Ballet in Film: Breaking Legs

BreakingLegsFor each dancer who trains at a major dance academies, there are hundreds at humble local schools or living in towns where even basic dance classes are actually not available. Released April 25th on VOD and DVDBreaking Legs is a story for all the young dancers out there who are just trying to keep their dream alive, in the face of lacking culture, education, understanding of many around them.

Liv Southard stars as Bloom, and dancer/choreographer Mark Marchillo wrote, directed, and stars as her uncle. Southard’s natural facility leaves you wanting to see what more she can do, as her choreography seems limited to reflect the lack of training available according to the story. A dance highlight of the Breaking Legs is a completely iconic and incredibly difficult Kelly-esque classic dance sequence performed by Marchillo himself.

Both starring and supporting characters have complicated issues to address, and each have their own motivations, demons, and insecurities. Breaking Legs is a comedy, but actually addresses some dark human issues as well like addiction, child abuse, and infidelity. It offers no reassurances or solutions to those complexities, but somehow manages to walk a fine line to keep its comedic lightness throughout.

Presented with a vintage feel and nods to many of the decades of dance and film that have built to present day, this is a special cast and a quirky story with a ton of heart. Breaking Legs is a must-see for dance fans and students.

A Dancer’s Musician: Christopher Ferris

Two years ago, I tweeted about and backed a Kickstarter project by Christopher Ferris. Ferris, an artist, composer and performer with a gift for improvisation, works with the Evergreen City Ballet school and training company as an accompanist. I absolutely adore Christopher’s story on his first experience playing for a ballet class –  it was part of the first promotion video about the project here. Ferris became in time a dancer’s musician, able to create just the right mood and perfect tempo for every step and moment.

Working with dancers eventually inspired Ferris to create his own class album, and during the funding push he made some nifty videos where he thanked his backers to his own live music. It was just delightful to hear my own name. Sadly, the project did not reach its goal – but Ferris didn’t let that stop him. Like the true artist he is, Ferris doubled down his commitment to his work.

Today, Christopher publishes this inaugural album, Music for Ballet Class: Syncopé, available utterly for free to listen to here, or for purchase on CD or MP3 files. This body of work represents an enormous effort by the artist, the team at Lake Union Recording, photographer Tim Aguero, designer Ryan Obermeier, and the artistic staff of Evergreen City Ballet, including two former principal dancers with Pacific Northwest Ballet. Plus, it’s beautifully played on a spectacular concert grand piano.

It’s beyond generous for this music to be available free of charge to listen to. Check out the album, and if you like it – for gosh sake’s support the arts and these artists by ponying up for the CD, MP3, or iTunes version!

Congratulations to Christopher and all the artists involved in the making of this beautiful ballet class album. May you inspire dancers and dance teachers around the world.

Building a Dance Studio

2009.0142A number of students and colleagues of mine have recently decided to open their own studios. This was never my goal – I love the freedom of teaching without worrying about the hassle of owning a building or harassing parents for their tuition payments – but if your goal is to own your own studio one day, one of the biggest concerns will be how to build it properly.

Rory Foster’s excellent book, Ballet Pedagogy: The Art of Teaching (highly recommended for any aspiring ballet teacher!) has some wonderful tips on this as well as John White’s Vaganova-focused Teaching Classical Ballet. White has some useful comments on studio structure, making sure you have ample space for students to do homework, parents to observe, etc. If you are considering opening a dance studio, do yourself a favor and take a look at what these two books have to say about it.

For the dancing space itself, there are many demands: tap shoes, ballet shoes, pointe shoes, rosin lovers, bare feet… We all know what a great dance studio looks like – big windows, wonderful lighting, high ceilings, sprung floors covered in marley and preferably pretty and stylish! If you haven’t danced in one, go find one and do it. It’s like nothing else. One of my favorite studios that I’ve seen (only in photographs sadly, since it no longer exists) is the studio of famed New Orleans teacher Harvey Hysell, pictured above.

Fortunately there are guidelines available that go beyond the guesswork and which provide specifics for measurements, structure, and fabrication. If you are hoping to build your own dance studio one day, visit the website of the British National Dance Teachers Association, or NDTA, and take a look at their Studio Specifications. After years of experience, they have thought of virtually everything! Ventilation and HVAC, piano space, acoustics, lighting, accessibility, barres and tons of details in between. Lucky enough to have an architect? Harlequin Floors has a whole resource section just for them.

If you have dreams of owning your own school one day, make it the best it can be! Having and safe, beautiful, spacious dance space is incredibly inspiring for dancers and will make a big difference in their experience in your studio.

 

Audition Season is Just Around the Corner!

This past August, BalletScoop turned one year old. (Yay!) Back in fall of last year, it was all about the upcoming spring audition season for the annual summer programs around the country. This year will be no different, and if we have half the comments activity that we had last year, I’ll be a very busy bee! I love hearing from you all though, so please do post your questions and I’ll do my best to keep on top of them all.

