Pointe caught up with three college dancers last spring to see what it's like juggling ballet, academics and a social life on campus. Here's Kiahna Saneshige, a student at the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati getting her BFA in dance with a minor in communications.
Saneshige posing with friends in CCM's dance studios. Photo Courtesy Saneshige.
When Kiahna Saneshige attended Cincinnati Ballet's summer intensive after her junior year of high school, she knew she wanted a professional career but wasn't sure joining a company after graduation would completely satisfy her. "The RAs were all University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music students, and they gave me the rundown of what the school was like," she recalls. "It's known for the excellent quality of its dancers, plus I could have the social life of college and the chance to pursue another degree besides dance." Saneshige, who graduated from CCM in May, says the last four years were challenging but couldn't have prepared her better for her next step: a position with Columbus Dance Theatre.
Pointe caught up with three college dancers last spring to see what it's like juggling ballet, academics and a social life on campus. Here's Jackie Schiffner, a student at the Glorya Kaufman School of Dance at the University of Southern California getting her BFA in dance with a concentration in dance performance.
Schiffner with friends during USC's Trojan Family Weekend. Photo by Justina Gaddy, Courtesy USC.
Jackie Schiffner grew up in Huntington Beach, California, training in everything from ballet to hip hop. Now a junior at University of Southern California's Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, she was drawn by the school's mission to develop "hybrid artists." "Even at the audition, we were required to do contemporary, hip hop, improv. And the faculty was so focused on each of us as individuals, which has definitely carried over into my experience here," Schiffner says. Her teachers' influence has already inspired Schiffner's future goal. "After I graduate, I definitely want to join a company, but then get my MFA in dance to teach at the collegiate level."
Pointe caught up with three college dancers last spring to see what it's like juggling ballet, academics and a social life on campus. First up is Elizabeth Abbick, a student at Jordan College of the Arts, Butler University getting her BFA in dance performance and her BA in mathematics.
Abbick studying in the library. Photo by Jimmy Lafakis for Pointe.
Leawood, Kansas, native Elizabeth Abbick faced some tough choices her senior year of high school. Equally talented in math and ballet, she wanted a professional dance career but also desired to plan her post-performance life. "Butler University had always been on my radar because I knew the faculty was stellar and the students are the best of the best. I realized it could offer me both worlds," she says. Now a senior majoring in dance performance and mathematics, she hopes to work on the business side of the ballet world after her stage career.
Striving for higher extensions, more turnout and bigger jumps may be at the top of your agenda in daily class. But what about those finer points of your technique, the subtleties that make a dancer really shine? They need just as much of your attention, and letting seemingly innocuous bad habits linger will impact your overall dancing.
"There are no shortcuts in ballet," says Cynthia Harvey, artistic director of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre. "You can't expect good results by ignoring details that are the building blocks of technique." We break down five bad habits that are easy to overlook—but have a major impact.
I dragged myself off the plane after the 12-hour flight to Melbourne, stiff, fuzzy-headed from jet lag, and wondering if I could ever get pointe shoes on my swollen feet again. At the same time, I was bursting with excitement. As a 20-year-old corps dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet, I was embarking on my first major tour, which would turn out to be a challenging, exhausting and thrilling 10 days in Australia.
For any ballet company, large or small, contemporary or classical, touring is a fact of life. My tour to Melbourne as a young dancer was full of ups and downs (literally—the rehearsal studio was so slippery that I fell out of a tour jeté the first day and was sore for a week), but navigating my way through it gave me both insight and a suitcase full of strategies I'd use for the rest of my career.
Deep down, Dara Oda knew she wasn't ready. Despite 15 years of solid training at the School of DanceWest Ballet near her hometown outside of Chicago, by the end of high school she realized she still didn't have the technique or maturity for a realistic shot in a company audition. "It was terrifying," Oda recalls. "I was unsure of where I stood in terms of my dancing abilities, but I didn't really know where, or how, to improve." She did find a path to her career—she's now a member of Texas Ballet Theater—but she wishes she'd figured out that she was behind a lot sooner. "I'd had good training, but was oblivious to the fact that I needed to be doing so much more than I was."
Many students fear being in a situation like Oda's: arriving at a company audition only to discover that they haven't progressed technically and artistically as far as their peers. And with an endless supply of ballet prodigies online and in competitions, it's hard not to worry that you're not advancing fast enough. How can you make sure you're on track to meet your professional goals?
As a young student, Shea McAdoo’s classes at the Master Ballet Academy in Scottsdale, Arizona, were “strict, straightforward, very classical and purely Vaganova.” She appreciated the Russian rigor and precision, but when she was accepted to the School of American Ballet’s summer course at 13, she leapt at the chance to learn something new. The vastly different emphasis on Balanchine technique at SAB was illuminating: “It changed my whole way of thinking about musicality and accents. I’d never known there were so many ways to do a tendu! And the épaulement—I loved how they talked about light hitting your face, tilting your chin to show off your diamond earring.”
McAdoo’s experience was transformative, even when she returned home. “Of course, I lowered my arms back down in second and didn’t cross my wrists,” she says, “but there were stylistic choices I brought back with me.” Today, as an apprentice with Oregon Ballet Theatre rehearsing Balanchine’s Serenade, she credits her ease with the ballet’s fluid port de bras to her summer at SAB.
Learning about ballet’s various styles and techniques is an important part of a dancer’s development. With summer intensive auditions approaching, it’s a perfect time to consider broadening your training. While it can be initially confusing, immersing yourself in a style outside your comfort zone can be eye-opening and influential for your future training and career. And the benefits of diversifying your training can last beyond a single summer.
