Finding the Best Ballet Training for Men

I was recently pleased to find out that one of the readers here is the dad of a young male dancer. Balletboydad commented yesterday on the 2011 Summer Intensives post: I wish to have more insight on strongest schools for male instruction going into next summer. My son is 13 and has received scholarships to the schools he has auditioned for. He has gone to Boston Ballet, Pittsburgh Ballet and is currently at Jose Manuel Carreno’s 4 week program.

First off, Balletboydad, welcome here! I am sure you noticed I’ve catered this site to females dancers in training – my strongest area of knowledge. Though I hope to study in-depth in the future about the specific needs of male dancers, right now there are many others more qualified than me to handle that topic. That said, you are always welcome here! And I will do my best to answer your question and direct you to other resources that I think will be most helpful.

You’ve probably already discovered that the best schools for males are generally those with a Men’s Program. These programs are tailored in that instead of simply sticking guys in classes with the women all day, the women and men are divided for most of the day, perhaps after one technique class together in the morning. Men study men’s technique, strength and conditioning, batterie, men’s variations, men’s character dance, etc. In the most traditional programs, the only time that men and women are together is for partnering or newer techniques like jazz. (I recall that when I attended BBS many years ago, this was how they ran.) Other programs have men’s classes that simply meet 2 or 3 days a week.

As for specific schools, those that have developed reputations for having some of the strongest men’s programs include Houston Ballet Academy, School of American Ballet, San Francisco Ballet School, Pacific Northwest Ballet School and Miami City Ballet School. Boston Ballet School has an excellent reputation as well, and I hope it lived up to that for you. Also check out Ellison Ballet, Nutmeg Conservatory, and Patel Conservatory/Next Generation Ballet. Carreno’s school is a bit young to have developed a reputation yet. I don’t know much about Pittsburgh’s men except that I’ve heard their numbers seems to be increasing in recent years.

I’m sure there are many young men who would be very appreciative of hearing your son’s review of the SIs he has attended, which can submitted at Ballet Talk for Dancers, http://dancers.invisionzone.com/. There is a ton of information there on U.S. intensives, though unfortunately fewer from a male perspective. Your son’s feedback could help other young men like him to make the better choices for their training. You will also find a very useful male dancer’s forum at Ballet Talk as well.

I recommend for 2012 that your son audition for as many schools as you can reasonably arrange, and see where he gets in and gets scholarships. Then take a day and, with your son, have a call with each school about what they can offer him. Get to the specifics of their men’s training and any other features you are looking for, e.g. nutritional oversight. Most programs will be happy to take a half hour to chat with a dedicated young man and his dad about what they can offer. Keep good notes, and then sit down together and compare programs with an eye to not only finding the highest quality programs but also which ones appeal to your son’s gut instinct. I think you will find you’ll narrow the list quickly!

There are some fantastic resources out there for men that may be able to offer more experienced insight than I can. I hope you’ll check out these sites and pose your question to their authors as well:

http://boysballet.wordpress.com/

http://www.balletformen.com/

http://www.tightsandtiaras.com/

http://mysoncandance.net/

Finally, let me to commend you on supporting your son’s pursuit of dance! Not all fathers are willing to do so for their sons. You are a wonderful example for other dance dads!

Ballet in Film: Dance Academy

If you liked Center Stage, you’ll love the Australian series Dance Academy, which follows heroine Tara Webster (Xenia Goodwin) from her rural home to the fictional National Academy of Dance in Sydney. In each episode, Tara faces (mostly) believable challenges as she pursues her dream of becoming a principal ballet dancer. A former big fish in a small pond, she discovers quickly that her fantasies about life at the Academy must be discarded as the realities of intense competition and a higher standard become part of her daily life. She and her newfound friends – and frenemies – together manage the challenges of the Academy and the complexities of teen life with humor and, often, guts.

This is a must-see show for any aspiring dancer. The dance scenes are choreographed well and in a variety of styles, the characters are enveloping and the costuming is great. It’s slightly bubblegum feel keeps the show fun when topics get heavy. The downright addictive Season 1 (trailer below) has concluded but can be purchased at the ABC shop. Season 2 starts in December.

