Should I turn down an apprenticeship to finish my dance degree, or should I put my education on pause? —Ashleigh
Congratulations on receiving an apprenticeship offer! They don't come every day. If you think you're ready for company life, and will be full of regrets if you turn the offer down, you can always resume school later. However, make sure you know what the position entails.
Not all apprenticeships are paid, and there's no guarantee that you'll be promoted to the company's corps de ballet at season's end. Are you comfortable entering the dance world without the security of a college degree? And are you motivated enough to return to school if you put your education on pause now?
Bolshoi-trained dancers Anastasia Babayeva and Denis Gronostayskiy are the new co-principals of the Pennsylvania Ballet School. The former school director, beloved PAB ballerina Arantxa Ochoa, left in June to join Miami City Ballet School as director of faculty and curriculum.
Babayeva and Gronostayskiy are also the co-founders of Academy of International Ballet in Media, PA. It's not yet known whether their Bolshoi training will be brought to bear on the PAB curriculum, though in a statement artistic director Angel Corella said he was looking forward to their "fresh ideas." The pair will oversee this year's auditions for the PAB School.
It's not surprising that Ochoa would head to Miami, one of the top Balanchine companies in the nation. Casting and programming under Corella's leadership has clearly favored a more classical approach, counter to the company's legacy as a regional expositor of Balanchine. Corella is making a clear statement with the appointment of Babayeva and Gronostayskiy, and their Vaganova approach to ballet education.
Auditions for the PAB school will be held August 3 and August 20. More information can be found here.
Deciding to pursue a career in dance is huge. But even with your eyes firmly on your goal, figuring out the best track to get you there can be confusing and stressful. What school to go to, which teacher to follow, and when or whether to leave home are questions all ambitious dancers face, and there’s no right answer for everyone. Behind every successful dancer lies a path riddled with difficult decisions and moments of doubt. Often, coming to a fork in the road means making a realistic assessment of what your needs truly are. These three dancers faced tough choices at crucial moments in their training years, but pushed outside their comfort zones and took risks that ultimately paid off.
Principal dancer, New York City Ballet
When I was 12, Ann Brodie, my ballet teacher in Columbia, South Carolina, passed away. I’d studied with her since I was 3, so that was really rough. I was left with nothing. But before she passed, Miss Brodie had told my mom, “Sara has to go to New York. She has to go to the School of American Ballet.”
My mom was always trying to find the best school for me, the right teacher. After Miss Brodie’s studio closed, she drove me one and a half hours to Charlotte, North Carolina, every day to study under Patricia McBride. At the time, I didn’t know who she was, but my mom did. I didn’t realize how important that training was, but now I see it was essential to my understanding of Balanchine technique. It was exactly the preparation I needed to go to SAB and then join New York City Ballet.
We had to stop going to Charlotte after about eight months, and again I had nowhere to go. So I gave myself class every day in our basement, just trying to stay strong. I was 13 and had no idea what I was doing. Then I spent a year at the Governor’s School for the Arts, which was a great transition, although it wasn’t Balanchine technique.
I think it’s really important for a student’s training to be a family effort—parents have to do their research. My mom was sort of the puppet master behind everything. She knew that I needed to be at SAB full-time, so I’d been going to their summer courses. But they hadn’t yet asked me to stay year-round.
After my fourth summer at SAB, I put myself on the line—I asked them if I could stay. It was the pivotal moment of my whole life, because if they hadn’t said yes, I would have stopped dancing. There was nowhere I could further my pre-professional training at home.
Even though I really didn’t have the “perfect” story, there’s nothing I would have done differently. There were definitely some rough moments, but you have to go through tough times. It’s never going to be easy.
Corps de ballet, Houston Ballet
Growing up at a local competition studio in New Hampshire, I didn’t have a ballet focus. But when I saw YouTube videos of Carlos Acosta and Angel Corella I thought, “I want to do that!” and enrolled at the nearby Walnut Hill School for the Arts. There I was placed in the lowest ballet level, but the highest in modern. It was a rude awakening, and I took that as a sign to shift my goal to being a modern dancer.
But my teacher wanted me to focus on classical, too, and sent me to The Washington Ballet and Houston Ballet summer programs. It was a turning point. I’ve never shied away from being inspired by other people instead of intimidated by them—doing so helps me improve myself. I’ll never forget the first day at HB’s intensive: I was at barre with two Houston Ballet II dancers, and their technique was incredible! It really opened my eyes to how much catching up I still had to do—it was a new starting point. But I pushed myself and saw my footwork and lines improve, and I realized that if I put my mind to it, a career in classical ballet was possible.
