Go Your Own Way

For many ballet dancers, the road to joining a company seems straightforward: Start out at a local studio, transfer to a prestigious company academy, secure an apprenticeship and transition to corps member. But the truth is you can create your own unique road map to a fulfilling career—and possibly find something better than you’d planned.
Published in the August/September 2012 issue.

Whitney Huell took a chance on college before starting her career. Photo by Jesse Coss.

Joy Womack: The Road to Russia
As the first American to graduate from the Bolshoi Ballet Academy’s main training program, Joy Womack found fame even before going pro. Although her journey was far from easy, she feels it was the right choice. “My time at the Bolshoi created me as a dancer,” she says. “I now have offers from two companies in Russia and I feel ready.”

Womack began her serious training at age 9 with former Balanchine dancer Yvonne Mounsey at Westside School of Ballet in Santa Monica, California. She soon added private sessions with Russian ballet master and prominent coach Yuri Grigoriev. Her dream was to join New York City Ballet, “do the ‘American’ thing,” she says.

But her family moved to Austin, Texas, when Womack was 12 and she couldn’t find any strong Balanchine studios in the area. “I thought it was the end of the world,” she says, with a laugh. Intrigued by videos of Russian dancers (“I fell in love with Diana Vishneva”), Womack enrolled at the Vaganova-based Austin School of Classical Ballet.

Just a year later she was offered a scholarship to the Kirov Academy of Ballet of Washington, D.C.  Yet she received little encouragement once there. “They told me I didn’t have enough turnout or flexibility,” she says. In her second year, she was told that she would need to look for another school. She was heartbroken.

Luckily, during American Ballet Theatre’s New York summer intensive, former ABT principal Leslie Browne had given Womack a vote of confidence, and encouraged her not to give up. So Womack returned to New York to audition for ABT’s school. While there, an unexpected opportunity arose: A master class with the Bolshoi’s Nathalia Arkhipova led to an invitation to study at Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet Academy.

Arkhipova took Womack under her wing, pushing her to prove herself. Womack was the first American to train in a class with Russian students at the famed academy. She spent tireless hours in the studio and hustled to learn the language. One of only 10 in her level, she was consistently given opportunities to dance leading roles during the school’s performances on the Bolshoi stage–in front of more senior Russian students.

Womack believes her winding road gave her the confidence to succeed in any situation: “That American encouragement and Russian work ethic was an important mix,” she says. “Sometimes it was hard to fit the mold and be successful at each school I went to. But I wouldn’t be the artist I am without all of these influences.”

[Editor's note: After this story went to press, Womack became the first American woman to sign a contract with the Bolshoi Ballet.]


Whitney Huell: School Smarts
As a serious African-American ballet student, Whitney Huell grew up with her heart set on joining Dance Theatre of Harlem. But just as she was about to graduate from the South Carolina Governor’s School For Arts and Humanities, the company went on hiatus. Huell was determined not to let the setback derail her dreams. She decided to continue her training in a college program that would prepare her for a professional life.

The South Carolina native entered Indiana University’s well-respected ballet program. “It wasn’t my favorite option at the time, and it was definitely unconventional in my mind,” she says. Yet she met with a happy surprise on campus. “I loved, loved, loved it,” she says, with a giggle. “I had always enjoyed school, and at IU I had a balance of academics and dance. Plus, I was able to graduate in three years; the ballet program staff know you have to get out into the real world.” IU turned out to be the perfect fit for Huell: She enjoyed full days of dancing, learned a variety of techniques and got plenty of performance opportunities, since the program is set up with an eye toward helping students achieve their career goals.

In her last year, Huell was snatched up by Ballet West director Adam Sklute for Ballet West II, and he soon promoted her to the main company. “When I started at Ballet West, I realized IU had been exactly like a company in terms of workload and amount of rehearsal,” she says. “It was like a company in size, too. All of the 40 students were motivated and passionate, just like professionals, and they pushed me to work my hardest.” Although she had initially feared college would take her away from the ballet world, it actually gave her a realistic taste of a professional dancer’s life.

College also gave her perspective. She grew as an artist through working with a variety of choreographers, such as former Paris Opéra Ballet dancer Jacques Cesbron and former NYCB dancer John Clifford. “The whole experience opened my eyes to things I’d never been exposed to,” she says, “from frat parties and friends outside ballet to choreography being set on us.”
Although it was tough to be older than other members of Ballet West II, “I know I made the right decision,” Huell says. “It serves me. After ballet I have a degree to fall back on!”

Emily Kadow: Daring Decisions
This season, Emily Kadow joined San Francisco Ballet as one of the rare dancers in the corps who didn’t come through the company school. Instead, she created her own path. From the very start of her training, Kadow sought out teachers who would serve her best.
Originally from Tampa, Florida, Kadow’s family moved to Pennsylvania when Kadow was 6 so that her sister could train at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. Kadow enrolled soon after. “Right away I wanted to dance seriously,” Kadow says. She studied under Marcia Dale Weary, with a style Kadow says “isn’t Balanchine, but has Balanchine influences. She makes you very strong with several classes a day.”

They moved back to Florida four years later, and Kadow studied privately under Javier and Isabel Dubrocq, gaining Cuban and Russian technique, a far cry from Dale Weary’s approach. “It was very slow compared with what I was used to,” she says. “But now Russian style—the port de bras, the footwork, the way they turn—is my favorite.” Kadow wanted to explore the technique even further, so she went to the Kirov Academy of Ballet of Washington, D.C.

A year later, after a chance meeting with master Vaganova teacher Edward Ellison, she joined his small academy in New York (at age 14, she was the youngest student). Training with Ellison resulted in a bronze medal at Youth America Grand Prix, and scholarships to both the Princess Grace Academy and The Royal Ballet School. Kadow attended their summer programs, but chose to stay with Ellison during the year. She felt she still had more to learn from him, and she wanted more of the lessons and style he offered.

Eventually Kadow switched to ABT’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School for the opportunity to train with director Franco De Vita. “Also, it was great to go back to a big school with kids my own age and other styles of dance,” she explains.

After a year, knowing it was her last chance to attend The Royal Ballet School’s year-round program, Kadow set up her own audition and was immediately asked to stay.

Today, Kadow is back on U.S. soil with SFB after a year dancing professionally with Ballet du Capitole in Toulouse, France. Her oscillation between techniques and school sizes while training helped her discover who she is as a dancer. “Sometimes it got confusing because I’d get contrasting instruction,” she says. “But I would just try both ways, and decide what worked best for me. You can stay at one school and be a great dancer. But if you want to experience different things, change! You have to decide for yourself.”

Lauren Kay is a dancer and writer in New York City.