Audition line-ups for the 2012 summer programs are not quite complete at many schools, so look for my 2012 auditions post in a few more weeks. In the meantime, get prepped for success by checking out two great new audition-related articles from Dance Informa, “Don’t Stress” and “Audition Do’s and Don’ts“. And be on the lookout here for info coming soon about exciting new books and dancewear.

Finally, I stumbled on a new blog I’ve just added to the blogroll, SteelsBallet, written by an intelligent and talented young dancer, Sarah Steele, who is pictured above and is currently training at the Valentina Kozlova Dance Conservatory of New York. (Be sure to check out the archive page, which is an easy to browse collage of all her posts to date.) Follow along as she tackles pre-calculus by day and pas de deux by night.

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!

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!

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!

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.

Inspirations for Late Beginners

Good teachers are careful to caution teen beginners and young dancers generally on the harsher realities of professional prospects combined with beginning “late”, as we very well should. But today I’d like to spend a moment to highlight some great late-beginner success stories of our day. (Female dancers often encounter a higher standard of technique in the professional world and require more years of preparation than men, so we’ll focus on ballerinas here. Also, when you read that a dancer began “formal” or “serious” training at a certain age, that usually indicates that they took recreational dance classes before that.)

Recently highlighted on Dancing With the Stars (a show that recently has recently done a nice job promoting classical dance and its relevance to modern entertainment), Patricia Zhou began serious dance training at about 13 years old. Now 17, Ms. Zhou has made a splash in the international competitions and climbed all the way to the professional ranks of her dream company, The Royal Ballet. Her extraordinary gifts coupled with dedication, hard work and luck have catapulted her into a world that her parents would have had her forego for academics, making the Zhou a testament to passion and perserverance. Enjoy this clip of her on national television:

Kristi Boone, soloist with ABT, also began at thirteen. She had natural facility for ballet’s demands and talks about her first experiences in this ad for Gaynor Minden.

Superstar principal of New York City Ballet Wendy Whelan didn’t start serious training until relatively late, though she did take dance as a youngster. You can listen to her talk about her training path here.

Vannesa Sah, of the tech-savvy pre-professional company Anaheim Ballet, didn’t begin ballet until college. She has some lovely words of encouragement and advice for late-starters here.

Recently retired darling of The Royal Ballet Darcy Bussell began her formal training at the school at White Lodge at 13. Bussell did have some prior dance training then. Her epic career has been an inspiration to aspiring ballerinas of all levels.

Carmen Corella,  Artistic Director and principal dancer with the recently founded Corella Ballet Castilla y León, began her training at around 13 as well. After a successful career reaching to a soloist position at ABT, Corella followed her brother, ABT principal Angel Corella to found their new company with a little help from another later beginner you may have heard of, Natalia Makarova.

Most recently seen in the national campaign for BlackBerry, Misty Copeland is not only a late beginner, having started at 13, but is also the first African-American in two decades to achieve soloist rank at American Ballet Theatre. She has also significantly helped broaden acceptable and appreciated body-types in professional ballet. Clearly Ms. Copeland has multiple broken barriers in the ballet community through her undeniable excellence.

Naturally, I am still going to caution you that a professional contract is a mighty goal even for a female dancer who began at a proper age for it! But like Vanessa Sah, you can certainly find a happy ending for your dance training if your goals are to learn how to express yourself enjoyably through movement in a challenging classical vocabulary. Or would that be a happy beginning?

Update: A reader has pointed out that Zhou’s own résumé indicates that she attended a summer program in 2005 (six years ago) and has taken many Cecchetti exams. I generally try to respect artists wishes to exclude training that they feel was not of a level sufficient to designate it as part of their education. While Zhou indicates that she attended summer dance camp in 2005, I would be suspect of any summer dance program with the word “camp” in it. In fact, the current program is advertised as less than two weeks of instruction.

Zhou does not mention any other ballet training on her resume before Kirov in 2007, so I have chosen to respect her implication that whatever took place before then was too low-quality to have influenced her career to any possible degree. In fact, in this article, Zhou discusses that she didn’t even know that Sleeping Beauty was a ballet, leaving one to wonder if her original school did more harm than anything. As you know, it is much harder to undo bad training than learn from scratch. That said, I do not know anything about her former school personally, so feel free to research it (named in that article) and decide for yourself. I’m also sorry to say that from what I have witnessed, Cecchetti exams in the US do not necessarily provide any indication of whether a student has learned ballet. I have seen many passing students who were wholly pedestrian. Read this post on BalletTalk to understand more about the risks of poor schools, even those who may talk of their Cecchetti exams. This is an important topic that probably deserves its own post, but that will have to wait for another day! The reader has brought a very important issue to the table, and I hope I have done the matter justice for the time being.

