By the time Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre soloist Gabrielle Thurlow reached high school, she knew she wanted to pursue a professional ballet career. But to do so, she had to make the tough decision to leave her local studio in Buffalo, New York, to train at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School. "I wanted a school attached to a professional company, where I could train full-time," she says. With her parents' support, she approached her teachers a year in advance to begin talking to them about leaving. "It's a difficult conversation to have," she says. "They trained me, and we had this special relationship. But as former professional dancers, they understood where I was coming from."

Dancers often face this decision as they plan their pre-professional training. They are forever indebted to the teachers who molded them, and broaching the subject of leaving can seem like an impossible conversation. While it's normal to be nervous, there are ways to sensitively navigate the situation, without burning any bridges.



Gabrielle Thurlow, shown here in "Le Corsaire," started talking to her teachers about leaving a year in advance. Photo by Rich Lofranko, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.


The Decision

Many dancers decide to switch schools when they feel they've outgrown their current studio. A student at the top of her class may seek the competition of more advanced dancers, or the finishing touch of a fresh perspective. Others want to study a specific technique, such as Vaganova or Balanchine. For Thurlow, there was an additional, strictly practical reason for changing studios. "There weren't enough boys at my school in Buffalo, and I struggled with partnering at summer programs," she says.

The appeal of full-time pre-professional programs is another common motivator. For Los Angeles Ballet principal Julia Cinquemani, who began her training at a studio in Dallas, a company-affiliated program was key. "The most effective way to get into a company is to go to a school connected to a big one," she says. At the end of a summer at School of American Ballet, when Cinquemani was 16, faculty co-chairman Kay Mazzo suggested Pacific Northwest Ballet School as a potential year-round home.

A less-than-attentive instructor or negative student-teacher relationship can also push a dancer to leave her studio. However, Darla Hoover, artistic director of Ballet Academy East in New York City, finds most students audition for her school at their prior teachers' urging. "Teachers are sensitive to students' needs, and they're realistic about how much they can offer," she says.


Ballet Academy East faculty member Jenna Lavin with advanced student Mary Watters. Photo by Jennifer Davidson, Courtesy BAE.


The Conversation

For Cinquemani, an open and honest relationship with her teachers facilitated the dreaded talk. "It was such a gradual process," Cinquemani says. "We would meet at the beginning of each school year to go over the summer and discuss my goals for the coming year." Thus, when the time came, she had a natural opportunity to raise the possibility of auditioning for PNB's school.

However, not every student leaves her school with a teacher's initial blessing. "It's going to be an awkward conversation, but own up to that," Hoover says. "Be respectful and let them know that, while they've given you so much, you have an urge for more growth."

Thurlow recommends focusing the conversation on what you need, rather than on what the studio isn't giving you. "Talk about the things that are outside your teacher's control, and emphasize that it isn't a flaw of the school," she says.

Hoover agrees that, while it's good to be open with your teacher, you should be respectfully honest rather than air a list of grievances. "If you come home from class every night furious at your teacher, this is not the time to tell her," she says.

Finally, timing is crucial. Hoover recommends that dancers who plan to change schools at the beginning of the school year initiate the conversation in June. "It's disrespectful to just not show up in the fall," she says. For students requiring a midyear switch, she urges dancers to be mindful of any prior commitments. "If they're counting on you for any upcoming productions, don't leave them in a lurch," says Hoover.


"Your first teacher planted the seed within you to passionately pursue this profession, and that's a big gift." —Darla Hoover


The Response

While it is impossible to predict a teacher's reaction, most are supportive. When Cinquemani returned from SAB and informed her teacher of Mazzo's suggestion, her response was more than positive. "She said, 'Okay, let's get you an audition at PNB,' made the call, and the next day, we flew out to Seattle together," Cinquemani says.

Thurlow's teachers were similarly proactive. "Even though they knew a year in advance, they didn't start ignoring me or denying me corrections," she says. In fact, knowing that Thurlow would be representing their school at PBT, they pushed her even harder.

In rare occasions, a teacher might feel offended, finding it difficult to view things from the student's perspective. This may stem from possessiveness, or a sense of lost investment in a dancer. "In these situations, I fully encourage students to keep their cool, and act older than their age," Hoover says. She recommends a respectful "I'm sorry you feel that way," followed by the assurance that you will remain indebted to them as you move on. "The dance world is small! Always conduct yourself with integrity, and don't leave any baggage behind you," she says.


For Julia Cinquemani, shown here with Kenta Shimizu in "Don Quixote," an open and honest relationship with her teachers facilitated the dreaded talk. by Reed Hutchinson, Courtesy Los Angeles Ballet.


Staying in Touch

While leaving a beloved childhood studio can be difficult, you don't necessarily have to sever ties. Thurlow regularly exchanges emails with her teachers in Buffalo, who enjoy tracking her professional developments. Cinquemani also keeps in touch with her school and was recently invited to dance Sugar Plum for its 30th-anniversary Nutcracker. "It was truly a full-circle moment for me," she says.

Hoover stresses that most teachers like hearing from their former students, and that their ability to help you extends beyond the studio. "When you get out in the professional world, you're going to need us more than ever," she says. "Remember that we're there to help you navigate the waters."

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Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's 'The Nutcracker.' Photo by Rich Sofranko

Catching a performance of The Nutcracker has long been a holiday tradition for many families. And now, more and more companies are adding sensory-friendly elements to specific shows in an effort to make the classic ballet inclusive to children and adults with special needs.

