Ballet in Film: First Position

Have you heard the buzz about First Position? This widely anticipated documentary follows six Youth America Grand Prix competitors. Director Bess Kargman’s experience as a ballet student is apparent in the footage, which films dancers with a real understanding of what makes dance movement something worth watching.

First Position premiered in Toronto earlier this month and is headed to film festivals in Boston, Vancouver, DC and New York City. A handful of stunning and intruiging trailers have been released, including this must-see extended version:

Youth America Grand Prix is the largest and probably best-known student ballet competition. Dancers compete for scholarships at international-level schools such as The Royal Ballet School and La Scala Ballet Academy, higher education scholarships at colleges such as Julliard and even apprentice or corps positions with world-class companies. Even those who do not medal are vying for the opportunity to be noticed by some of the most important and influential decision makers in dance today. Winners at YAGP often go on to rise to the highest levels in companies around the globe.

The stakes are high at the Youth American Grand Prix, but as YAGP founder and artistic director Larissa Saveliev reminded in an interview with Dance Magazine, “The medal doesn’t mean anything. We try to send that message as often as we can. The most valuable experience is the preparation for competing. It’s one thing when you take class and another when you rehearse a variation. And you have to learn as a dancer to able to perform under pressure. But when you are able to overcome your nerves, no audition will be a big deal.” Like the tagline says – Ballet is not for sissies.

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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!

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!

Dear CBT: How to Fix Popping Hips?

Dear CBT,

I used to dance. When I was about thirteen I got less serious, and I quit at fourteen. I am sixteen now and getting back into ballet, and an old problem I had is still around and annoying me.

When I extend my leg to the front, there is a point at which my hip will pop. It is not a subtle pop, but one that can make my leg shake and jar me out of alignment slightly for a split second. It’s not violent, but it isn’t gentle. (It doesn’t hurt, it just feels like stuff is getting rearranged. The pop is mostly felt from underneath but isn’t quite in the butt.)

I don’t remember having this problem when I was young and my hips were narrow, so I somewhat suspect that this has to do with the different angle after my hips widened, if that makes any difference. I don’t know if I should be stretching, strengthening, or both, or how to get at the muscles most effectively.

All I do now is sit on the floor with “butterfly legs,” lean forward with a straight back, and slowly straighten my knees while trying to delay the pop as long as I can. The right leg always goes first. I can get it to about half a demi plié’s worth of bend with effort, but just beyond that there is a pop.

What should I be doing to minimize this problem? It’s distracting and uncomfortable, and I feel like it inhibits extension that my flexibility would otherwise allow.

Thanks for your time. 🙂

– Snap, Crackle, Pop

Dear Snap,

I answered this question a while back in email, but I am posting a modified response now due to a recent increase in very similar questions. Hip popping is all too common in dancers. It is usually related to technique problems and overcompensation for a technical weakness through improper placement or alignment. Most of the cases I’ve seen have been tendon rolling over bone. Untreated, it can go from painless annoyance to painful, inflammed hindrance.

The most common diagnosis for this issue is “snapping hip syndrome”, which usually refers to popping on the outside of the leg when the iliotibial (IT) band snaps over the greater trochanter. Massaging the length of the IT band with a foam roller, careful stretching and (if needed) physical therapy can usually correct this problem. I personally battle with this issue, though it goes away when I care for it how I am supposed to!

Hips are complex systems, and sometimes snapping occurs at the front or, as in this case, behind the hip. Again massage and careful stretching can assist by releasing nerve and myofacial tension, though CAUTION must be taken not to massage the direct front portion of the hip without professional assistance, as this area can be very delicate and may be seriously harmed with improper pressure!

Clicking underneath or at the back of the hip to me indicates a possibly more serious issue, as this would imply development of a disability deeper within the hip socket, not around the outside of it. Forcing turnout could cause this sort of issue. In order to better understand these and other variations of hip popping, please read through these articles:

http://dancers.invisionzone.com/index.php?showtopic=22506.

http://www.theballetblog.com/q-a-a/newsletters/117-is-it-normal-for-a-dancers-body-to-crack-and-pop.html

http://blog.thebodyseries.com/uncategorized/16-dancing-smart-newsletter-62008

http://blog.thebodyseries.com/hips-knees/3-dancing-smart-newsletter-122807

http://blog.thebodyseries.com/uncategorized/462-snapping-at-hip

http://blog.thebodyseries.com/hips-knees/379-hip-pops-sounds-of-trouble

http://blog.thebodyseries.com/hips-knees/14-14

I recommend that you also have this page of anatomy handy in order to better understand the info:

http://students.clinicalbodyworkers.com/students/frame_page/muscle_chapter_3_hips.htm

Bottom line, I definitely recommend that you get a professional medical opinion on this from someone that has dealt with dancers before so they can determine exactly what movements are contributing and what technique problems you have that are encouraging the problem. Also, make your teacher fully aware of the issue. S/he should be able to work with you and your doctor to spot alignment and technique issues that may be contributing and help determine whether there is some greater anatomical problem.

Above all, listen to your body. These clicks and pops are direct feedback that your body is being harmed. Please don’t wait until your are in pain to figure out how to stop a damaging progression.

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!

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.