Helen Petrovna is an experienced professional performer having performed in several high energy productions including Legally Blonde and Starlight Express. Helen also shares her love and skill in jumprope on her Instagram, alongside inspiring messages of skill development over how you look.
It was beyond lovely meeting and getting to chat to Helen, I got very excited when she started showing glimpses of nerdyness!! I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did!
You are a professional actor and performer; you have performed in productions such as Legally Blonde and Starlight Express and hopefully will be again soon. What was your experience in drama school in your training in terms of your dance training and how it affected your body?
I went to performing arts school that was pretty heavily centred around dance, I did do a musical Theatre course, but it was a school that was predominantly known for its dance and its jazz technique. And I loved it, absolutely loved it. But I think, like a lot of people, you tend to focus on the things that you're good at. Whether that's the classes that you're good at or whether it's the side of your body that you're good at, and I think if I could go back again I would one tell myself to one, cool down at the end of every day because that's very easy to not do an it absolutely catches up with you later on in life, and also to work on the side of your body and also the skills that you're not as good at. The good stuff is already coming naturally, but what will actually make you a better, more well-rounded performer and athlete, will be working on the bits that don't come as naturally - so if you're not bendy on your left- stretch out your left!
With the high volume of dancing that you were doing, did you find that you developed any kind of tiredness or fatigue in the body?
I didn't really notice it as much at that age because I was 19, so I was full of energy. I’ve always been somebody who's been quite obsessive about pushing themselves, I love that feeling of physical exhaustion, that tends to be my peak period where I feel like I achieved most of my practice. So, yes it was tiring, but somehow I still had a lot of time for partying, which I shouldn't have done.
In terms of injuries I was very, very lucky in college, I didn't really notice any injuries so I don't know whether that was just pure luck or what. And it was quite an old school mentality performing arts college, so there wasn't a lot of room for this is hurting a bit can I sit out like I didn't notice, people didn't sit out in classes as much. I do notice it a bit more now, which is probably a good thing, people are probably listening to their bodies, more but there is also there’s some element missing of that I'm going to find a way to push through this or modify this in order to continue being the best person in the room.
Yeah modifications are important, and there does seem to be an element of do it or sit out completely. It's almost a sort of balance of whether the students or the teachers are willing to modify to be able to keep something going.
Yeah I think generally we live in quite a black and white world now anyway, people rarely see the shades of grey, there’s absolutely no in-between. It’s either I’m not coming into college at all or I’m coming in full out and I’m going to dance on a broken ankle. There’s no this is hurting me a bit today, so I’m here, I’m willing to work but if it’s okay with you, this is going to be looking a bit funky while I modify that. And I think if you speak to any choreographer in the world, they would much rather have that conversation with a performer rather than somebody who just doesn’t bother to show up, or is hurting themselves without talking to the leader of the group.
You are obviously, from looking at your Instagram and everything that you do, a very physically fit and strong person. So, when did you start introducing any training outside of dance and do you think that had any impact on your dancing?
It was quite a few years into my professional career that I started actually going to the gym properly, and that’s probably for a multitude of reasons. One, women lifting weights wasn’t as common back then, it was almost a bit of a taboo subject. You used to hear people say a lot more of those negative things about when you see muscular strong women and there was definitely a focus on that very, very, slightly malnourished thin looking dancer. So, our understanding of that had changed quite a lot and it was when I was working in Starlight Express for the first time. Starlight is an incredibly physical show, you can’t get away with doing Starlight and not eating. I think I was probably eating about 10 doughnuts a day or something ridiculous! I put on a lot of muscle around my legs and around my glutes and I actually really enjoyed it.
My partner, who is very much into gym work, took me to the gym with him and he taught me more about lifting weights. And I kind of came addicted to the idea of seeing myself as an athlete to be reckoned with rather than this very feminine, slightly fragile dancer and it completely changed my view towards my body and how I approached viewing myself as an athlete and a dancer. So it was an incredibly positive awakening for me in that respect. And one that you definitely see more and more online now, you see a lot more positive body imagery of women who are exhibiting muscle definition and being strong, much more than you used to, so I think that’s a good thing all round.
The other problem with not doing things outside of dance is that your body gets bored, and your brain figures ways out for your body to do things more efficiently, so you don’t see the benefit. If you only ever dance, your body will always figure out a way to do it as easily as possible, which is great for getting through 8 shows a week, not so great for keeping up a six-pack. So, you have to keep challenging it, you have to keep throwing new skills at your body, because then it kind of shocks your brain and your muscle into working that bit harder again.
Have you found, since you started the weight training, that it has made any kind of impact on your performance?
I probably hold myself differently in auditions now, I do notice that. Because I also enjoy seeing definitions in my muscles that I never used to. So, it probably means I wear slightly different things and I hold myself in a different stance, which is nice. Again, I do go back to slightly being from that older generation and being used to this idea that you wanted to be the most skeletal person in the room and having that feeling of being able to walk into the room and being like no I want to look like a really strong capable dancer, I want the panel to know immediately that I am able to do this 8 shows a week for 6 months no problem.
Would you say that it has impacted your confidence?
100% confidence, mentally it has changed the way I view body image and certainly changed the way I view food. I eat a hell of a lot more than I used to and my metabolism has never been as fast as it has since I've started lifting and eating more. So, its had a hugely positive impact on my mind.