At the end of the summer, I was offered a contract with HBII. It was a difficult moment for my family, because it meant not returning home to Walnut Hill for my senior year of high school. My mom is a college professor and I’d been planning college visits already. But you have to go where you feel supported and spoken to. It was high-risk, but the most important decision of my career. When I competed at the Prix de Lausanne two years later, I saw that Houston had given me the foundation I needed to succeed. I just needed to trust my technique, my teachers’ coaching, and conquer any sense of doubt.
Corps de ballet, Colorado Ballet
I started training at Canada’s National Ballet School when I was 12. But I also wanted to see everything in the ballet world and then make a calculated decision when I was looking for a job. NBS has summer exchange programs with schools around the world, so I went to Ecole Supérieure de Danse de Cannes Rosella Hightower in France, and then to Pacific Northwest Ballet School to learn Balanchine technique (NBS is more Vaganova and Cecchetti). I also went to Zurich’s Tanz Akademie to improve my contemporary and improvisation skills because I wanted to be more well-rounded.
But after graduating from NBS, I felt like I still needed to gain strength and get a sense for how to be a professional dancer. I’d been in big ballet schools up until then and wanted private training, so I auditioned for the Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program. It was completely eye-opening: Mr. Ellison focuses in on how to approach every single step in ballet, which was exactly what I needed. I wanted to know everything I was doing wrong, because I knew once I got into a company I wouldn’t get as many personal corrections. There were only seven girls in the advanced class, and we had three-hour technique classes every day, plus pointe, pas de deux and rehearsals. After his program, I got a corps contract with Sarasota Ballet.
Mr. Ellison was the teacher I’d always wanted but could never find. It was absolutely a turning point for me.
Keep an Open Mind
Amy Watson’s training was literally all over the map. From RAD to Cecchetti to Balanchine, her path eventually led to the Royal Danish Ballet, where she’s now a principal. An “unusual” journey, she says, but one that ultimately defined her as a dancer.
As a child, Watson spent two years at the Royal Academy of Dance in England. When her family relocated to Virginia, pure chance led her to Lisa Avery, a Cecchetti teacher who became her mentor from the age of 11. Together they mapped out a practical plan to reach her dreams. “I told Lisa I wanted to be in New York City Ballet,” says Watson. “She explained about Balanchine style and physique, the competition I’d face. She was a realist.”
Watson faced reality head-on when an acceptance to the School of American Ballet’s summer program led to an invitation to stay year-round. “It was a harsh awakening. Deep down, I realized I wasn’t necessarily born to do Balanchine, but I wanted it so badly that I just focused on it 100 percent. I don’t have a naturally gifted Balanchine body, so I thought if I did make it into the company, I’d be a wild card.”
With this in mind, Watson soaked up all she could from Russian and Cuban guest teachers at SAB. But when she was introduced to Bournonville technique, something clicked. “RDB’s director, Nikolaj Hübbe, staged a piece for SAB’s Workshop, and I could feel it was more natural and agreeable to my physicality than Balanchine.” She shifted focus, and when the company held its first-ever U.S. auditions that year, Watson landed a corps contract.
Staying open-minded instead of locking into one style proved key to Watson’s success. “For me, it wasn’t about one school or another. It was about taking from every instructor the best they had to offer and not shutting myself off from anything. I definitely wouldn’t be as versatile or healthy in my technique without knowledge from all those different teachers.”
Gavin Larsen is a former principal dancer with Oregon Ballet Theatre. She teaches and writes about dance from Portland, Oregon.
Kiara Howe, 14, lives in Olympia, Washington, about a two-hour drive each way from her ballet classes at Oregon Ballet Theatre. She believes her dreams of dancing for American Ballet Theatre would be even further away if she had to fit in her commute around a regular school day. Instead, Kiara learns reading, writing and arithmetic in her own home.
Home-schooled children do their academic studies at home under the instruction of a parent or professional tutor or teach themselves with the help of correspondence courses. Controversial and not supported by many traditional educators, home schooling has had little research to prove it’s good—or bad—for students. Plus, it doesn’t guarantee a professional career in ballet. It therefore remains a very personal choice.
In the world of ballet, which requires huge amounts of training time for a professional career that can start as young as age 15, home schooling can be a way for students to get an academic education and also devote more time to ballet.
“It’s pretty much the same as regular school, except it’s just me and the teacher,” says Chase Finlay, 14, a student at Ballet Academy East in New York City who spends three hours a day on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays with an academic tutor. “I have so much more time for ballet.”
This decision should not be made lightly, and those who opt for home schooling do so for many reasons. Not having to spend six hours a day in school means more time for private lessons or extra ballet classes. Home schooling is flexible, allowing dancers to get a jump on a long commute to ballet class or sleep in on days following late-night performances.
Teenage dancers, particularly boys, can be unhappy in a traditional school setting where teasing runs rampant. Home-schooled dancers say they have more physical energy than their peers in regular school and don’t have to worry about tests or doing homework at 11 pm.