Let Curiosity Be Your Guide
Whether it’s Bournonville, French or Balanchine, every methodology has its own aesthetic, movement quality and areas of emphasis. Most dancers find that there’s one in particular that appeals to or suits them best. McAdoo’s admiration of New York City Ballet’s dancers made her want to study at the school that trained them, but another dancer might love the expressive port de bras of The Royal Ballet’s dancers, or the Vaganova method’s power and purity.
One thing is certain—don’t let an unfamiliar style deter you from auditioning for a school’s intensive. While some academies prioritize accepting students trained in their method, most don’t. “We don’t look for students who’ve had Balanchine training previously at all,” says Kay Mazzo, SAB’s co-chairman of faculty. She notes that most of its summer students are brand-new to Balanchine technique. Similarly, at Sarasota Ballet’s Margaret Barbieri Conservatory, two out of three intensive students are unfamiliar with what principal Christopher Hird calls the “English style” (a hybrid of Russian, Italian and French influences that result in seamlessly clean footwork and eloquent port de bras).
“One of the benefits of a summer program is being exposed to a different way of dancing,” says conservatory director Margaret Barbieri. “The dancers are learning to adapt to whatever is required of them that day, which is an important skill to instill in a student—they will need it as a professional.”
Mazzo says students should start investigating all their options early. “It’s important that when they’re still 12 to 14 years old they look around at different styles, schools and companies, to see what’s out there. Because by the time they’re 15 or 16, they should know what’s right for their body, what they like and what fits well for them.”
What to Expect
Venturing into a new way of dancing can be confusing at first. An overload of information, from the way combinations are presented to different terminology, can make you feel like a beginner again. Last summer, 16-year-old Sofia Yarbrough struggled to make sense of the specific ways the teachers wanted her to hold her head and arms at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC. Everything, from the language the Russian teachers spoke to the way frappés were done, was different from her home studio, the Ballet Center of Fort Worth. “At first, I felt like a fish out of water,” she says. But soon the new technique took hold in her body. “By the fourth week, the coordination started to make sense and feel normal.”
Mazzo knows how hard it is for students to grasp SAB’s trademark speed, attack, musicality and, for the advanced girls, taking every class on pointe. She counsels being patient. “We tell them on the first day, ‘Don’t be too hard on yourself,’ because this might be 100 percent different from what you’ve been taught. Take it one day at a time, and work on one new thing at a time.”
It’s also important to remember that what you already know is not invalid, and the basic concepts of technique carry across all styles. Alexandros Pappajohn, now a member of The Washington Ballet Studio Company, spent a summer at the Paris Opéra Ballet School when he was 15. “It was definitely a big change,” says Pappajohn, then a student at Ballet Academy East. Keeping an open mind helped him adopt the school’s emphasis on clean, fast footwork and épaulement. He admits it was hard to break ingrained habits (like how to prepare before combinations), but otherwise found adjusting to the French classes surprisingly easy. “Ballet is ballet. You always have to straighten your knees and point your feet. If you have good, solid technique, you can go other places and it’s not a shock to your system.”
Being able to do steps differently from class to class, according to what each teacher wants, helps develop versatility—a skill professional dancers need when adapting to choreographers’ eclectic movement styles.
“We instill in students that even if they don’t agree with one thing or another, they should soak up everything like a sponge,” says Barbieri. Last summer, students were able to watch Sarasota Ballet dancers rehearse Sir Frederick Ashton’s repertoire to see the intricacies of his style at work. “If they want to be professional, they have to incorporate different styles, and know that Balanchine requires steps to be done differently than Ashton. It also helps them learn what sort of repertoire they want to dance.”
After her summer experience, Yarbrough loved the Vaganova method so much that she decided to remain at the Kirov Academy year-round. But whether studying a different style leads you on a new path or not, exposure to the many unique disciplines of ballet is an invaluable part of becoming a strong, versatile dancer. While it’s challenging to learn something new, Kirov Academy co-artistic director Adrienne Dellas Thornton notes that students are capable of more than they may think. “Young dancers pick up the nuances of other techniques so quickly. They don’t have to fear losing something by learning a new method—it is part of the adventure of dance.”
Gavin Larsen, a former principal dancer with Oregon Ballet Theatre, teaches and writes about dance from Portland, Oregon.
Maura Bell was determined to have a ballet career. But as a high school senior, she didn't feel ready to audition for companies yet. “I knew I had more maturing to do, both technically and as a young woman," she remembers. Bell started researching collegiate options and discovered that Indiana University's ballet department hosted a two-week summer intensive for pre-college students. “The reputation of IU spoke for itself, so I decided to do the summer intensive to get a feel for what it would be like to go there."
The deciding moment came at the end of her second week, when department chair Michael Vernon led her and fellow students on a tour of IU's Musical Arts Center. “I remember standing on that stage—it's the size of the Met— and it just clicked: This was where I wanted to be, my dream school," she recalls. Bell auditioned for the ballet department that fall. Four years later, she credits the training and connections she made at IU with her ultimate post-graduation success: a contract with Saint Louis Ballet.
College summer programs offer students a chance to experience what life would be like as a dance major, and introduce them to a wide range of possibilities for their training and future career. Even those on the fence about going to school could benefit from spending a few weeks on campus—along with the strong focus on individual development, collegiate summer intensives allow students to meet year-round faculty and current dance majors, scope out the dorms and dance facilities, and do some major networking.