By the time I get to Pouring Ribbons at 6pm, the Manhattan craft cocktail bar tucked away on Ave B and E. 14th Street, Courtney Colarik has been there for three hours -- but she doesn’t mind. In the hours before I show up, she’s already prepared the ice cylinders that fit perfectly in the bar’s rocks glasses. She’s made sure bottles are full for service. She’s prepared fresh juices and garnishes. It’s meticulous work, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I really like the discipline. I really like the ritual. [One] of the best parts for me is when you get here and you’re setting up and are in this almost meditative mood because you’re doing the same thing [you do every time],” she says. “It reminds me of ballet class.”
As a dancer, Colarik always knows what to expect from ballet class, even though the exercises might change slightly. Without noticing, she mimics the movements behind the bar as she explains: “You’re always going to start with the plies, then you’re gonna go into tendus, frappes. Like you’re gonna do the same things at the barre in the same order.”
Colarik knows the importance of adhering to the process. Ritual and order go hand-in-hand -- the dancer's discipline leads to creative expression, the bartending regimen offers the headspace to conceive of beloved cocktails. Both are ingrained in her life.
Elevate your own hidden talent with these Cognac cocktail tips
For some, it’s cocktail skills that are the hidden talent no one at their day job would suspect. If that’s you, expand your base spirits with these quick tips from Rémy Martin, the French house that’s been perfecting Cognac since 1724:
1. Cognac is a great alternative to rye’s harshness and bourbon’s abundant woodiness. It can match whiskey’s versatility, and add even more complexity to some drinks. Don’t hesitate to substitute.
2. Mixing “like with like” is generally good cocktail practice, so reach for other grape based modifiers like sherry, vermouth, and champagne.
3. Don’t assume that Cognac will be sweet. Add a touch of honey or simple syrup -- you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Colarik, 28, has been dancing since she was 4. Seeing her mother, a board member of the Cleveland Ballet, dress up to attend performances, she couldn’t help but glamorize it: “I decided I really had to be a ballerina or nothing.”
She immediately enrolled in the Cleveland School of Ballet. But as much as the discipline of dance’s most precise genre rewarded that 4-year-old's dreams, ballet wouldn’t remain her sole pursuit in life.
Balance is key...in more ways than one
Just as her cocktail creations must be perfectly balanced, and in mixing them she has to keep one eye on other customers ordering and paying, Colarik knows the importance of poise and proportion in her dance.
When she was a student in the lauded dance program at Baltimore's Goucher College, Colarik added jazz, tap, lyrical, and modern to her repertoire, performing at the highest levels and graduating with a BA. A guest choreographer at the school -- who was “very intense about weight” -- instilled in her the importance of cross-training, insisting on 30-minute treadmill sessions 3-5 times a week. To this day, Colarik continues to use this routine to stay in shape, though she’s gotten away from the intense scrutiny and weight-monitoring that ballerinas so often face.
After college, Colarik moved to New York to be among some of the world's greatest dance companies, and opportunities, of all genres before focusing on modern dance -- a shift she says, “I had to make for my health."
Creative fulfillment takes center stage
Goucher’s dance program is intense. In order to graduate with a performance major Colarik needed to be working around the clock on modern and ballet equally. But despite time-consuming dance classes and rehearsals, she somehow found the time to develop another discipline: photography.
Throughout college, taking pictures slowly made its way into her skill set. Goucher didn’t offer a photography minor, but that didn’t stop her from exploring the fine art.
She recalls one project in particular that sparked her interest in photography as something more than just a hobby. The assignment was to capture something, “on the edge.” So she spent one of her fall concerts photographing dancers in 35 mm film from backstage -- sometimes right before her cue. “I really like the intimacy of those photos,” Colarik says. “Like, I know those people and I wasn’t just a paid photographer doing that. I know what to look for in terms of movement and stillness.”
She had found her subject.
But she admits whatever keeps her the most creatively fulfilled takes center stage. Last year, while simultaneously performing full-time with a small dance company, Megan Lynn Asterial Dance, and working at Pouring Ribbons, she found herself at a crossroads. She’d been at the bar for over a year, and by this time had been working in hospitality since moving to New York in 2011.
“[Bartending] opened up this whole other world for me and I think a lot of people feel the same way -- at least in craft cocktail bars.”
“[I said to myself], ‘I’m dancing and performing and I love that, but creatively I’m not feeling excited about being here,’” she says. “‘I’m not excited about rehearsal.’”
Colarik did what most dancers wouldn’t dream of and gave up her spot in the company. A tough decision to make, but one that left her with something she never expected: a fulfilling and critically lauded career as a bartender.
Her new occupation slinging drinks "opened up this whole other world for me and I think a lot of people feel the same way -- at least in craft cocktail bars,” she says. “One day I started realizing it was a really cool and geeky thing to do. I started reading books. I started going to classes about booze. I think in a way I’m almost... I don’t ever want to not be a student -- be it about dance, about people, bartending, cocktails...” she says.
It’s 7 p.m. on a Friday night in New York City and the bar is getting busy, but she’s not sweating. Everything from cocktail glasses to the fresh herbs she’ll later torch to use as garnishes are right where they’re supposed to be. (She put them there, of course, during her three hours of prep.)
“I just want to learn,” she says, surrounded by thirsty patrons. And with that, she dances off to fix another drink and bridge the gap between bar and barre.
9 out of 10 doctors agree: take this survey, and you'll make Thrillist better.