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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The Barre is Your Friend!

Ah, the ubiquitious ballet barre. But is it really needed for developing good technique? Why don’t other forms of dance use a barre? Where on earth did it come from?

As you know from this site, ballet originated from court dances that look almost nothing like the ballet technique of today. And as that dancing evolved, steps got more difficult and more balance was required for them. Eventually, dance teachers had their students hold on to the backs of chairs while learning the tough steps, and so the ballet barre was born. It’s hard to imagine ballet without it now – imagine beginner pointe in the center! Continue reading

Tis the Season – for Casting Stress!

Fall audition season is wrapping up and cast lists at tons of schools are either in the works or already posted. Welcome to casting season! Have you been waiting with bated breath to scan your school’s bulletin board for your name? Do you already know what parts you’ll be working on this year? Is it stressing you out? How are you dealing?

You know casting season can be tough. After a year of hard work and maybe a summer intensive or two, a lot of students dream of solo or even lead roles, but not everyone is going to get what they want. If you are still waiting for your cast list to be posted, how should you deal with the pressure of the wait?

When you start thinking about that elusive cast list and all the “what ifs” that you cannot control, turn your mind to the things that you do have control over. Ask yourself, what should I be working on in class to keep improving? What are my goals for this year? Most teachers will be more than happy to talk to you one-on-one about what you need to improve most and how to go about focusing on those issues. Working on strengthening specific areas of your dancing will help you to continue on a path to success regardless of how the casting turns out.

Have you already found you name up on the casting list? Did you get the parts you hoped for? If not, are you motivated to work harder? Or are you busy picking apart the students who got the roles you wanted? If the second one sounds like you, it may be time to take a deep breath. Casting season is often when rumors about favoritism and politics take hold and may start running rampant among students and even – shockingly – among parents. Don’t get caught in this spiral. All it will do is keep you from focusing on you and how to get where you want to be.

I know it can be hard – especially if you have friends or even parents telling you that you deserved the role that Suzie got, but I promise that 99% of the time, casting decisions are made with careful attention to countless factors. For example, different students need different treatment at different times in their growth – Sometimes a students needs to be pushed to handle a solo role, and sometimes they need to be pushed to learn how to dance as a team member or team leader in the corps. Once again, the solution is to shift the focus from other students back to yourself. Focus on your dancing, what you need to do to move forward and how you can work on things that might be holding you back.

Finally, if you got that coveted role you’ve been dyin’ for – Congratulations! But remember, the work doesn’t stop here. An important solo or lead role can mean much longer rehearsal hours and a tougher standard that you need to meet. A lot more may be expected of you than you’ve had to deal with before – and you’ll still need to get all of that homework done! Take advantage of the guidance that your teachers and directors can provide.

However the casting chips may fall, remember congratulate yourself for working hard and getting through a competitive audition process. And get ready to rehearse your butt off!

Ballet for the Teen Beginner – Part 3

If you are getting ready to take ballet for the first time, you might want a heads up on what to expect, from what the barre is really for to what the teachers expect from you.

When you arrive, find out where to put your dance bag and purse. If you need to change, find out where dressing or restrooms are available. You should be in your dancewear with hair pulled back and completely ready to walk into class five minutes before the start time.

Exercises in ballet follow a certain general order. The class is begun at the barre, which you are probably familiar with from movies and TV as a railing that is used by dancers for warm-up. The barre is intended to be a light support. You should always practice at the barre as if you will eventually perform the exercises without it – because you will! Hanging on the barre or gripping it are huge no-nos.

When you walk into class, the first thing to do is introduce yourself to the teacher. Even if you met her during your enrollment, it is helpful for her if you re-introduce yourself.

Next, find a spot at the barre about four to five feet away from anyone else so that you can perform your exercises without kicking or bumping someone else accidentally. There’s definitely an unspoken rule about who gets what spot at the barre. Students who have some seniority usually have favorite spots that are considered theirs. Wait a few seconds before choosing your spot so you can avoid “stealing” one from one of these students.