Is My Class Schedule Pre-Professional?

The word “pre-professional” is thrown around a lot. I mean a lot. There are a huge range of schools in the U.S. that use the word in their advertisements – sometimes when it shouldn’t be.  What does it really mean to be pre-professional? And what is a solid schedule for a pre-professional dancer?

First let’s define this somewhat over-used word. Pre-professional is used to describe dancers who are training specifically for a professional dance career. Pre-professional training programs are designed for dancers who show promise for professional careers. Admittance is typically by audition and these dancers are trained separately from those who train recreationally so that the classes can keep an accelerated or advanced pace. Pre-pro training is also sometimes called vocational training.

So how many classes are enough? How much is too much? Friends, there are many paths to Rome. I am going to lay out for you an ideal progression with an eye towards the female dancer with an above-average natural facility, but there are exceptions to every rule. If you read this and find you are not where you should be, think about what you want to change – and then figure out how to get there! I started late myself by many standards and in a small town. First I had to catch up to those my age, and sometimes I had to piece together a good schedule from multiple schools. Very often it’s up to you to make it happen!

It all begins with the first dance class (after finding a the right school of course!) There are varying philosophies on the age for starting ballet class. Personally I believe that the earliest age for ballet should be seven. In Russia, the national schools accept students for formal training at around ten. Whether starting at seven or ten, by the age of eleven pre-pro students may be taking daily ballet classes. Pilates, Gyrotonics, or another strength and conditioning program can begin at this age too. When I say daily ballet though… I don’t actually mean every day,  I mean six days per week. No dancer should train seven days per week – the body requires a day of rest to rebuild and recover the muscles!

By age 12, well-trained and naturally apt girls should be ready for weekly or bi-weekly pointe training. As a part of an advancing curriculum, character dance is a terrific add-on in this year for beginning to train in expression, acting and a bit of dance history in a different classical dance form. Hours should range between 9-12 per week. Also at this point, it is time to start auditioning for summer intensives. This will help students to get their faces further out in the dance world, network and explore other schools and potential companies.

With the beginner year of pointe behind her, a dancer at thirteen is ready for more classes and more challenge! Pointe should be studied 2-3 times a week now, always split across the week as evenly as possible. (Guys will often start strength training for partnering at this point.) Also the addition of newer dance forms like modern, jazz and hip-hop are great. The body should be technically ready to build off a solid classical base, and adding non-classical forms of dance as early as possible after that foundation is prepared will ensure that you become a much more versatile dancer. (Some extremely traditional teachers believe these classes are at best a waste of time and at worst harmful to classical training. I disagree with that very much.) A typical schedule at this level would be 12-16 hours per week.

By fourteen on this path, training can take 15-18 hours of classes per week. Girls should continue to work towards daily pointe classes by upping their schedule to 3 or 4 pointe classes per week. Increased mental maturity means that variations and repertoire classes can be added to the mix. These classes can be some of the most valuable for a dancer with her eye on a career in ballet. The choreography learned in variations and rep classes often follows a dancer for the rest of her career!

At fifteen, it is time for daily pointe classes… and pas de deux! (Many European schools begin partnering in early character classes and some U.S. school begin as young as 13, but typical U.S. training and also culture makes 15 a better choice here.) Twice weekly is great for pas classes, but weekly is certainly fine. A dancer at this stage should be training for about 20-25 hours a week.

In the last two years of training, cross-training might be introduced. (Think cardio and special exercises done during the dancer’s free time.) Training hours should increase to 24-30 per week. At the same time, performance opportunities should increase as technique becomes more established and artistry takes increasing focus. If you’ve been keeping track, our theoretical dancer now takes daily ballet class, daily pointe class, partnering, character, modern, jazz, hip-hop, variations or rep and a conditioning class – This translates to three to four classes per day, six days per week! And that’s not counting rehearsals (which don’t count towards technique training, in case you’re analyzing your own schedule), which would then be added on at the end of the day. I’m sure you can see why preparing for a professional career is considered such a serious commitment.