So, when is it that you started getting into jump rope and how has that developed into some crazy skills that you are sharing on Instagram?
So, I’ve done Legally Blonde [The Musical] quite a few times, it just sometimes works out that way. The first time I was cast in Legally Blonde I was cast as Serena, and it hadn’t occurred to me that I would be in the Whipped into Shape routine. I got to Florida and I don’t think I had ever really picked up a skipping rope before starting these rehearsals and I could not get over the rope! I could not figure out how to time a rope landing on the floor in front of me, and me jumping over it. I was the worst in the room, to the point that I never got it in the entire six months of the contract. Throughout rehearsals I spent a huge amount of time crying in a car park because I thought they were going to fire me. My friends in the cast would lay bets on me as to how many times I would mess up the routine on stage, it was awful, I was the laughingstock.
Then through some really weird twist of fate, either a very, very nice or a misguided casting director, they were struggling to find a Brooke [Wyndham] for a UK production, that was going to be happening pretty much straight after the contract I was coming off. And he suggested me, obviously this man did not know how terrible I was at skipping. I had to do a video audition and for some reason I got cast as Brooke and there were just no more excuses, I couldn’t get away with it anymore. So, I had to teach myself how to actually skip properly.
(This is really geeky) I found this study that they had done in the 80s at New York State University, it was about the effects of mental practice versus physical practice and they had done it on basketball players. They had taken one group of basketball players who kept doing their drills physically and one who kept doing them mentally, and they found that those who only imagined doing the drills progressed even more than those who were physically doing them.
And its because the concept of repetition (apparently this is what it does- this is me getting as technical as I’m ever going to get) it strengthens the myelin (fatty sheath) around the axons in your brain, and the more insulated that axon is the faster the neurons fire between each other. So, if you keep repeating something, you insulate your axons more and your brain fires quicker, meaning that you are more likely to get it. Prior to reading that and prior to sort of looking at practice that way, I’d always assumed that people were either naturally good at something or they weren’t. It never occurred to me that anybody could become good at something just by repeating it over and over again. And sometimes it’s not even repeating the whole motion, it’s isolating tiny bits, repeating them to a point where you look a little bit weird and until your body figures out how to do it. It changed the way I approached teaching myself how to dance, how I approached fitness, it changed the way I approached singing- if there were certain notes I couldn’t get, it completely altered the way I approached practice.
And I taught myself how to jump rope that way. It was a very liberating experience having been laughed at for six months.
So how long is it now that you have been doing the jump rope?
Well, six months very badly and then four years…not so badly.
Do you recommend jump rope to other people, whether they are performers or anyone wanting to try something different?
100% and this is where I am going to become so boring, because I have become completely addicted to it. What I didn’t realise, in all that time I was busy hating jumping over a rope, is how beneficial it was. The old adage goes that 10 minutes of skipping is worth 30 minutes of running because you can burn 3 times the amount of calories, it is used in physiotherapy for athlete rehabilitation because it strengthens the muscles in your feet, your ankles, around your knees- which for dancers is so important. It’s incredibly good for coordination, because your brain and your arms and your legs have to talk to each other at the same time. And my favourite thing about it is that it’s really, really good for your brain to the point that they are doing studies now to see if it can help stave off dementia because of the amount your brain has to work whilst you’re doing it.
I’m obsessed. A lot of people worry about their knees when they’re jumping rope, because they view it as a high impact sport, but technically it’s not- because a rope is only maximum half a centimetre so you only have to leave the ground that much (obviously if you want to start doing some crazy tricks then you have to leave the ground more). You can get such an incredible workout in such a short amount of time, whilst strengthening all your muscles and protecting your knees, which I think for dancers is really valuable….it also costs nothing. You don’t need expensive weights, you can do it anywhere and throw it in your bag. So yeah, I am a complete convert, I love it!
It also looks like so much fun!
Well that’s the other thing, when I’m trying to figure out a new trick or if I’ve seen someone do something cool and I’m trying to figure out what they’ve done, it’s a little bit like going back to your childlike state when you’re on the playground. I feel like when I was growing up there were loads of weird fads, I don’t know what the weird fads of the day are but like there were yoyos and diablos and everybody had this weird thing every six months that we were all learning to do, and that’s kind of what skipping feels like…also at the same time feeling a little bit like being a ninja, which I enjoy very much.
I really think it is one of the most underrated workouts there is.
What advice would you give to any performers, or aspiring performers in training who want to get into training outside of dance?
If I could go back, I would for sure work on the side of my body that's bad, so do everything that you can do on your right hand side or the left hand side, make sure you can do it on the other side. And I would invest just as much energy in the styles of dance, that I wasn't naturally as good at, as the ones that I was- so if you are fab jazz tech dancer, please work on your ballet as well, work on your tab for God’s sake, work on your tap…I cannot say that enough.
Instead of always focusing on how little you can eat, focus on how much you can exert so you can eat as much as you want, because it completely changed my attitude towards capability and focusing on being able to do things rather than being able to look one way. At the end of the day, you can look as great in a photo as you want, and we do live in a world where we see lots of photos every day and we take lots of pictures of ourselves, I think that it would be really nice to live in a world where we showcase the things that we've learned to do rather than the way we've learned to edit how we look.
Yeah focus on what you can do rather than how you look.