While the accommodations vary depending on the company, many are presenting shorter versions of the ballet with more relaxed theater rules. Additionally, lower sound and stage light levels during the performance, as well as trained staff on hand, make The Nutcracker more accessible for those on the autism spectrum and others with special needs.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's performance will take place on Tuesday, December 26th, and they are one of the pioneer companies in presenting sensory-friendly performances of The Nutcracker (their first production was in 2013). PBT also offers sensory-friendly versions of Jorden Morris' Peter Pan and Lew Christensen's Beauty and the Beast throughout the year.

See our list of sensory-friendly performances, and check out each site for all of the details regarding their offerings.

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The Pilates hundred is a popular exercise used by many dancers for conditioning and warming up, but it's also one of the most misunderstood. Pumping your arms for 100 counts sounds simple enough, but it requires coordinated breathwork, a leg position that suits your abilities and proper alignment. Marimba Gold-Watts, who works with New York City Ballet dancers at her Pilates studio, Articulating Body, breaks down this surprisingly hard exercise. When done correctly, the benefits are threefold: "If you're doing it before class," she says, "the hundred is a great way to get your blood flowing and work on breath control and abdominal support all at once."

To Start

Lie on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor. Nod your chin toward the front of your throat, and reach your fingertips long.

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At just 16 years old, the Bolshoi Ballet's Maria Alexandrova already had the makings of a great artist. In this variation from Coppélia, she portrays the carefree Swanilda with blithe, youthful ease.

When she bounds on stage in her perky pink tutu, you immediately notice her legs–they just go on forever. In the first sequence of steps she keeps her jetés and développés low, but then the phrase repeats and she lets her gorgeous extensions fly. She sails through Italian fouettés and whirls around in piqués en manège that get faster and faster. While she nails all the virtuosic movement, Alexandrova also pays beautiful attention to detail throughout the variation. Even the simplest steps become something exciting, like her precise pas de bourrées beginning at 1:03 that sing with musicality.

Swanilda has been one of Alexandrova's signature roles throughout her career. For a fun side by side, watch her perform the same variation almost 20 years later in this video. Although Alexandrova formally retired from the Bolshoi in February, she still performs frequently in Moscow and internationally as a guest artist. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!


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Ingrid Silva and her dog, Frida Kahlo. Photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

You're probably already following your favorite dancers on Instagram, but did you know that you can follow many of their dogs, too? We rounded up some of our favorite dog-centered accounts and hashtags to keep you pawsitively entertained (sorry, we can't help ourselves).

Cora and Maya (American Ballet Theatre's Sarah Lane and Luis Ribagorda)

Sarah Lane and Luis Ribagorda's pups Cora and Maya update their profile pretty frequently. Often accompanying Lane to the ABT studios, they can also be seen using tutus or piles of pink tights as dog beds.

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Vladislav Lantritov and Ekaterina Krysanova in "Taming of the Shrew." Photo by Alice Blangero, Courtesy Bolshoi Ballet.

If you haven't checked your local movie listings yet for this weekend, hop to it. The Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema series and Fathom Events is broadcasting a performance of Jean-Christophe Maillot's The Taming of the Shrew to theaters nationwide on Sunday, November 19. (To see if it's playing near you and to purchase tickets, click here.) While the rest of the Bolshoi's cinema season features 19th- and 20th-century classics, The Taming of the Shrew gives audiences a chance to see the revered Moscow company in a thoroughly modern, 21st-century take on Shakespeare's famous play.

Aside from a limited run in New York City this July, American audiences have had little exposure to Maillot's 2014 production. To learn more, check out these two exclusive, behind-the-scenes webisodes below. Principal dancer Ekaterina Krysanova, who stars as the hotheaded Katharina, gives an intimate play-by-play of two major scenes in Act I. The first is her fiery rejection of three potential suitors (who all would prefer to marry Katharina's younger sister Bianca).

The second scene breaks down Katharina's first encounter with Petruchio (danced by the larger-than-life Vladislav Lantritov), the only man who seems to be able to challenge her. Here, too, we see the shrew's heart start to soften. (Don't miss her time-stopping attitude turn at 4:27.)

The Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema Series continues through June; for more details on upcoming screenings, click here.

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Smuin Ballet dancers Erica Felsch, Rex Wheeler, Mengjun Chen and Tessa Barbour in "White Christmas," choreographed by dancers Ben Needham-Wood and Michael Smuin. Photo by Keith Sutter, Courtesy Smuin Ballet.

Nutcracker-ed out? Or just can't get enough holiday ballets? These unique Nutcracker interpretations and non-Nutcracker productions will make your season bright.


The Hip Hop Nutcracker

Through December 30

Tchaikovsky's masterful Nutcracker score isn't just for classical ballet…

Hip Hop + a live DJ + an electric violinist unite in The Hip Hop Nutcracker, currently touring the U.S.

Familiar characters such Drosselmeyer, the Nutcracker, Mouse King and Marie (here called Maria-Clara) dance through an updated New York City storyline with choreography by Jennifer Weber, artistic director of the Brooklyn-based theatrical hip hop company Decadancetheatre.

Premiered in 2014, The Hip Hop Nutcracker is produced by New Jersey Performing Arts Center.

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