If it’s the first day of class for a number of students or if it’s the first day of the year, the teacher might go over some class rules. In case she doesn’t though, here’s the basic rundown of what’s expected:

  1. When you are in the studio, speak only when prompted or raise your hand when you have a question, even if class is over or hasn’t yet begun.
  2. Ask for permission to leave the room or leave early, and ask in advance if at all possible. Never arrive late. If you absolutely must, enter the room as quietly as possible. Do not enter or exit the studio during a combination.
  3. Adhere to the dress code. Be neat and clean. Do not wear ill-fitting items or those in disrepair.
  4. At the barre and in the center, do not get so close to others that you kick or bump into them.
  5. Do not compare yourself to others. Work towards your personal best.
  6. Do not leave the room without a thank you, small curtsy or both to the teacher and accompanist. (This is very dependant on culture. Watch the other students.)
  7. No gum chewing.
  8. No jewelry.
  9. Water is the only drink allowed in class.
  10. You are responsible for reading notices, cast lists and keeping track of important dates and events.

The barre exercises will begin with knee-bends and extensions of the leg away from the body. At first, your toes will stay touching the floor, but as the exercises progress, the leg will be extended off the floor in increasing heights. You might also practice balancing on two legs and eventually on one.

After the barre exercises, students work on center practice. As a beginner, these exercises will be similar to the work performed at the barre and may also include small jumps. As you progress, turns will be added and jumps will increase in height and complexity.

Throughout the exercises, the teacher may call out corrections to the class. You are expected to listen and apply them. She may also direct her attention to an individual student and might use her hands to physically move the student’s body into the shape that’s needed. If you are that student, don’t get anxious. Just listen and try to put into practice what she is asking. If its your first day, this might happen quite a bit as the teacher works to get you to understand the steps.

For the last exercise, the teacher might guide the students through a slow bow or curtsy combination called reverance. Once class is over, all students should clap for the teacher as a thank you. They may also then thank the teacher individually with a curtsy. Watch the other students in the class and follow their lead on this. Some teachers do not prefer an individual curtsy and thank you because they need to get to another class and move on with the day.

Don’t be concerned at all if you did not understand a lot of the words used for the steps or if you were limited in what you could do. If you keep going to class, that will change quickly. This is my final post in this three-part series – All that is left is for you to go and take that first class!

Congratulations on trying something new and entering the beautiful world of strength and creativity that is ballet. Enjoy it and good luck!

Ballet for the Teen Beginner – Part 2

You have selected a dance school and signed up for ballet lessons. Now its time to shop for your ballet clothes!

Your dance school should provide you with a dress code and a list of stores to purchase the items you need. Don’t go online to buy your first ballet clothes – you will need to try things on and get help selecting styles and sizes. You will need at least one basic leotard, a pair of pink tights, and a pair of pink ballet shoes. If you will be taking more than one class weekly, you may need another set or two of tights and a leotard. Depending on the dress code, you may also wish to purchase a basic short wrap skirt and some simple warm-ups or cover-ups for walking in the halls between classes or for warming up before class. So let’s talk about what to shop for.

Before we get started, be forewarned that you may feel a bit strange in a leotard and tights at first. They look and feel very different than street clothes! A question that new female dancers are often too shy to ask is: Should I wear underwear and a bra under a leotard and tights? Most dancers consider the tights to be the underwear and most leotards are made with a lining or shelf bra attached. (Wearing dancewear is very similar to wearing a bathing suit.) If you are not comfortable with this and prefer additional layers, there are many options available specifically for dance that you may choose from. Body Wrappers, Natalie and Capezio offer boyshorts, thongs, bikini cuts, bra tops, leotard-cut underliners and unitard-cut underlines. These are all designed in fabrics and colors that fit discreetly under leotards or costumes and that are moisture-wicking. Do yourself a favor and don’t try to wear streetwear underclothes with your dancewear. Street styles are way too bulky and noticeable, and they can trap moisture and heat that can cause, ahem, issues.

Now for the fun stuff. For your first pink tights, ask for a convertible foot. These tights have a slit on the bottom of the foot so they can be rolled up to the ankle. This is invaluable if you are planning to take other dance classes, like modern or jazz. I would recommend choosing Body Wrappers, Capezio, Gaynor Minden or Bloch tights. These brands offer various fabric choices, so ask the sales person to let you feel the different fabrics and help you choose the proper size.

For your ballet leotard, you should choose something simple in a comfortable fabric and cut. A short sleeve or tank version with a high back is usually best for your first leo to avoid feeling too revealed and to be able to wear a bra if you prefer or need to. Some good leotard brands are Mirella, Body Wrappers, Capezio, Bloch, Grishko, Freed, Sansha and Natalie.

