Ballet in Print: Bunheads

Multi-talented artist Sophie Flack has authored her first book, an intriguing novel about the world of a young corp de ballet dancer in a fictional company, Manhattan Ballet. Sophie is a former dancer with the New York City Ballet and surely drew on her nine years with the company in creating characters for the story. (She once said that she’d like to write an updated version of the famous memoir called Winter Season from another NYCB dancer.)

Ms. Flack was open to the press about having tough time departing from NYCB a couple years ago, as she was included in the controversial layoffs of early 2009. I could not be happier to see that she has made it through that transition and is fostering her creativity in new ways!

Swan Lake Samba Girl Tonya Plank was on location at a recent book signing with Flack, where long lines of blossoming balletomanes created an atmosphere of excitement. Check out her report on the event, and pre-order or pick up a copy of Bunheads through Amazon, GoodReads or select bookstores!

Follow Me!

That’s right, birdies, you can now follow me for musings, posts and all the ballerina-in-training news that’s fit to tweet! Check out the instant feed at right and click the “Follow Me” button below it to get in the loop.

As always, thanks for reading!!

BalletScoop Visits Dance Advantage for a Guest Article!

If you aren’t familiar with Dance Advantage, you are in for a treat today. I just contributed a teacher’s article to DA about my favorite ballet movies – I hope you’ll check it out!

Nichelle Strzepek makes sure to keep great dance articles coming at Dance Advantage. There’s something for everyone – teachers, choreographers, students and professionals. Click around while you’re there and you’ll find technique tips, dance history, dance news, dance games and way more for students. I always keep a link to this great site on my blogroll for you guys. Enjoy!

Dancewear en l’air: The Professional Practice Tutu

A proper rehearsal tutu can make the transition from studio to stage so much smoother, especially for pas de deux work but also for port de bras and turns.  Finding a tutu that gives the proper look and feel in rehearsal without spending a fortune can be a challenge, however. Rehearsal styles can run between $40-$350, a huge price range. For a decent rendition that will last with good maintenance, I’d look for a price of about $150. I would not recommend paying more than $200 unless you have definite plans to create a performance piece out of it, which is a different purchase in some respects. Anything under $100 usually looks rather amateur and won’t last, no matter how pretty they look in marketing pics.

Winthrop Corey Designs currently offers a lovely, professional-grade version at that exact sweet spot price of $150. Winthrop Corey is the Artistic Director of Mobile Ballet and on the summer faculty of Joffrey Ballet School NYC, where his are the official practice tutus. Each tutu comes complete with hooping and eight layers of tulle. The length is 14″ for women or 12″ for girls, and it’s cut to order for your exact waist size. (For a performance piece, you typically want around 15″ of length and 10-12 layers of tulle for women.) Available in black or white, the finished look is ideal for practice or a demonstration performance.

Dancewear en l’air: The Thumb-Loops Shrug

Shrugs were all the rage when I was a young dancer, but they gave way to off-the-shoulder, retro sweaters and modern, zip-front fleece jackets in the years that followed. Thanks to Black Swan, shrugs are back!

I’ve always loved shrugs because they offer warmth without covering up your pretty leotard. I posted on the Lydia shrug by Bloch some time ago. Mirella’s black shrug style M1105 is slightly looser in the arms for increased ease of movement and a more casual look. This warm-up also features thumbholes at the wrists for security no matter your port de bras. The long arms are great for a slight bunching. Get cozied up by pairing this piece with similarly bunchy legwarmers.

What’s in a (Ballet School) Name?

Whether it’s alphabet soup – SAB, ABT-JKO, SFB, PNB, BBS  – or one-name-celebrity-style – Kaatsban, Joffrey, Rock – major U.S.-based ballet schools often attract young auditionees by their name alone. But what is the actual worth of attending a big-name school? Will it help in your chances to dance professionally? Let’s do a reality check.

The most common misperception about ballet training that I encounter is the idea that attending at a “big-name” school will make or break whether the dancer will be able to secure a professional contract. This is simply not the case. But in order to understand why this is and what can make attending a famous school good, you first need to understand the process of auditioning for a professional ballet company.

