Training

Thinking About Full-Time Training Programs? 6 Key Discussions to Have First.

Francisco Estevez, Courtesy Colorado Ballet.

If you think a full-time pre-professional program might be right for you, it's never too early to start talking about the big transition. Deciding to forgo a "normal" high school experience for the chance to take your training to the next level is life-changing, and it's vital to have in-depth discussions with your family. Here's a checklist of topics to bring up—before the auditions begin.


1. What are my professional goals?

At the very least, you should feel sure that you want a professional dance career. But beyond tutus and dreams, it's important to understand what this means on a day-to-day level: the daily grind of technique classes and physical therapy, all-consuming workdays, and the endless pursuit of artistry and perfection. "I find a lot of students haven't done enough research on what a professional life is about—what it really means," says Denise Bolstad, managing director of Pacific Northwest Ballet School.

In addition, think about what kind of company you want to join and which schools can facilitate that. What's your favorite repertoire? Are you interested in a large company or a smaller one? For instance, Miami City Ballet corps member Ellen Grocki knew she loved Balanchine, so she researched schools where she'd gain extensive training in the style. She eventually left her home in Maryland at 16 to study at MCB School.


Summer intensive students at Pacific Northwest Ballet School. Photo by Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB.


But if you're not sure exactly where and what you want to dance yet, it's not the end of the world. "When our students come in at 14, they have dreams of being the next Makarova," says Michael Owen, director of dance at Walnut Hill School for the Arts, a boarding arts high school in Natick, Massachusetts. "Then, in the years they're here, a lot changes for them—their eyes open up to other styles of movement."

Valerie Madonia, academy director at Colorado Ballet Academy, agrees: "As you grow and mature, your options will become more apparent, as far as which companies suit you, or whether in the end you decide to go to a college dance program."


2. How do we evaluate a school's quality of training?

A school's prestigious reputation doesn't always mean it will be best for you. Your top priority when researching pre-professional programs, says Bolstad, should be finding the best quality of training that your family can manage, location and budget-wise. Look at schools' curriculums (usually available on the website), and ask peers and teachers for recommendations. Attend summer intensives, if possible—and the sooner, the better. "Your investment in a school needs to start earlier than 17 or 18," says Bolstad. "Audition for at least one summer course, so you have a sense of what an organization is like." An intensive can be a good "trial run" to find what feels right. If going to one isn't possible, consider visiting for a few days during the academic year.

Additionally, ask the school about its track record of placing students in companies and college dance programs—and, specifically, which ones. "Do they only feed into their company, or do they feed into others around the world?" says Madonia. "Do the students come out versatile and ready to apply to many different programs?" It's a strong testament to the quality of the program—and the hire-ability of its graduates—if its dancers succeed in a variety of settings.


Valerie Madonia teaching pre-professional students at the Colorado Ballet Academy. Photo by Francesco Estevez, Courtesy Colorado Ballet.


3. Should I wait until after high school to train full-time?

This question depends on the quality of your current training. "It's very individual," says Bolstad. In many cases, dancers "have a slight advantage if they've left sooner, before graduating high school."

But if you have solid training at your home studio and choose the normal high school route, it's not too late. Most trainee programs and second companies accept recent high school graduates. "Times have changed in the last 20 years," says Madonia. "We're also seeing more wonderful college programs, and seeing students going from college into second companies, into companies." Owen agrees: "Now, it's not unheard of for dancers who are 21, 22 or 23 to get into companies for the first time."



Photo courtesy Walnut Hill School for the Arts


4. If not, what do I do about my education?

Most dancers who train full-time during high school either continue their education online or through flexible classroom options. At MCB School, Grocki took classes at a high school across the street from the studio each morning before heading into her 10 am technique class. At performing arts high schools like Walnut Hill, academics are built into the daily schedule.

Online programs require a certain personality type for a student to be successful. You'll need to be driven, organized, time-efficient and okay working alone on a computer for hours each day. "I've seen some students excel without a problem and others who struggle with time management," says Madonia.


5. What are the housing options?

There are three basic housing setups in most boarding programs: dormitories, host families or, for the most independent dancers, unsupervised apartments. One of the reasons Grocki chose MCB School was that there were dorms across the street from the studio. She lived there her first year; by her second, her mom felt comfortable letting her move into an unsupervised apartment with fellow dancers.

For those who want more of a family experience, or if dorms aren't available, many programs will house you with a host family who already has a connection to the school and can provide meals, transportation and emotional support. Keep in mind that some schools, like PNB, do not offer supervised housing, in which case dancers rent apartments (usually with roommates).


Photo courtesy Walnut Hill School for the Arts.


6. How will we pay for this?

Ballet tuition, let alone housing and living expenses, is costly, and it's important for dancers to understand how heavily this factor may weigh on their parents. Merit-based scholarships are the most coveted form of financial aid, but also the hardest to come by. For Grocki, a half merit scholarship was a huge factor in making her dream possible. Need-based financial aid is usually more readily available, but be aware that the application deadlines may fall early in the summer, before you receive the invitation to study. Independent scholarships and grants through organizations like the National YoungArts Foundation can help pay tuition costs.

Some schools may offer work-study opportunities, while other times, dancers find outside work to help offset living expenses. At Colorado Ballet Academy, students often pick up babysitting jobs for parents of other students or even their dance teachers.

If your family can make it work, the investment in your training is well worth it. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be accepted and study in a major national school," says Bolstad. "I don't think anyone ever regrets it."

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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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When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."

But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.

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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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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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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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