Training with other students in the pressure-cooker environment of a summer intensive can be daunting. But sometimes the right teacher comes along to provide a hopeful ballerina-to-be with the necessary tools, guidance and inspiration, and a career begins to take shape. Three top dancers recall the invaluable counsel and mentoring they received during their summer training.
Former Miami City Ballet principal
I always knew I wanted a career in dance, and my teacher, Teresa Aubel, was instrumental in making it happen. I studied with her every summer at Once Upon a Time, her school in Queens. She helped me to understand what I was getting myself into—that life as a dancer wasn’t necessarily going to be easy and that, coming from a small school, we’d been sheltered and nurtured.
The Once Upon a Time intensive that made the biggest impression on me was the summer before I went to the School of American Ballet for the winter term in 1993. At the time, I thought it was quite a negative experience, but looking back, it was exactly what I needed. I think she felt that summer was her last chance to get everything out of me that she could. She really wanted me to understand that I was about to step into a whole other ball game. I needed to put a match under my behind. I needed to move faster, to lose five pounds. I just thought she was being mean—I couldn’t believe it. She even made me teach the younger kids so that I would start analyzing things from a different perspective. I was there all day long.
When I got to SAB, I realized, “Oh my god, she was right. How did I not listen to her?” She had shaped my work ethic and my approach to my career. She had exposed me to all different sorts of repertoire and styles, from Lilac Fairy and Little Swans to the Israeli hora and classical Indian bharata natyam. (Picture a very young me dancing Afro-Cuban—I’m not kidding!) Going back and mentally revisiting those dance dialects has helped me tremendously throughout my professional career.
Now I teach for our summer intensive here at Miami City Ballet. I think the best advice I can give to students is to be willing to work. Try to come in shape because the hours and the class schedules are intense. So many injuries happen because kids are not prepared to handle the intensity.
American Ballet Theatre soloist
Every summer, my school, The Timothy M. Draper Center for Dance Education in Rochester, New York, brought in Fiona Fairrie, who had been a dancer with Stuttgart Ballet. I had her from my first summer intensive when I was 12 until I graduated at 18. She always had this kind of energy; she was really honest. I loved watching her demonstrate: She was very classically trained and had been coached in many classical roles, so she brought a lot of that experience into her classes. My regular teacher, Timothy Draper, was extraordinary, but as a ballerina you need the influence of a professionally experienced female ballet instructor. Fiona was thoughtful in her approach to the finest detail. I wanted to mimic every good quality I saw in her.
I think it was her personality that made us click. She was really enthusiastic about what she did. She was encouraging and positive, but she didn’t put flowers on anything—she said things as they were. It made me a better dancer, because I knew if she said, “Good,” she meant it. She would get on me about my port de bras, my épaulement, supporting my elbows and not breaking my wrists. She constantly worked with me on the proper position of my head as I moved through port de bras. She also taught me how to work my legs without gripping—actually having the right amount of energy without overusing the muscles.
My advice for students is to try not to get competitive at summer intensives. Don’t look around at other dancers and try to see how you fit in. Don’t be intimidated by teachers or other students. You are who you are as a dancer and you’re there just to work and to learn. It can be overwhelming when you’re away from your family and you’re facing a lot of criticism. You’re forced to evaluate yourself as a dancer. But you have to let all of that go out the window so you can grow.
Former Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet dancer
At Boston Ballet School, Peter Pawlyshyn reminded me that I could be a smart dancer. It was my first summer intensive when I was 12. I remember the simplest thing: I was doing rond de jambes at the barre and my foot started to cramp, and instead of stopping and making a big deal about it, I just relaxed my metatarsal a bit and started to move my foot along the floor, using all the muscles that I should be using but without pointing my foot too hard. He noticed and pointed it out and let me know that’s the way I should do it. He opened my eyes to the fact that there are other ways of working—being smart about it.
He also taught us partnering class. I’m a complete control freak, and I had a habit of tensing up. I remember him telling me that I had to lift up my center and at the same time be free so I could be mobile. I learned how to relax a bit and just move in the moment. I had to pay attention to dancing with others; I wasn’t on my own. I have to remind myself of that all the time even now, because I am still such a control freak. As a taller girl, I don’t always get to be partnered because I have a hard time finding a guy who’s big enough. But whenever I do, I remind myself that I have to trust him.
Being introduced to partnering work and modern dance that summer made me realize that dance was more than just ballet technique. You have to challenge yourself at intensives to be more open to the things you may not necessarily like. Go in and try to enjoy it and learn as much as you can.
Joseph Carman is a frequent contributor to Pointe.