“It freed up my schedule, allowed me to take company class, gave me more breaks. I took my schoolwork to the studio and did it around classes,” says Michael Bearden, 24, a soloist with Ballet West in Salt Lake City. “It was kind of like being a child actor, but not as glamorous.”
Realistic or not, some parents are looking to give their children any advantage possible when struggling toward that elusive professional ballet career and are willing to accept the risk of putting all their eggs in one basket.
“I had gotten good feedback from Erica’s ballet teachers,” says Mary Ellen Pereira of Long Island about her 16-year-old daughter, a student at Ballet Academy East. “They said she had a chance at a career. If this was a hobby for her, I would not go this route, but seeing she had the potential, ability and body to become a ballerina, I began to look into home schooling.”
Just a few years ago, home-schooled students were rare, most stayed home because of religious or moral considerations. But that’s changing. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2004 about 1.1 million children (or 2.2 percent of all children aged 5 to 17) were home schooled, a jump of almost 30 percent from 1999.
Parents of ballet students say they did extensive research on the different curricula available and had endless talks with other parents who home school. Kristen Ni, 16, a student of Nutmeg Conservatory of the Arts in Connecticut, says her mother was against the idea until Kristen found a challenging correspondence program from Indiana University.
Chase’s mom, Jeanne Finlay, admits, “I was scared stiff.” She now feels the decision is working out well, not only for Chase, who is an A student, but also for his older sister, Page, now an apprentice with OBT. “I started ballet late, at age 10,” says Page. “With home schooling, I could take private class, and it was very beneficial to my ballet career.”
Even with sights set on becoming a professional dancer, parents and students alike admit the importance of academics. What about an injury? What if ballet just doesn’t work out? By keeping track of their work or taking correspondence tests, most home schoolers are able to get a certified high school diploma.
Home schooled since first grade, Ballet West’s Bearden was accepted at the University of Utah, but he says he found it difficult to adjust to “having a teacher and lots of assignments” and subsequently dropped out. But after five years as a professional dancer, he realizes the importance of an academic education, even to a dancer. “I see people retiring from the company at age 35, and they don’t know what they are going to do next. That will be me in 15 years,” Bearden says. “I need to get cracking.” He is now pursing a degree at a community college.
Some parents take their children out of regular school in pursuit of academic excellence. Phyllis Papa, director of Atlantic Contemporary Ballet Theatre in New Jersey, home schooled her twins, Janelle and Tamara de Ment. “I knew I wanted to be responsible for my children’s educations,” says Papa.
A member of ABT at age 15, Papa herself had quit school and continued her high school studies through correspondence courses. In teaching the twins and their two sisters, Papa wove together lessons in violin, math, reading, gymnastics, etiquette and history in a free-form approach that obviously worked for the twins, who graduated last year at age 18 from the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. They are now both pursuing professional ballet careers.
“It wasn’t the way you know school. We learned from the minute we woke up till we went to bed,” Papa says. “The idea of teaching is to make it joyous, not about testing.”
But home schooling is not the answer for everyone. It’s frowned upon by the National Parent Teacher Association and the National Education Association. Many educators fear home schooled children miss out on social interaction with their peers, can become isolated or suffer academically from a lack of professional instructors.
Sharon Dante, founder and artistic director of Nutmeg Conservatory, has had many discussions with incoming students about home schooling. As a preprofessional boarding school, Nutmeg students have the option of attending the local Torrington public school system, which Dante highly recommends. She feels students need to be in a structured academic environment where they can benefit from the knowledge, nurturing and guidance of the entire school faculty.
With 40-plus years in dance education, Dante worries about ballet students put in an “incubator” in which their entire lives are centered around ballet.
“They need to meet people who are not dancers. Most want to be in a professional company, but we need to give them all the weapons we can to face the real world if that does not happen,” says Dante, who was a professional dancer and received a degree in business from Endicott College. “I like it when they have a somewhat normal life for at least part of the day. In my opinion, the students are much more healthy if they go to regular school.”
Those involved agree that home schooling is an individual choice that isn’t right for everyone. Even within families, sometimes one child is home schooled while siblings are not. If the child is not self-motivated, or is very outgoing and social, home schooling may not be the answer.
And, the dancers say, home schooling is just as demanding as traditional schools. Grammar and chemistry and algebra are all difficult, even if you get to sit on your bed and do it in your pajamas. “At first it sounded really easy,” Erica says. “But when I got the work, it wasn’t as easy as I thought. My mother is harder than most teachers I had before.”
Karen White, a former daily newspaper reporter, now writes for magazines, teaches dance in Taunton, MA, and performs in musicals with regional theater groups.