Next your pink ballet shoes. Soft ballet shoes are made in satin, leather and canvas. If your dress code does not specify, try leather or canvas which are what most students wear. Ballet shoes should cover the toes, sides of the foot and heel. The sales person should help you find a size that does not bag around your foot but does not cramp your foot either. For advanced students, I like to see elastic criss-crossed from heel to arch, but on a beginner, I recommend just one elastic across the arch of the foot. Ask the sales person if they sell any shoes with elastic pre-sewn. Look for ballet shoe brands like Fuzi, Angelo Luzio, Capezio, Bloch, Sansha, Freed, Grishko and Principal.

Ballet shoes come in split-sole and full-sole. That refers to the leather pad on the bottom of the shoe. A full-sole shoe has a strip of leather in a footprint shape while a split sole has a pad on the ball of the foot and one on the heel. The idea is that a split-sole highlights and enhances the look of the foot’s arch while increasing ease of motion. It does, but note that a full-sole offers resistance on the arch that can be useful for pointe preparation.

Now to accessorize. Does your dress code allow for a short skirt? If so, make sure you know what colors are acceptable and if there is a minimum or maximum length. If the dress code just says “short”, look for a one-layer skirt no shorter than ten inches and no longer than fifteen. Basically, you want a length that covers the bottom of you leotard when you are standing still, maybe an inch or two longer if you like the look. The most common cut of a ballet skirt is a wrap style that you will cross in the front and tie in the back. If you don’t want that hassle, some pull-on styles are available. Look for delicate chiffon, georgette or tulle fabrics that flow when you move and swirl when you twirl!

Now for your warm-ups. Most teachers do not allow warm-ups during class, but they are great for protecting the muscles after class during cool down and between classes. They also protect against cold A/C. Some warm-ups double as cover-ups. Warm-up options are so numerous, I can’t possibly list them all, but some options include legwarmers, wrap tops, shrug tops, tunics, knit tights, warm-up dresses, knit skirts and shoulder wraps. Try on different styles to find what you like best.

At any age, it is really inappropriate to walk to or from the studio in nothing but a leo and tights. You should bring either a change of clothes or cover-up outfit to wear to and from the studio. A simple cotton dress that you can slip over the head works well for this, as does a sweatsuit.

If you have a gym bag, that should be suitable for your ballet gear. If not, you will definitely want to purchase a medium-sized bag that can fit a change of clothes, a water bottle, your purse and your ballet shoes and warm-ups.

Lastly, your hair. Most ballet schools require that females wear their hair pulled up off the face in a bun or french twist. You should can pick up hairpins, elastics, hairnets and anything else you need at a local drugstore or at the store where you purchase your dancewear.

You have everything you need for your first ballet lesson! Be sure to allow enough time before your class to change into your dancewear and style your hair. And get ready to enter an exciting world of art, emotion, strength and unparalleled beauty. In my next post, I’ll tell you what to expect during your first class!

10 Pointe Shoe “Don’ts”

Fall is nearly here, and with it a brand new crop of beginner pointe students. Are you ready for pointe classes? Perhaps you have scheduled a fitting or are just waiting for shoe-approval from your teacher. Maybe you already sat down with a parent or an older student to learn how to sew your shoes. Or maybe you are even entering your second or third year of pointe.

The CBT sees a lot of mistakes from pointe students in their first few years. Its to be expected, but if you want to jump the learning curve a bit, there are some pointers that can save you time, frustration and embarrassment. So with that in mind …