Now you’ve got a full-cycle layout of a training load for a pre-professional dancer. Does it sound exciting and wonderful? Or exhausting? Not everyone knows from the start if they want to pursue dance as a career. We can’t all be like Susan Jaffe, who dreamed about being a dancer and was sure from that day on! But if you are considering it, it’s really valuable to know what pre-professional training is like. Not only can you take a look at how much your would-be future competition is training, you can analyze whether you are getting what you need yet… and whether you want it at all!

Ballet Shoe Review: Body Wrappers A45 “Wendy”

Dancers are always looking for a reliable ballet shoes that will show clean lines and provides optimum comfort. The Body Wrappers A45 Wendy is a good start and tries to incorporate a lot of good new ideas, but overall it missed the mark for me.

The last, constructed of what they called TotalStretch canvas, was not as supple and comfortable to me as I had hoped but instead seemed just average. Which is fine, but I’m not sure why they marketed it as special. They say that it “supports and protects muscles.” While they did line it with a thin foam, I wish they provided info on what they are basing that claim on. They also claim to be antibacterial, which I do really like and I’m guessing was achieved by incoporating a chemical treatment to the fabric.

The last is curved for a right and left fit. The peachy pink color matched BW’s theatrical pink tights pretty well. It’s a prettier color than a lot of other brands have created. I liked how that extended the line, but they were still too light a pink to keep from looking gray after a few classes got them dirty.

I found the elastic drawstring to be a bit too thin, made thinner by its own stretchiness. I am not a fan of elastic drawstrings because they never seem strong enough to actually do anything. (Not that I love cotton either, considering that they offer almost no give – can’t we have a happy medium?) The problem was the same here. I did like the “lingerie elastic” binding and found that part really soft and pretty – it has a hint of shimmer to it. It did get a little fuzzy and frayed in the course of normal use.

My main gripe with these shoes had nothing to do with these superficial issues though and everything to do with the foam-padded heel. I love a shoe that incorporates impact absorption, but this heel pad was a huge impediment to proper fit of the shoe. It seems that BW did not calculate properly for the additional fabric at the heel that would be needed to include the heel pad, so the heel sat about an eighth of an inch below where is should – perfectly placed to irritate the Achilles tendons as much as possible and cause the shoe to come off the heel during jumps. This is just a terrible construction issue. What are the two main things a shoe must do? Stay on the foot and allow proper movement. Because of the poorly thought-out construction of this shoe, it could do neither. Tightening the drawstring only worsened the irritation and loosening the drawstring at all meant the shoe would pop off even more easily. Ironically, the packaging instructs that the shoes fit so well that most dancers won’t even need elastics.

All of this said, if you are a dancer who needs a lower heel – and I know there are plenty of you out there! – this might be the ideal shoe for you. Body Wrappers certainly had some great ideas, and I look forward to checking out their next try. I will continue to post reviews of the many shoes I have worn. Have you tried the Body Wrappers A45 Wendy shoe? What did you think?

Dear CBT: Does No Scholarship Now = No Contract Later?

If a student is accepted into the last two years of a selective company school without a scholarship, is she less likely than those who did get scholarships to be considered for the company? Is it more likely that she will mostly serve to benefit the school as a paying student? Or will she be considered to have equal potential for entrance into the company or second company?

I have been warned that only scholarship recipients move up into the company past graduation from these prestigious schools and have noted that most biographies of company dancers list their scholarship wins. My daughter was not present for the summer session that would have made her eligible for a scholarship. She was offered a scholarship for two consecutive years at another program but did not attend.

How important are acquiring scholarships and making it to the YAGP finals for determining whether a company will seriously consider a student at their school for their company? If these accolades are not in place, will the student be overlooked for advancement, no matter how hard she tries??

