You be the Judge: Choosing Your SI

Have you been accepted to more than one SI? Congratulations! If your parents are considering allowing you to attend but you (or your parents!) are feeling clueless about how to choose one, read on to hear how to find your best summer training experience.

During your SI auditions, not only are the judges assessing you – You should be assessing them as well. Often, the audition is the first stage of substantive contact that a student has with a potential summer intensive school. Whether or not the audition class is also a master class, you should be able to get a feel for the teacher and whether they represent the kind of school you would like to attend. Ask yourself these questions during the audition:\

  • Are they working from a technique that I enjoy and want to learn more about?
  • Is the teacher/auditioner likeable and someone that I would like to be around for six weeks?
  • Is the teacher good at managing the class?
  • Does their audition process foster a professional and efficient learning environment?

You can extrapolate a lot about a school from your audition experience, just the same way that they are extrapolating a lot about you from the same brief encounter. Not every student is the right fit for every school – and vice versa! The audition is both their opportunity and yours to assess whether your talent and level will be best cultivated in their environment.

Nowadays, acceptances are more quickly available than ever. Many SI programs will post them online. Once you know what your options are, it is time to employ your power of choice. Using your audition experience and an easy activity, you can ge a clearer picture of your favorites and not-so-favorites. Before assessing the schools who have accepted you though, you need to take some time to decide what you are looking for in a school.

Because consistency in training is absolutely essential for younger dancers, I recommend that dancers stay with their home studio until they reach 13. For students between the ages of 13 and 15, I recommend that SIs be chosen first and foremost for individual attention and nurturing developmental environments, like many rural, suburban and smaller regional programs offer. Conservatory SIs are excellent for this and have the added appeal of offering a taste of their year-round program. Also for younger dancers, splitting the summer between two different programs can be a more realistic option than for older dancers.

From the age of about 15-17, I recommend that students push themselves to attend more competitive programs, perhaps in urban areas farther from home where there may be greater chance of exposure to directors/choreographers and increased development of the students personal responsibility. When the students get to the age of 17 and older, I recommend that they seek out programs that are commensurate with their ability in terms of potential employment – so no SIs without professional affiliations unless they are specifically looking to enter a conservatory year-round. I also recommend that students give special consideration to programs extending scholarship money, which may mean the company has interest in potentially employing the student in the future. At any age, if the student is interested in a conservatory prep school, the appropriate SI should be chosen in order to serve as an audition for the year-round program. (Don’t know whether you want a company school or conservatory? Check out this great article from Dance Magazine.)

Once you’ve decided what kind of program you need, create a spreadsheet or handwrite a chart with your SI options listed down the left side of the page. At the top, make columns with these headings:

  • Techniques:
  • Audition Experience (Poor/Average/Excellent)
  • Location (Rural/Suburban/Urban)
  • Distance from Home (Close/Mid-range/Far)
  • Supervision (Tight/Medium/Light)
  • Environment (Nurturing/Average/Competitive)
  • Class Sizes (Small/Average/Large)
  • Teachers (Good/Excellent/Unknown)
  • Pro/Prep Programs (Trainee/Apprentice/Conservatory)
  • Level (Local/Regional/National)
  • Reputation (Good/Excellent/Top)
  • Scholarship Offered (Yes/No)
  • Performance Opportunity (Yes/No)

These list is not exhaustive, so be sure to make columns for features of interest to you that I may not have included. Next, indicate the response that you prefer for each feature. For example, a young student leaving home for the first time and her parents might want the options I’ve placed in bold here:

  • Techniques: Cecchetti Ballet, Partnering, Modern & Jazz
  • Audition Experience (Poor/Average/Excellent)
  • Location (Rural/Suburban/Urban)
  • Distance from Home (Close/Mid-range/Far)
  • Supervision (Tight/Medium/Light)
  • Environment (Nurturing/Average/Competitive)
  • Class Sizes (Small/Average/Large)
  • Teachers (Good/Excellent/Unknown)
  • Pro/Prep Programs (Trainee/Apprentice/Conservatory)
  • Level (Local/Regional/National)
  • Reputation (Good/Excellent/Top)
  • Scholarship Offered (Yes/No)
  • Performance Opportunity (Yes/No)

Once you’ve decided what your preferences are for each feature, fill in the boxes for each school by reviewing the information made available by the school website, in the brochures and if necessary by phone call. Once you have everything filled in, look at what schools have all of your preferred features and which ones are easily ruled out.

