From Stir Fry to Smokejumping: How Dance Prepares Martha Schoppe to Fight Forest Fires

Martha Schoppe likes to joke that ballet has prepared her well for enjoying activities that hurt her feet. “But it’s not really a joke,” she admits, laughing.

Growing up, Schoppe learned to smile despite the pain in the points. Today, her feet are ransacked in boots of fire: the native of Maine is one of the 400 smoke jumpers in the United States and, she estimates, one of less than a dozen women in that position. These elite parachute firefighters parachute into remote areas not accessible by roads in order to deal with forest fires, marching with bags weighing over 100 pounds on their backs through rugged terrain to reach their missions.

“I guess you could say I’ve always been into things that require tedious training,” she says.

Schoppe at work today

Courtesy of Schoppe

Schoppe started taking ballet and tap dancing at the age of 5 at a local studio. “It was based on Vaganova, so it was fun and playful when we were little, then around the age of 10 we started doing 16-count plies on each side, at the barre and then in the center.” , she explains.

Schoppe fell in love with the discipline required by technique and the predictability of combinations in each class. She spent her teenage years at the studio, playing with the youth company and attending children’s classes.

She continued to dance at Oberlin College where she majored in environmental studies. The modern dance program introduced her to contact improvisation; she also took dance history classes and joined the school’s student tap company, although she failed to get a dance minor.

Along the way, she tried other activities as well: in high school, she had tried long-distance running, and during a summer break at college, she began to participate in wood sports. , like the loch. “It was a pretty funny translation because it’s about balance, agility and speed. My ballet teacher actually came to see a performance,” she says.

After graduation, she knew she wanted to work in the outdoor industry and found a job in a wilderness therapy program in Utah. There she was introduced to forest fires. During a season of working on wild trails, she was trained in firefighting in case fire crews needed help during the summer. “I wasn’t attracted to it at first,” she says. “There is a lot of waiting around these fires.”

But she was intrigued by the physical challenge and tried firefighting for a season. She then realized that with all the overtime, she could support herself with six or seven months of work per year. “You kind of dedicate yourself to work all summer long – it’s nice not having to try to balance work and play, because it’s all work,” she says. “And then in the winter you have as much free time as you want.”

She started working on a district engine to fight local forest fires in Colorado, then joined a “hotshot” team of 20 firefighters who go together to major fires. She was ultimately drawn to the smokejump because of the additional challenges of the highly selective position, as well as the leadership opportunities and freedom it offered (instead of being tied to a team, you can take on missions in a way. independent and have more flexibility to set your own schedule).

Being able to parachute in the sky was a major bonus. “I had never jumped from a plane before,” she says.

As she gained more experience, she stopped dancing for about 10 years. Then, one December, she found herself in a local Nutcracker performance, and then she met the teacher who had set up the production. She started attending the school’s adult classes, including a tap dance class “with a group of retired ladies who just wanted glitter and accessories for the recitals,” she says. “We had a good old time.”

A line of six women dressed in green leotards, glittering gold skirts, black gloves and top hats.

Schoppe, second from left, in a recital

Courtesy of Schoppe

Schoppe believes that the mental courage required on the job is something she has built through both dancing and running. (She has completed several ultramarathons, including a 350 mile one.) “In dancing you have to be very focused all the time. And on the trails you have to watch every step or you’re going to be prone. Then everything else is gone. sort of. I love it. “

This is something that comes in handy for tackling the grueling tasks of one’s job. After the smokejumpers land, their tools, food and water are dropped by parachute, then it’s up to them to be completely autonomous for two days. On rare occasions they will land in trees, or their cargo will, so they will have to climb to retrieve it. Sometimes a call comes in the middle of the night. “You might be completely asleep and then all of a sudden you jump out of a plane and carry 100 pounds with all the bags and the parachute, your gear and your protection.”

Schoppe, who constantly trains to be as fast, strong and healthy as possible, always takes adult ballet lessons when she has time, including a handful of masked and socially distant lessons during the pandemic. She finds that ballet continues to help her become aware of her body. Recently, she noticed that when she balanced herself in the lift, she had to pull more on her leg to keep her hips from hurting. Soon after, she ran a 100 kilometer race and found that giving herself the same signal made it one of the most painless races she had ever done. “The dancers have such good posture, it prepares them well for other types of movements,” she says.

Schoppe also doesn’t hesitate to break stereotypes. While dancing isn’t often a topic of conversation among his co-workers, she recently cleared up a recruit who was concerned that his 7-year-old daughter might not be doing the outdoor activities he enjoys because she adores her. ballet. so much the courses.

“I was like, ‘I’ve done 16 years of ballet’,” she says. “He lit up, so excited. The dancing just opens up a whole window of possibilities.”

A parachutist is silhouetted against the blue sky as she lands in a grassy field.

Schoppe lands his parachute

Courtesy of Schoppe

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