Thanks,

– Concerned Mom of a Determined Dancer

Dear Concerned Mom,

The short answer is: No, going to a company school without a scholarship or competition placement does not generally affect a student’s chances for employment overall. And here’s the longer answer! –

Scholarships are only one indicator of a school’s interest in developing a student and their belief in her potential at that specific point in time. We cannot extrapolate that out to years in advance because future events depend on the student’s continued development. Students who are expected to do great things will sometimes disappoint, and students who seem average sometimes work their tails off and take the lead. While many pros list scholarships, many do not. Finally, artistic direction can change in a heartbeat, leaving former favorites looking elsewhere for jobs.

YAGP and the various IBCs are a subject onto themselves. There is an endless amount of debate on their worth. Suffice it to say that they are one method that is great for particular types of dancers in particular situations (Vague enough for you? I’ll do a post on sometime to explain.), but a huge segment of the professionals did not participate in those competitions during their training.

Accolades like these indicate how the student performed during a snapshot in time. Certainly, those that succeed habitually tend to continue to succeed – that is why you see so many pros with such records. But these are not prerequisites to a good career, just indicators of possible career potential. Scholarship or YAGP placement or not, a dancer must continue to work hard, show her worth and improve. At the conclusion of training, the directors will decide whether the dancer should enter the company based on her capabilities at that time. I have cautioned people before that scholarships are great indicators of a school’s enhanced interest and the projected potential of a student at a particular moment in time – but they are far from a guarantee of anything. The same goes for the your situation. Getting into a top school without a scholarship (which is great on its own, by the way, and still show interest), is a valuable opportunity.

Not getting a scholarship has no bearing on whether a dancer will be accepted into the company. Grimly perhaps, all students are facing those slim odds from an equal standing. What matters at the end of the training road is: Is the dancer fully prepared to give the current artistic director what the AD wants and needs in a performer at the same time that a contract spot is available?

Summer Training: Workshop, Intensive or Camp?

Summer programs come in many varieties for all sorts of dancers, but they can usually be categorized as one of three types: intensive, workshop or camp. What defines each? Let’s take a look at each type of  program.

  • Camps – Dance camps usually accept a range of abilites and experience levels and offer classes geared less to professional aspirants and more to those interested in dance to expand their life experience and for the sheer joy of it. The focus is usually on improving technique with a few classes a day while leaving time for lots of fun activities and events for socializing and enjoying the summer. These programs can be as short as one week or as long as all summer. Examples of dance camps include Just for Kix Summer Dance Camps, Brant Lake Dance Camp and American Dance Training Camps.
  • Workshops -Workshops can have the same daily intensity as intensives, but they usually last just 1-2 weeks. Workshops often take place in university settings, regional schools or as add-ons to summer intensives. For commerical dancers and students working towards high-level versatility, putting together a workshop tour of multiple programs that span the summer is a great tool for training. Some workshops are dedicated exclusively to younger dancers or for choreographic experimentation. Examples of workshops include the Broadway Dance Center Summer Workshop Series, the Florida State University Summer Intensive Dance Workshop, the Regional Dance America National Choreography Intensive and the School of American Ballet’s Los Angeles Workshop for Young Dancers.
  • Intensives – Summer intensives (or SIs for short) are designed for professionally-oriented students and generally consist of 4-6 weeks of all-day lessons. They can be competitive and are usually associated with professional companies or residency conservatories. SIs may be based off of regional, national or international programs. Examples are the Boston Ballet School Summer Dance Program, the University of North Carolina Summer Intensive, the Harid Conservatory Summer School and the School of American Ballet Summer Course.

Any of these types of summer programs may offer guest teachers for a few days or weeks out of the program. If you are looking for an intensive, notice that the presence of the word “intensive” does not necessarily mean that the program falls within the above guidelines. On the other hand, true intensive programs may choose not to use the word “intensive” in their title. Take the time to look closely at the daily schedule, faculty and duration of each program to decide where each program falls.

How can you decide what type is right for you? That depends on many factors, including your available funds and scholarships, your dance goals and the specifics of the program’s training schedule and faculty. Make a list and consider your realistic goals and desires in dance. At the higher levels, an audition will certainly be in order, which could possibly limit your options.