The primary concern of most artistic directors when auditioning potential company members is the auditionees dancing ability, plain and simple. For serious consideration for a company position, you will usually need to get invited to a closed audition or a company class. The first step is to send an audition tape package, which may be very similar to an SI audition package, or to attend an open call. Whether you attend a cattle-call (open call) or send a DVD, the primary focus of the initial cut is your dance ability. More often than not, your résumé will just get a quick glance or perhaps not be reviewed at all before that cut.

Once you have auditioned live and in person, the AD (or more likely, the ballet master or mistress), will choose who they would like to speak to or see again. It is usually at this point that only those résumés will be reviewed with any real attention. What’s important to realize from this process is that the résumé is not something you want to count on for getting your foot in the door. The chances of it getting more than a passing glance in the initial stages are very, very small. (That said, your résumé is still an extremely important part of your audition package that should be planned carefully.)

So what’s the point of attending an expensive, famous school in a far-away city if it can’t guarantee you a job – or at least an audition? As you hopefully realized from the audition description, this is all about your dance ability. A high level of technique, artistry and quality of movement are what artistic directors want to see – and a big-name school just might get you there… or it might not.

You see, elite ballet schools across the country, whether big or small, have individualized strengths, features and areas of focus. One school might have small, mostly classical classes that focus on artistry and expression, while another school might have large classes where competition for attention and an apititude in a wide range of dance genres are required. A shy dancer that dreams of performing classic story ballets may not thrive at all in the latter school, but could potentially blossom and find her full potential in the former. The opposite might be true for an outgoing, naturally expressive dancer who is interested in exploring contemporary ballet or mixed-rep ballet companies.

Do you see where I’m going with this? It’s not at all about the name, it’s about the quality of instruction and finding the learning environment that will best accellerate your dance abilities. What you need at the end of the day is not some mythically ideal resume, it’s an ability to perform in class, auditions and on the stage very, very well. And the school that is going to help you do that is the school you should want to attend, regardless of how recognizable their name is.

In fact, name-recognition can and does prevent some young dancers from getting the best possible dance education. I’ve unfortunately seen more than one student pass on opportunities to train at smaller schools with great reputations for personal mentoring and instead jump on offers at glossy, national-level SIs or satellites. Sadly, these students quickly got lost in the crowd and came home challenged, but not as improved and inspired as they should have been.

There is another important caveat about the largest schools that is important to take into calculation. Whether intentionally or not, they will often take credit for a beautifully trained dancer who they did not truly create. That happens most often when an advanced dancer from a small-town school goes to a major school for a final year of finishing. (Remember Center Stage?) In these cases, the bigger school might indeed transform the dancer from a student into an artist (which the smaller school perhaps could not) but usually have nothing to do with the meat and potatoes of the dancer’s training. Recognizable names attract lots of auditionees, so that some schools are able to recruit dancers that are virtually fully trained and place them in their highest levels. (This is also a great testament to the quality of many smaller schools across the U.S.) Ask yourself how many of the advanced dancers were actually trained by the school’s lower classes.

Finally, for company schools, be sure you are not improperly associating the reputation of an affiliated company to the school. Certain companies only rarely hire from their own school, so that the company could be a completely unrelated picture of the school’s capabilities. You should also consider that a regional company’s school might provide more realistic opportunity for future employment than a national one.

Should all famous schools be avoided as expensive wastes of time? Of course not! Well-known schools have the very important benefit of attracting the very, very best staff. What’s important, though, is to take into consideration the many other factors that are important for good training. There are definitely U.S. schools that have built their huge reputations by simply offering only the highest quality training, however you still must be aware that not all programs are right for all dancers. Think carefully about what you need as a dancer, and then find out where to get it!

Dear CBT: Choosing My Daughter’s SI

Dear CBT,

In choosing between the NYC and Georgia Joffrey, Point Park University and CPYB, what do you recommend? My 14 year old will also be doing a 3 week instensive at her own studio in August, so no summer vacation for us if we send her to CPYB’s 5 week program.  How would you rank these options?  I don’t want her to over exert herself, but I’d like her to make notable progress this summer.  Thank you for any insight you might offer.

