When Melissa Hough shifted her focus from her competition studio to the demanding Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC, she felt she needed more than regular classes to catch up. Newly committed to pursuing a ballet career, she sought private lessons outside of the school, working on fixing bad habits, like her tendency to pronate her feet. “I had been dancing a certain way for so long,” says Hough, now a first soloist with Houston Ballet. “Taking privates enhanced all of the work I was doing on my ballet technique.”

Deciding whether private lessons make sense takes assessing your own training and efforts honestly. If you have been giving classes your all but keep falling short of your goals, you might need to consider getting help from a different teacher. In some cases, you may need to leave your current studio or training program. More often, it’s a matter of getting some one-on-one attention.  But navigating the world of private lessons can be tricky, especially if your new teacher has a different approach than your main program. You need to show respect for your program, while getting the extra guidance that will help you improve.

Focus Your Goals
Finding a private teacher starts with looking at your current contacts—guest faculty, former summer intensive connections and notable coaches in your area. Be clear about the problems you want to address. Royal Ballet first artist Meaghan Hinkis, who trained at American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, started taking lessons at age 12 with New York City master teacher Fabrice Herrault. She felt that she had hit a plateau in her training and wanted to polish the small details of her barre and center work. “The simplest things tend to be the most difficult,” she says. “Hearing the same correction said in a different way can be the trigger you need for an idea to sink in.”

When she was a student, ABT corps member Skylar Brandt looked for teachers who were experts in specific styles, like former Bolshoi Ballet dancer Valentina Kozlova, former New York City Ballet soloist Diana White, former ABT principal Susan Jaffe and the French-trained Herrault. “Pursuing different methods and approaches helps create a well-rounded technique,” she says.

Keep in mind, though, that if you want to become truly proficient in one style, adding new teachers to your roster may hinder your purity, which is one reason why many schools discourage it. “Whether you’re 8 or 18, taking classes from other teachers will confuse you,” says Kay Mazzo, co-chairman of faculty at the renowned School of American Ballet. “Then we have to reteach what you’ve already learned and you’re actually taking steps back.” Additionally,if your dream is to join a school’s affiliated company, you don’t want them to think your interests lie elsewhere.

Finding Balance
If you want to seek extra training outside your program, discuss it first with your teachers and school director. While SAB frowns on private lessons, many programs permit students to seek outside help, providing they show real commitment to their core training. “Most of the drama surrounding privates can be prevented if you just don’t go behind your school’s back,” says Brandt. It’s a tough conversation, but don’t try to outsmart your teachers by skirting the issue. Someone who has trained you for years will immediately see if you start approaching the work differently. “Sometimes there were other students taking privates who brought a new habit or arm coordination into a teacher’s classroom and they were not pleased,” says Brandt. “You have to show the faculty you respect what they think and you need to maintain the style of your school’s training.”

Privates can also result in emotional backlash from directors and teachers. They put time and effort into shaping their students’ technique and can feel like a student has turned her back on their approach. “I had to take a lot of flack,” says Hough. She adds, though, that dealing with the conflict helped prepare her for the politics of professional life. Every training program has its priorities; gauge them carefully to determine whether going outside will create a minor or a major issue.

Are You Ready?
Venturing into the world of privates means taking a critical look at where you are in your training. Peter Brandenhoff, who has taught dancers from major programs in California and New York City, reminds young dancers to be patient. (He doesn’t recommend privates for students under 12, though many professional dancers, including Brandt, started taking them as early as age 8.) “The dancer should have a basic foundation in place so that the private teacher can complement that,” he says. Hough agrees that it is important to feel confident and grounded with your work at your own school before sampling other teachers’ methods. “Expose yourself to as much as you can, but always have your consistent teacher. You need a base that you can come back to, and you have to learn the rules before you can break them,” she says.

The work you put into your training lies with you. You don’t want to jeopardize years of effort, but you must be an advocate for your technique—and your own best interests. “We have a finite amount of time in a dance career, so question everything your teachers say—none of us have all the final answers,” says Brandenhoff. “Teachers always say we know what’s best for our students, but, frankly, some students know more about themselves than their teachers.”

Kristin Schwab is an associate editor at Dance Teacher magazine.


Troubleshooting One-on-One
Tailor private lessons to work on any personal training hurdles.
Polish your technique: Royal Ballet first artist Meaghan Hinkis took private lessons to slow class down. She felt she needed a cleaner, more precise technical base. “Fine-tuning was the key,” she says. “My privates would follow a normal class from barre to center, but the combinations were never complicated.”

Push your skill level: When you work one-on-one, there is always time for the 32-fouetté coda. “Privates provided a more intense, individualized version of everything,” says Houston Ballet first soloist Melissa Hough. “There were elements that I couldn’t do at first, but I had the opportunity to ask questions because it was just the two of us.”

