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.

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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.

 

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!

Dancewear en l’air: The Sleek Samurai Leotard

In the immortal words of Miss Piggy, “Hiya!” Yes, whether sheerly for clever marketing or from genuine inspiration, Bloch has created what they call the Samurai leotard, model L2042. But a cool name is not the only thing to like about this ensemble.

Constructed from a “microlux” blend,  the smooth surface is shaped into a curvy silhouette with wide-set and very short cap sleeves. A perfectly placed U back finishes the cut, mimicked by an open metal ring set into the left side of the wide neckline. Placement of the ring creates subtle ruching and a modern, slashed V-neck.

Available in red, black and two pastels, I’d opt for red or black to support the edgy feel of this leo. I’d pair that with black footless tights and a high bun for a look that says… HIYA!

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?