Undecided Parent

Dear Undecided:

I received a bounceback from the email address you provided, which is why your message is being posted.  I understand your desire for your daughter to improve without overexerting herself, but keep in mind that she’s probably not going to improve much if she does not push beyond her comfort zone a bit! The whole idea of summer intensives is that the dancers, devoid of school obligations, can devote double or triple the time to dance that they normally would. Of course you do not want to push her past what her health can handle, but six or eight weeks of dance will not over exert the average healthy dancer if they are kept properly fed and hydrated.

The conservatory-style programs you are considering are all very good. Your selection should be guided by your goals for your daughter. I will not rank the programs for you, but I will let you know what I know of them so you can decide which one aligns best with your daughter’s goals. Please read through Choosing Your SI and take full advantage of the resources I link there.

Point Park is a small program that has actually has had some success sending its year-round students into professional work on Broadway and in modern dance, though I don’t know if its had any success training professional ballet dancers. I understand that its summer session is comparable in intensity and hours per day to many bigger name programs. I don’t think dancers as young as your daughter can board with the other students there, however. Joffrey NYC has a great ballet program, though they also require modern and jazz. NYC is the most revered location. CPYB has an excellent ballet-focused program that also offers other classes but is really known for honing classical technique in ballet students.

Good luck with your selection. I hope your daughter has a wonderful summer.

Ballet in Film: Male Voices

A new documentary is in the works from Rhee Gold of The Gold School. This six-part series, titled Male Voices will feature the stories of nine teenaged male dancers. The makers of Male Voices followed the young dancers for three months of their training and heard candid narratives about their daily life as well as issues facing male dancers today.

The Male Voices series will premier on March 18 on DanceLifeTV.com with additional episodes each Friday. Don’t miss this important new dance film!

The Right Leo Size, Every Time!

As much fun as dancewear shopping can be, it can also be frustrating. There is a surprising amount of variation across brands. Pulling a bunch of leos on and off to see what flatters is trouble enough without the added complication of figuring out how the different brands are designed to fit.

As a dancer with a long torso, I found that taking my measurements and doing a little research on size schemes (and I have done that work for you as you’ll see!) took the hassle right out of dancewear shopping.

When it comes to leotard fit, you will need at least four basic measurements: bust, waist, hips and girth. To measure the first three, align a soft measuring tape parallel to the floor and wrapped snugly – but not too tightly – around the fullest level of your bust, the slimmest portion of your waist, and your hips at the hip bone level.* Wear the least bulky top and bottom possible (but nothing so tight it will change your natural size) and make sure you are standing in proper ballet posture with shoulders down and a square alignment for the truest measurements possible. Use a mirror to make sure the tape is wrapped properly for each measure.

Now for the research – which as I mentioned I have done for you! I have created a chart of all the major manufacturers’ ladies’ sizing guidelines for all brands that use a S/M/L sizing structure. (So no Sansha or Grishko, sorry!) You can download it by clicking here: BalletScoop Adult Ladies Sizing Guide. Once you have your measurements taken and written out, you can easily compare them to the chart and circle what size in each brand will suit you best. Voilà – sizing guesswork gone!!

*For pants, shorts and unitards, the hips will often need to be measured at their absolute fullest circumference, usually an inch or two below the hip bones. The waist measurement for pants should be taken at the level where the waist of the pants are expected to hit – that’s usually an inch or two below your actual waist.

Update: If you had trouble printing this size guide earlier, sorry! It is now on letter-sized paper, so should be easy printing now!

Spendin’ Cheese: Affording Your Passion for Dance

Unless you’re regularly receiving full scholarships for your dance tuition and sponsorships for your dance gear and other expenses, you may have heard your parents grumble more than once about the high cost of paying for your ballet (or jazz, or contemporary …). There are lessons, shoes, practice clothes, travel expenses, costumes and many other items to pay for in order to keep you in training.

First, the bad news: Your parents are right to question the worth of your many dance-related expenses. Don’t underestimate how burdensome it can be to support this kind of training on an average family’s salary. Good dance training and supplies cost serious money – often thousands and thousands of dollars each year. A proper dance education is a financial extravagance, and raising a family is financially challenging enough without this additional expense.

Some dancers are fortunate to have parents that can – and zestfully do – contribute to their talented offsprings’ pursuits, but more than half of the aspiring dancers I have known came from average financial backgrounds. So how can you make it all work? What do you do if your parents threaten to stop paying for your training?

