Actress Jenna Elfman, who trained at Westside School of Ballet, returns to preach the value of discipline learned through the classical arts
By Shanee Edwards
On TV’s “Dharma and Greg,” Jenna Elfman played a free-spirited flower child.
In real life she’s all about focus and discipline.
Elfman, who trained in dance at Westside School of Ballet in Santa Monica before switching to acting after an injury, returned to her alma mater last Saturday to encourage current students in their artistic pursuits.
“The classical arts, for me, formed a very deep level of professionalism and a really strong work ethic that has been invaluable to my professional career as an actress,” said Elfman, who is currently developing a new sitcom for 20th Century Fox.
“It gives kids an aspect of quality and competence to their persona and résumé that I think is really missing in our current culture. To see people who are truly competent in something is inspiring. I think a world with more competent people wouldn’t be a bad thing,” she said.
The students who got to hang out with Elfman, 43, were on break from rehearsing for an upcoming Westside School of Ballet production of ‘The Nutcracker.’
Elfman, whose maiden name is Butala, told them she started training in ballet at age five.
“My mom took me to see Westside’s ‘Nutcracker ‘and I told her, ‘I want to dance like that.’ I had been doing gymnastics, but knew I had to focus on one. I didn’t want to be a dilettante. I wanted to be really good at whatever it was I did,” she said.
Raised in Northridge, Elfman credited her mom for braving the 405 six days a week and even working the front desk at Westside School of Ballet to help pay for classes. She studied classical ballet there from age nine to 16.
A woman in the crowd asked Elfman how old she was when she started en pointe, the technique in which a dancer supports his or her entire body weight on the tips of fully extended feet.
Elfman’s answer produced gasps from the audience: “I started halfway, at a little jazz studio out in Canoga Park, when I was probably too young. At like eight.”
Elfman said going en pointe that young “was really awkward — I had huge feet because I was going to be tall, I had the beginner Capezios that were like tanks. My mom took me off that, brought me to Westside Ballet and I got to learn the basics.” She said she went back en pointe at 11 or 12.
There were times Elfman wanted to quit dance: “My mom wouldn’t let me quit, but she said ‘you can take a week off.’”
Elfman kept pirouetting until she injured her ankle as a teen, which greatly affected her ability to dance en pointe. “It was time for me to make a decision about going into a dance company. Being in a company is really intense, this injury was not going away, and I didn’t want a career of just icing my ankle. So I transitioned out of ballet and started dancing for TV and film. It was all the pointe work that was bothering my ankle.”
But all the training, the discipline and work ethic she learned in ballet paid off — big time. In person, Elfman is stunningly beautiful, long and lean. She’s also immensely charismatic, so it’s no surprise she easily transitioned into acting. Her dance training also made her a natural for physical comedy. But she’s managed to take what she learned at the ballet bar to the set.
“These are the things from dance that I apply every day in my acting career: being on time, knowing that there’s a group of people who rely on me being there and me doing my best. You can go onto any TV set I’ve worked on and ask about my reputation. It’s horrible that being on time is so rare, but I’m always on time and bring a good attitude to work. I’m always striving to be better.”
Elfman believes the all those years dancing in front of a mirror helped quite a bit.
“You know when you’re training in front of the mirror all the time, you’re constantly improving yourself. The mirror’s there and you’re constantly checking and lifting and pulling and pointing more. I’ve been applying that to my professional career and it really helps,” said Elfman to a group of mostly young girls, sprinkled with a few boys, who recently found out which roles they’d be dancing in ‘The Nutcracker.’ Like any ballet school, some dancers were elated when they learned their roles, and some were not.
Elfman made sure to let the students know she was never cast in any of the good roles.
“I never got Dewdrop, ever!” she said, also wanting to tell the young dancers that not getting a part is not a reflection on how the rest of their lives are going to be. “I have a Golden Globe award, many Emmy nominations, TV Guide Awards. I have two awesome kids, I’ve been with my husband [actor Bodhi Elfman] for 24 years — life is great. So not getting Dewdrop doesn’t mean the rest of your life is going to suck.”
Elfman said her favorite memory from studying at Westside Ballet came after she attended the summer program at Pacific Northwest Ballet.
“Summer was all done and fall was starting. It was probably my last year at Westside. I was standing right there…” she said, pausing to point out a spot in the middle of the rehearsal room. “I went up with my leg in second, and my leg was right here.” She motioned to the side of her cheek. “And I was en pointe, holding it. And holding it. And holding it. With no effort. That, to me, was like, this moment.”
The good news for Elfman is that she’s still dancing. She went to Washington D.C. earlier this year for National Dance Day and taught about 1,000 people dance routines.
“Getting to circle back around with dance has been amazing,” she said.
Despite her success in as an actress, Elfman says dance, not acting, is what really gave her personal power.
“Acting’s really fun and pays me really well, but dance to me is home. Acting is not home for me. Dance is home. But I really transitioned in a way that I never had to stop,” she said. “Don’t disconnect from anything or anybody that makes you strong. Strengthen it; make it bigger, because that’s what’s going to improve you.”
Elfman’s visit was the inaugural event for “Dance Talks,” an ongoing series of community discussions about the power and relevance of dance, organized by the Westside School of Ballet, 1709 Stewart St., Santa Monica. For more information, call (310) 828-2018 or visit westside-ballet.com.