It may not be possible to find all the information you need from the school’s publications. If you are looking for real dancers’ and parents’ descriptions of the particular SIs that you review, check out my favorite resource for chatting on all things ballet, BalletTalk for Dancers. Create a free account to view their substantial and comprehensive message boards for virtually all 2011 Summer Intensives. All BalletTalk message boards are moderated by respected ballet professionals.

These activities should narrow your list considerably and give you a better understanding of what you want to get from your summer investment of time and perhaps significant money. The idea is to find the best program for you personally – what’s best for you might not be what’s best for your friend – but don’t stress if you end up with more than one awesome SI option. That’s a good thing! Most known SI programs offer great instruction in a safe environment, so there aren’t many wrong answers when it’s time to choose. And the sheer number of hours you will put in at such a program will virtually ensure that you will see some very decent improvement over the summer. With a little bit of research and effort though, you can help to ensure that you won’t just be headed to a great summer intensive – you’ll be headed to the program of your dreams!

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Dancewear en l’air: Elasticized Pointe Shoe Ribbons

I used to cut my pointe shoe ribbons and add an elastic strip to the spot that landed at the Achilles. The extra flex gave some room for the ribbons to expand and contract going from plié to relevé and vice versa. Thanks to Bunheads Flexors, there’s no need for such arduous work on top of all the attachment sewing you have to do!

Flexors come four to a pack (enough for one pair of shoes) and come in two versatile shades of peachy-pink to match practically any pointe shoe. These ribbons are recommended by dance teachers (like me) and physical therapists.

Ballet in Film: And We Will Dance

Thinking about North Carolina School of the Arts for your summer program? And We Will Dance is a documentary about four dancers at the school and their pursuit of dance. Check out the trailer here and the official website here.

Now headed by ABT and former NYCB principal dancer Ethan Stiefel of Center Stage fame, UNCSA is an academic and talented arts boarding high school with an excellent record for training dancers. During the school year, UNCSA also offers training for students younger than high school. Post high school, UNCSA provides a well-respected BFA program.

Update: Ethan Stiefel has accepted the position of artistic director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet and will step down from his post as UNCSA dean at the end of this academic year.

Ballet in Film: Dancing Across Borders

Dancing Across Borders is the story of a young Cambodian dancer plucked from his home in a small fishing community to be trained at SAB. If you haven’t seen it yet … go watch it right now! This film is one of my new favorites, if only for the much-deserved coverage of Black Swan set coach Olga Kostritzky, one of the best teachers I ever had (as one of my level’s main teachers at the 2001 Rock SI), and for the extensive footage of Balanchine style and choreography, since there’s isn’t a ton of the stuff on DVD.

But there is much more to this film than footage of SAB teacher-gods like Ms. Olga, Jock Soto and Peter Boal. It is the story of Sokvannara “Sy” (pronounced “See”) Sar, a young man with a remarkable spirit who is plucked from his home country and thrust into the world of pre-professional ballet training by the hand of an intentionally benevolent (though perhaps difficult to like) New York socialite Anne Bass.\

This film might as well be dedicated to honor international ballet students everywhere, as it does an excellent job of talking openly – often through Sy’s own words – about the inevitable emotional consequences of being so far from your home, your family, your language and everything you’ve known. In this case, the scarring was exacerbated by Sy’s lack of control over his fate for the first few years of his training. Unlike some international students, he did not really choose to leave his country for ballet training, ballet chose him. He knew it was a chance to support his family that he couldn’t possibly turn down, though he neither spoke English nor had seen ballet before Bass brought him a ballet film and radically suggested that he leave everything he’d ever known for this bizarre, western pursuit.

Sy’s journey is simply fascinating. He was entered into the Professional Children’s School for academics but was not instantly accepted to SAB despite the pleas of Anne Bass to Peter Martins. Instead, Sy falls into the singularly capable hands of Ms. Olga, who takes on the task of molding the 16-year old Cambodian through private classes from basically a pedestrian into a SAB-level phenom. You’ll have to watch the film to find out what happens from there, but suffice it to say his future would include a little town called Varna.