There is some good news…

YOU can help.

That’s right, you probably have a lot more influence over this situation than you might think. There is a way that you can ease the financial burden, impress your parents with your dedication to your dancing and encourage them to contribute to your training. How you ask? By working!

Ok, ok, don’t click away just yet. Working doesn’t have to mean slaving away at American Eagle for a few bucks an hour. Though that is certainly an option! (Ah, the zen of folding a gazillion skinny jeans into neat stacks.) As a young dancer, I had a few sponsorships and scholarships, but I paid for a lot of my own training and gear as teenager with money I earned babysitting, teaching the children’s classes at my studio and even cleaning houses.

You don’t need three jobs on top of school and dance to impress your parents and be helpful though! Consider taking two babysitting jobs a week. If you charge $8 per hour, you could easily make over $100 per month. Agree with your parents that if they will pay for your tuition, you will pay for your dancewear, shoes and costumes – but you have to stick to the deal. Make sure you can pay for necessities like pointe shoes first and save up for any extra training programs and travel expenses before buying fun leotards and warm-ups.

If you can’t bring yourself to start working or to use your hard earned dollars to help your family with your dance expenses, it might be time to reevaluate whether dance is truly your passion or just a pursuit. If you enjoy it immensely but decide that you don’t want it enough to make sacrifices like this, you might find that you are happier just taking a weekly class for fun instead of a daily schedule. And that’s worth knowing for your own sanity’s sake! If it is your passion, you will probably find that you feel motivated to contribute and excited to be able to start taking charge of your own dance training.

As a final note: Money is very tight for a lot of people these days. My heart goes out to you if your family is dealing with a loss of employment or other financial hardship. There are undoubtedly situations where young dancers in this economy simply will not be able to continue to train regardless of how much they are able to help out. If this is your situation, know that there is a world of dance waiting for you when you are all grown up and on your own. There is a whole universe of people who started or continued dance after high school due to issues like this, and many of them love and enjoy taking class much, much more than they ever would otherwise.

Dear CBT: Too Late for Pointe?

Dear CBT,

I’m 21 and studied ballet from the age of 4 until 13. However I gave up and returned at 19 but had to stop due to lack of funds! I have my Bloch pre-pointe shoes and my flat ballet shoes which I do practice on, and I’d never buy pointes without a teacher’s instruction.

I’m looking to getting into training soon again, but do you think its too late to work for pointe?

– Ballerina Interrupted

Dear Ballerina,

Good for you for returning to your passion despite setbacks! First, I just want you to know that pointework is certainly not the be-all end-all of dance or even ballet. Ballet can be beautiful, striking and extraordinary without pointe shoes. I’m pointing this out because, not knowing your health nor seeing your feet, I cannot guarantee that you are eligible, but I will give you the parameters so that you can get going in the right direction.

Provided that a dancer is physician-approved for exercise, the only age-related barriers would really be related to bone strength – too young could mean the bones have not sufficiently ossified, and too old could mean they had reached a point of brittleness. There are other possible roadblocks to your success – genetic predisposition to ingrown toenails, limited flexibility in the tendons and ligaments to make an arch sufficient to get over the box of a pointe shoe and other such issues that are best assessed by a well-qualified teacher and your physician in-person.

Provided that you have no such limitations, the most important thing is for your pointe preparation is to get a quality teacher, preferably someone who has taught adults long enough to understand limitations that they run into and how to relay information in a way that makes sense to them. A good teacher for any age group will enforce a minimum of two ballet technique classes per week leading up and for at least the first year of pointe. You should expect at least two years of re-training to prepare, possible more. If you get there in less time, consider it lagniappe.

If you’ll go to my website homepage, look on the black menu bar and click Pointe Shoes. Read those articles. Then check out the Adult Beginner Pointe link on my blogroll to read about one adult ballet students foray into her first year of pointe. Finally, create an account at BalletTalk for Dancers, where you will find message boards moderated for professional dancers with forums for adult student technique issues and adult student support. Search those two forums for “pointe” – there are some great threads there. I think you’ll find these resources inspirational and substantively helpful for understanding what to expect as a potential adult pointe student. Let me know if you have any more questions after checking them out!

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!

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.