  1. DON’T rely on your parents. As you may have gathered from the above and prior posts, students should start taking care of their own gear and hair for class sooner rather than later. Having your parents take care of these things implies to your teacher that you are probably too immature to handle really advanced training.
  2. DON’T try to cheat in your sewing with Pointe Snaps or any other such horrid invention. Not only do they totally not work, they stomp all over the traditions of ballet.
  3. DON’T use Knot Keepers or tape to keep your knots in place. By all means, be concerned if your ribbons come out of hiding -Professional contracts used to include monetary fines for dancers that had this happen. But don’t ruin the look of your shoes by cheating with these things. Just learn to tie them properly.
  4. DON’T use rosin on your shoes if you have a marley floor. Here’s where innovation is a good thing. Rosin was used by dancers back when ballet floors were made of wood. It made the shoes slightly tacky to give greater connection and feel for the floor. Marley’s special makeup eliminates the need for rosin, and rosin can actually damage a marley floor.
  5. DON’T force yourself to deal with loose lambs wool or paper towels as your beginner toe padding. Those things are just far too much trouble for even the most advanced dancers these days. Again, the quality innovation and technology in this area is worth taking advantage of.
  6. DON’T overpad your toes. This is a super common beginner mistake. Overpadding prevents you from feeling the floor and pointing your foot properly, which makes the feet look like floppy fish and ruins your lines! Pad within reason, and as your feet become used to pointe shoes, periodically try to scale back your padding by going to a smaller pad or by removing them in favor of spot-padding.
  7. DON’T be afraid to try different shoes for a while. It can take quite some time to find the shoe that fits you best. You’ll probably get a perfectly decent pair the first few times, but its worth it to keep trying different things to find your most perfect match. You have to be prepared to learn the balance point in each new shoe you try, however.
  8. DON’T practice center exercises at home. At least, not unless you like taking off from dancing for six weeks because you sprained your ankle trying to do a piqué arabesque in your kitchen…
  9. DON’T expect too much too fast. Pointe training has to be done gently and carefully in order to reach the desired result. Every pointe student has had to go through the on-two-feet-facing-the-barre stage. You will be beyond that before you know it and glad you put in the time.
  10. DON’T forget to be proud of yourself for all the hard work you’ve put in and for everything you have achieved.

Bun 101

Does your ballet class hairstyle stand up to the force of chaines and multiple pirouettes? Nothing screams “amateur” like hair and hairpins flying. Oh, the embarrassment of the undone bun! But with just a little effort, you can put those pedestrian days behind you.

I expect students to start doing their own hair for class by around age ten. It can take some time to learn how to master the technique on yourself, but not half as long as you might think – usually a few hours of practice is all it takes. Today, you’ll get the 411 from the CBT on how to master this essential skill for dancers.

The basic bun style begins with a ponytail at the crown of the head. This step has to be done correctly in order for the bun to take shape properly. Use a good brush to sweep the hair evenly and smoothly into the pony. Dampening the hair can make it more manageable. Secure it with an elastic that is not too bulky, which will get in the way of hairpins and cause bumps, nor too flimsy, in which case it will need too many wrap-arounds and may break easily. Try to find elastics that are close in color to your hair. Use a light spray of hairspray (Elnett is a favorite of celebrity stylists and is available in a travel size.) to sleeken your wispies, or wait until the bun is complete and use clips to take care of them. Once the pony is in place, brush the hair in the tail to re-smooth it. DO NOT to coil the hair into a bun and then try to wrap a scrunchie or elastic around the bun … Seriously, just don’t!

The next part is the where it all usually goes wrong – here’s where you twist the ponytail and start to coil it around its base. What makes or breaks this part is whether the bun is kept close to the head with one hand each time the tail is coiled. If you don’t use a hand to secure the bun against the head as its coiled, you’ll end up with a cone-shaped thing that sticks out and looks, well, absurd.

After one full coil is made around the ponytail base, start inserting hairpins horizontally from the outer edge of the coil into the base, every inch or so of the circumference. Make sure to grab a bit of bun hair with each pin and a bit of hair from the scalp beneath the bun. That’s what connects the bun to your head. If you don’t feel a bit of resistance, the hairpin is probably just sitting in the bun and is not connecting anything to anything. As with the elastics, try to find pins that are similar in color to your hair. I find that U-shaped pins work better than “bobby” pins.

When you reach end, tuck the tail in and secure with a hairpin. Remember to secure wispies with clips; clip your bangs too if your studio requires. Voilá, a respectable bun!

Many dancers opt to also wrap a super-fine hairnet, again matched to the hair, around the bun to lock in bun wispies. Hair spray may be all that is needed for some, though others find these steps to be overkill. Whether you choose to do these steps may depend on the culture of your studio and your personal preferences, but both are must-dos for performances and auditions.

The ballerina bun isn’t just one style, it has many variations depending on the height wear the bun is fixed and what is done with the surrounding hair. A bun that sits very high on the head is generally associated with Balanchine technique, and a bun that sits low is often associated with more old-school techniques and, if the surrounding hair covers the ears a bit, with romantic-era ballets.

Once you’ve mastered the basic technique, play around with different configurations to find the style that suits you best. It’s a commonly held belief that the high bun is preferred for auditions, but the truth is that what’s best for auditions is dependant on what style the company or school is and what you feel most comfortable in. For class, its fun to experiment by adding a braid to your hairline, inverting the pony, braiding the pony or accessorizing with ribbons or flowers. There are tons of options out there – go have fun with your bun!