quite so simple, but Smith doesn’t have time for a lengthy explanation.

To get ready for work, she changes clothes, slipping into faded jeans, casual shoes and a T-shirt with the Ale House logo. In a sense, being a server isn’t so different from being a ballerina. It’s a performance, with customers taking the place of an audience.

Smith puts on fresh makeup and a touch of perfume, joking that “it smells better than ballet sweat.” It takes only a few minutes to drive to the restaurant and bar, which is less than a mile from where she lives. By 5 p.m., customers begin to trickle in and Smith — who can describe nearly every one of the 30 beers on tap — is ready for them.

On a good night, she can earn as much as $275 in tips, though it’s more common for her to receive between $100 and $150. When she became a server there in August, she worked six nights a week. Now that it’s Nutcracker season, she only has time for a couple of shifts per week.

This isn’t a job to take lightly. By the end of a year, Smith earns about the same for her restaurant work as she does for being a ballerina.

“This is the best place I’ve ever worked,” says Smith, who likes the convivial atmosphere, flexible hours and 11 p.m. closing time. “When I worked at a bar in Pacific Beach, I’d have eight hour shifts that lasted until 2 a.m. I wasn’t getting any sleep.”

Besides, carrying heavy trays with food and glassware at the Ale House has improved the muscle tone in her arms. She has become stronger.

The staff knows about her other life as one of the San Diego area’s top ballerinas. The customers usually don’t. To them she’s a smiling and attentive member of the waitstaff who moves quickly and gracefully.

“Hi. How are you doing today?” she asks a couple seated at a table near the bar. “Here’s the food menu and beer list. I’ll give you a few minutes to look it over. Let me know if you have any questions.”

Later in her shift, she’ll eat a salad. How about a beer?

“I like beer a lot. But I try not to drink it,” says Smith, ever mindful of the calories.

At closing time, she completes her last tasks of the night. She helps stack chairs and carry patio furniture inside. She wipes down tables and counters, makes sure the ketchup containers are full, and rolls silverware into napkins for the next day’s patrons. Once the computer clocks her out, her shift is officially over and she drives home.

The next morning Smith will be back in the ballet studio, a ballerina once more.

Please contact Valerie Scher directly at and follow her on Twitter @vscher.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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