SIs For the Not-So-Early Bird

Hopefully you are all set to attend the summer intensive of your dreams in just a few weeks! But if your summer plans fell through or you simply got a late start this audition season, all is not lost – You still have time to submit DVD auditions to a handful of summer programs with later deadlines. Some are smaller, “regional” intensives, or those just starting out. A few are tied to college dance programs, which makes them an excellent way to try a campus and its faculty on for size. Check out these options:

University of North Carolina School of the Arts (May 13, 2011)

The School Ballet Noveau Colorado (June 1, 2011)

Princeton Ballet School (space available basis)

University of Indiana (May 13, 2011)

North Carolina Dance Theatre (space available basis)

Virginia School of the Arts (space available basis)

BalletMet Columbus (space available basis)

San Diego Ballet (May 21, 2011)

Florida State University (space available basis)

Ballet Royale Minnesota (May 1, 2011)

Be ready to get waitlisted if programs have filled. Also, a few intensives may be willing to accept late applications, particularly in a tough economy like this where not all registrants may be able to come up with tuition money. Call around to see if this is the case for specific programs that you are interested in, but note that it never makes a particularly good impression to ask for such an allowance.

Know of a late-acceptance summer intensive that I missed? Please post it in the comments to help out your fellow dancers!

The Sensationalizing of Classical Ballet

The lingering effects of Darren Aronofsky’s dark creation, Black Swan, have become the bane of many dancers’ (and teachers’) conversations. Non-ballet goers now often react with shock when meeting a dancer or former dancer and may post outlandish questions about his or her lifestyle, thoughts and training. Though the majority of dancers only think of Black Swan as the imaginative fiction tale that it is, it has created an opportunity for dissatisfied dancers to capitalize on their unhappiness as one former student, “Hannah”, chose to do through Seventeen Magazine. (Check out School of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet director Melanie Doskocil’s thoughtful analysis of the article here with a link to Hannah’s article as well.)

Black Swan is not about ballet. It’s about a disturbed young woman with a dysfunctional life and the effects of those features as they play out against the backdrop of her career. Because ballet dancers often sacrifice typical teenaged pasttimes to reach their goals and are usually very focused, ballet became a target for the grand exaggeration the filmmakers wanted. Keep this in mind as you field questions from non-dancers and digest inflammatory articles.

There are happy and unhappy stories in all walks of life. Your ballet training has a lot to do with choices you make. If you look for a school that has the best interest of each student in mind, you will not find what Hannah described. And if you love ballet whether or not you want to go pro, you’ll dance instead of doing other things because you find that makes you happy – not because someone is making you or you have an obsessive disorder. The main character in Swan would probably have had just as tragic an end whether she made her living as a doctor, lawyer or pet groomer. Similarly, it is very likely that Hannah -due to her personality, emotional issues, upbringing or a combination – would have had the same issues that she experienced whether she was in ballet, football, piano or any other activity at an intense, pre-vocational level. Pre-professional training in any sport or art is not for everyone. If you find that it makes you miserable, you are probably best to move on or pursue it only recreationally – but that doesn’t mean that the sport or art is to blame.

Let’s talk about Hannah’s specific complaints, like exhaustion, dancing on serious injuries, excessive dieting, and abusive teachers. Unfortunately, these problems are not unique to ballet training, but they are not typical of ballet training either. A quality school, while selective or even competitive, will still nurture and safely train its students in a positive environment. That is not to say that there will not be stressors, but abusive language and encouragement of unsafe nutrition are insupportable and should never be accepted as “how things are” in ballet training. And no good school would allow or encourage a dancer to sacrifice a badly-injured limb for the sake of role promotion, though it sounds like the dancer here took it upon herself to make that bad decision. When you are injured, you do not have to “just suck it up” – You have understudies.

And I have to mention the feet thing – bruised toenails and blisters are usually the result of badly fitting pointe shoes and technique issues. (Click herehere and here to learn how to avoid that.) Occassional blisters, however, will not “deform” you.  I got as many blisters on my hands from having to sweep my driveway as a kid as I did on my feet from pointe shoes. Blisters are not fun, but if they caused deformity I wouldn’t be able to type this article.

As for the “cutthroat dancers” and “crushing competition”, there certainly are schools where animosity between students results from the school’s strict policy of ‘up or out’ systems, though that is far more common in the state-sponsored European schools. All I can say is, as a former student in a local school and later in national summer intensives, I only happy memories of my fellow students. We were intensely supportive and encouraging of each other, sometimes to a fault, because for those who really wanted to be there, we had a group of peers who we knew understood us.

Training to dance professionally is not all rainbows and hearts. It can definitely be very tough, but it’s certainly not a psychotic or masochistic practice unless you turn it into that for yourself. When ABT corps de ballet dancer Skylar Brandt was asked by The Rye Record about her training commitment as a younger teen, she said, “Socially, I have given up a lot of things other kids have, like parties, sleepovers and sports. There are just so many hours in the week, and to follow my dream, I have to be disciplined. It doesn’t bother me. I like doing ballet more than anything else.” And that’s exactly the point.