Dancing Across Borders is available streaming on Netflix and can be purchased, along with t-shirts and posters, at the official site. Proceeds from the official shop go directly towards Nginn Karet Foundation for Cambodia’s “Give a Future to a Child of Angkor”, a program that helps children fulfill their dream to follow in the footsteps of dancers and musicians seen on Angkor Wat and other ancient Khmer temples. Please consider making a purchase from the Dancing Across Borders official shop.

Spoiler Alert! I noticed that the Washington Post article that I linked above mentions rather forebodingly that Sy quit PNB recently. I didn’t want you left hangin’ on where he is now so I did some searching, and it appears from Saint Louis Ballet’s facebook page that he will be joining them for the Spring 2011 season.

Finding The Best College Dance Program for You

Dancing in a great college program gives you the opportunity to refine your dancing to a professional level through one major while preparing for a “back-up” career with a second major – or to continue doing what you love while pursuing your academics. But as a student making plans for dancing in college, you have more to think about than the average teen. What program is right for me? How tough will it be to find what I need from a college program? Can I find the same or better quality training than what I’ve had up to now? Are there programs that focus seriously enough on my dance genre that I can have a chance to turn pro after college? How do I begin researching good dance college programs?\

According to College Matchmaker, which provides links to and info on thousands of colleges, there are 254 four-year colleges in the U.S. with majors for ballet, dance or musical theater. That’s a lot to consider, especially if you don’t even know what you should be looking for. An excellent place to start your planning is by reading through Dance Advantage’s college guide. This section of the DA website provides invaluable information from how to decide what you are looking for in the first place to how to excel once you are there, plus a nice list of external articles and websites to get you well on your way creating and narrowing down your list of colleges.

There is a lot to be gained by pursuing a higher education while refining yourself as a dancer. If you are not sure whether to even continue dancing while in college or whether to skip college altogether and pursue a career in dance immediately, researching your options thoroughly before deciding can give you a more realistic picture so that you can fully assess all the pros and cons.

What makes the “best” college for you will depend on a variety of factors, including your goals in dance, whether you want to get to a pro level via college or go recreational, and what kind of college dance programs are available to you financially. If you have professional contract offers already and are considering accepting one, you should seriously research your options for pursuing your education in that city, though you may not opt for a dance program at all. During your research, don’t get too hung up on terminology for dance programs (B.A. vs. B.F.A, for example). Focus on the instructor quality, the program’s intensity, class offerings, performance opportunities, facilities and of course where the alumni are now. Good programs will require an audition.

Lastly, consider whether to treat your college education and your dance education as separate pursuits, just as you may have done during your high school years. If you have access to a superior dance school, there may not be a college program available to you that will surpass it, so that it is certainly worthwhile to consider enrolling in the dance conservatory or school to continue with dance while taking non-dance college courses. There is a wide variety of quality in U.S. college dance programs today, but for an idea of what to expect, check out this article from Dance Informa Magazine.

As you can tell, there are many, many options to consider even before you start examining college dance programs. But it’s not as daunting as it might seem! Take control of your college future by delving into the articles and links I’ve provided, and before you know it you’ll be well on your way to planning your college career.

Love Your Dance Teacher? Nominate Her! (Or Him!)

Dance Teacher Magazine is seeking student submissions for their 2011 Dance Teacher Awards. Exceptional teachers may be honored by a Dance Teacher Award at the 2011 Dance Teacher Summit! Click here for submission requirements and nomination categories.

Show your favorite dance teacher how much he or she means to you with a nomination for a Dance Teacher Award!

Update: Dance Studio Life and Dance Life TV are also sponsoring a teacher award program, the Dance Life Teacher Conference Scholarship Program. The DLTC program is held in three rounds of essay, video and finally an editors’ vote. Your teacher could win a scholarship to attend the Dance Studio Life Conference and formal recognition by DSL. Nominate your favorite dance teacher today!

Dance(212) is Back & Focused on Ballet!

A brand new series will soon be presented by Dance(212)! And this time they’ll be focusing exclusively on ballet students’ summer intensive experiences. Check out the preview here, and get ready to meet five exceptional and ambitious young dancers (including Hannah Miller, shown left) with talent and drive to spare. Tune in January 24 for the series premiere!