Refine your artistry: “In a big class you don’t have the luxury to work on the rep you want,” says American Ballet Theatre corps member Skylar Brandt. Working one-on-one allows you to tailor variations and dive deeper into characters.

Make connections: “They don’t teach you this when you’re young, but networking is important to your career,” says Hough. “Working with someone may lead to opportunities in the future.”


































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Angela Sterling, Courtesy of Pacific Northwest Ballet

Clear your schedule now for Monday, January 29th, 2:45PM (EST)/ 11:45AM (PST). Pacific Northwest Ballet will be live-streaming rehearsal from Kent Stowell's Swan Lake, straight from their Seattle, WA-based studios. To psych us up for their on stage performances February 2nd - 11th, PNB is letting us in on their Act II rehearsal.

From the corps of swans to Odette and Prince Siegfried's pas de deux, and the infamous four swans, this rehearsal is not to be missed. You can sign up now for a live-stream reminder on their site. In the meantime, we'll be brushing up on our Cygnets with this PNB sneak peek.

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Rigorous program, check. Well-rounded technical training, check. Purposeful liberal arts curriculum, check. Study your craft abroad, check! If you are looking for all the above, the Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College truly has it all.

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Summer Study Advice
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Videos are a great alternative when auditioning in person isn't possible. Here are some general guidelines for making a good impression.

1. Follow directions. Before filming, research what each school you're interested in requires. "It demonstrates your ability to follow instructions, and schools pay attention to that," says Kate Lydon, artistic director of American Ballet Theatre's summer intensives and the ABT Studio Company. "If the guidelines haven't been followed, your video might not be watched the whole way through." You may need to make multiple versions to accommodate different schools.

2. Videos should be no longer than 10 minutes. "Keep it short, simple and direct," advises Philip Neal, dance department chair at The Patel Conservatory and artistic director of Next Generation Ballet. "You have to be sensitive to how much time the director has to sit down and look at it." Barre can be abbreviated, showing only one side per exercise, alternating. Directors will be looking at fundamentals—placement, turnout, leg lines, stability—but don't ignore musicality or movement quality. Make sure music choices match combinations and are correctly synced in the footage.

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Career
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I want to be a professional dancer, but my parents won't listen. They either don't think I can do it (contrary to what my teachers have said) or they won't let me take the necessary steps to become a professional. Please help. —Audrey

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Videos

They say that pigeons mate for life—perhaps that's why these birds naturally symbolize the young lovers in Sir Frederick Ashton's The Two Pigeons. In these two clips from a 1987 performance in Pisa, Alessandra Ferri and Robert LaFosse—then stars with American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, respectively—dance a rapturous pas de deux at the end of Act II. With tiny pricks of her feet and bird-like flaps of her elbows in Part 1, Ferri marks her anguish, thinking she's been abandoned for another woman. Later, both she and LaFosse grow more and more entangled as they reconcile, Ferri dancing with the passionate abandon she's famous for. I love how in Part 2 (0:20), they can't seem to get enough of each other as their necks arch and intertwine. At the end of the ballet, two pigeons fly in to perch symbolically on the chair—er, there's supposed to be two. It looks like one missed its cue at this performance! No matter—Ferri and LaFosse's dancing make it clear that these young lovers are meant to be together for life. Happy #TBT!

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Summer Study Advice
The author at 13, rehearsing at her home studio, Ballet Arts Theater, in Endicott, NY. Courtesy McGuire.

This story originally appeared in the December 2010/January 2011 issue of Pointe.

As a young student at a small ballet school in upstate New York, I was obsessed with getting into the School of American Ballet. From the age of 10, I entered class each day with the ultimate goal of studying at SAB dangling before me like a carrot on a stick. Every effort I made, every extra class I took was for the sole purpose of getting into what I thought was the only ballet school that really mattered.

I auditioned for SAB's summer program for the first time when I was 12. In the weeks that followed, I became a vulture hovering over my family's mail, squawking at my mother if the day's letters were not presented for my inspection when I walked through the door. The day the letter finally arrived, it was thin and limp. I cried for a week as I dealt with the crushing feeling of rejection for one of the first times in my life.

My mind filled with questions and self-doubt. What was wrong with me? Why wasn't I good enough? I figured I must be too fat, too slow, my feet too flat. I had worked so hard. I had wished on every fallen eyelash and dead dandelion in pursuit of my single goal, just to have a three-paragraph form letter conclude that I was a failure. For a while, I let myself wallow in the comfort of my resentment, content to believe that success should have come easily, and that to fall was the same as to fail.

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