Don’t assume that higher level programs are beyond your reach financially – I’ve seen many high quality intensives that cost the same as some smaller workshops. But note that the quality of one is not necessarily higher than the other based on cost, size or other single factors.

There are tons of options out there, and I’m sure you already have ideas about what’s ideal for you. If you’re heading to a summer program right now, think about your experience so you can decide if the program worked well for you. Think about what you want next year. There are tons of options out there, and there really is something for everyone. You have the power of choice, so exercise it!

Prepping for Summer Partnering

Partnering in ballet is one of the most exciting classes for many students – but it can be a little intimidating for sure. Students in local schools often find that their partnering opportunities are limited to conventions, rehearsals for specific shows and summer programs. For students seriously interested in ballet who do not have much access to partnering during the year, I encourage attendance at an SI where it’s offered three times per week or daily. (Some otherwise good programs offer it only once or twice a week – or not at all.) When its time to actually take the classes though, the initial excitement may morph into anxiety. What will pas de deux work be like? What if I mess up or can’t do what is asked? What if I don’t like my partner or he doesn’t like me? What if I do like him?

I promise you that you’re not the only one who feels this way. At many SIs, the majority of female dancers you are with will not have much partnering experience. And trust me, the guys are nervous too – they feel a lot of pressure to “be there” for the girls, and the less experienced ones may be very intimidated by those high expectations. Not to mention that they too have worries about getting steps right and getting along with their partners. Everyone is feeling pressure and nerves, but good pas teachers will do a few things to ease the tension for both sides.

First off, the pairing up will start the class. As you get more advanced, teachers may ask students to pair up on their own, but in the beginning and intermediate levels, the accepted practice is to line up the men and women separately by height and set pairs that match in stature. Some men may be asked to take more than one partner and execute each combination once for each girl. Partnerships might be set for the day, the week or the whole summer program.

In order to get the students comfortable with each other and to ease the tension, the teacher will usually start off with some very basic and often fun trust exercises. (This may be the case even with more advanced classes who are working with new partners.) These should also help both the women and the men feel comfortable with where the guy’s hands will be on the girl’s torso and extremeties. This is often done in a humorous, fun way, and you’ll have an opportunity to get to know each other better, experiment with the exercises and laugh-away some of that initial awkwardness.

From there, exercises will progress slowly with some basic hand-held walks and supported bourees. You might feel like these exercises are not what you came for, but as they say: you have to walk before you can run -or be spun and lifted! So don’t be dissappointed if you aren’t whirled around above the guys head in the first 15 minutes. Trust me that you will greatly benefit from mastering these nuanced exercises. And I think you’ll find that holding an audience rapt while gracefully walking across the stage and maintaining a connection with your partner is much harder than it looks.

Combinations will gradually add difficulty, with supported bourrees becoming preparations for supported pirouettes. Walking hand in hand across the floor may evolve into walking into a supported pique arabesque, which may in turn become a supported promenade. Jumps will start with basic entrechats in place and develop into well-coordinated lifts with running preparations. Before you know it, you will be pulling off multiple pirouettes, finger turns and a variety of fun, basic lifts. All in a day’s work for a dancer, right? By the end of the summer, you may be able to try your hand at some more intricate combinations and harder lifts or perhaps a small piece of classical grand pas choreography.

Dance Spirit recently published an excellent article with a collection of the best tips for partnering newbies from established principal dancers. I am loving this article because it gets down to the nitty-gritty of exactly what it’s like to deal with real-life partnering complications like accidentally hitting your partner and the difficulty of attempting to act as if you’re in love with a guy you barely know! Even many advanced students could stand to learn something from reading it; I remember a lot of women in my advanced classes who just loved to wear those tie-skirts with the ribbons out – not a good idea. So check it out for more details on what partnering class are really like and lots of do’s and don’t’s so you can be totally prepared, calm and collected when you get paired with that cute guy from Iowa for the summer!