When I was 4 or 5, I told my mom, "I want to go to a real dance school with barres and a mirror." My preschool recommended Chicago's Ruth Page Center for the Arts. That's where I trained until I left for Cuba a year ago. I went to regular school during the day, and then had ballet class for four or more hours per day during the evenings and weekends. Nobody in my family has a dance background, but they've been supportive through all of it.

My school in Chicago teaches a technique that draws on Vaganova, Cecchetti and Bournonville. I went to very different summer intensives, as well: American Ballet Theatre, the Royal Ballet School in London and Boston Ballet. Then, two summers ago, Ruth Page School of Dance director Victor Alexander, who is Cuban, arranged an exchange with the Cuban National Ballet School. A group of eight Cubans came to Ruth Page's summer intensive. I had to learn an entire pas de deux as well as a contemporary ballet piece in 10 days, and then perform them. I'd never had to do anything that quickly; it was hard work but exciting. I then realized that if I could dance professionally, I wanted to.


Conley in class at the Cuban National Ballet School. Photo by Alex Garcia.


The second part of the exchange brought Ruth Page students to Havana for two weeks. I had no idea what to expect. In some ways, Cuba is a time capsule, with those old cars and beautiful old buildings. In the center next to the capitol building is the grand Great Theater of Havana Alicia Alonso, where the National Ballet of Cuba performs. Every Cuban knows and admires Alicia Alonso and they love and appreciate ballet. While watching TV, I came upon a ballet channel—it was like ESPN for ballet! It says a lot about the Cuban culture and mindset.

I didn't find out until after we were back in Chicago that Ramona de Saa, the Cuban National Ballet School's director, had invited me to train there for the year. I had been undecided about going to college or pursuing a professional ballet career. It didn't take long being in Cuba, dancing all day and seeing the amazing Cuban dancers at work, to conclude that I wanted to pursue a career first. I still applied to colleges, including the University of Michigan; I was admitted there but deferred. It made me feel more comfortable about the decision to go to Cuba to have that option.

In September 2016, I left for Cuba. I was 18 and I needed to adjust to a lot of everyday things that worked differently. First, I had to learn Cuban Spanish, which is very rapid! There's Wi-Fi, but it's not available everywhere; calling my parents was very expensive, so that was limiting. I also had to learn a new currency system. Cuban food is pretty simple and unprocessed. You get your meat from the market and you eat it that day—usually with rice, beans and vegetables. Cubans make the best pork, and their fruit is heavenly.

I lived in the student dorm for a while, but now I rent a room in an apartment from a very nice Cuban woman. I have a boyfriend whom I met during the first exchange in Havana. His family throws big dinners with a lot of people on the weekends, and I am always invited and made to feel like family, which is the way Cubans are.


Conley (far left) with her Cuban National Ballet School classmates. Photo by Alex Garcia.

The Cuban ballet technique is known for its turns and elevated jumps, but there's also a lot of stress on footwork and artistry. And Cuban men are really excellent partners. Partnering class is quite advanced because students have been doing it for so long. I worked regularly with one partner, Dario Hernandez, on the Paquita pas de deux and the Snow Queen pas de deux in Nutcracker. It was hard at the beginning because I had so little partnering experience, but we became friends pretty quickly. At first I didn't speak much Spanish, so he would speak slowly. Now I'm fluent and we dance really well together.

Ballet class here begins at 8 am. Then comes repertoire—this year we did Le Corsaire—followed by a specialty class like ballroom dancing or physical preparation, which is like conditioning. From 12:30–1:30 pm we had variations and pas de deux rehearsal. Sometimes we'd have rehearsal for shows or for the April Concurso Internacional ("competition" in Spanish), and we would be there until 8 pm. My roommate and I would walk home at night, and on the way, there was a place that sold big bags of ice for a dollar. We would get that and soak our feet in ice water.

When I arrived in Cuba, I didn't understand that the Concurso was such a big deal. Basically, all variations and pas de deux rehearsals are in preparation for it. The big event isn't just the competition—it's also a school exchange. Students come from all over the world to take classes at the National Ballet School. I competed in the Concurso with the pas de deux from Paquita. My goal was to just enjoy myself and get to the second round, but I ended up getting silver in the pas de deux category for my age group, and the overall award for Individual Interpretation.


Conley in class at the Cuban National Ballet School. Photo by Alex Garcia.

Most National Ballet School students hope to be chosen for the National Ballet. My original plan was to come back home and audition in the U.S. and Europe, but when I got here and saw the National Ballet perform, and got a feel for Cuba, I started thinking about auditioning for the company. I didn't know if that would be possible. There have been only a few foreigners in the company here, and even though I trained at the school, I was there a relatively short time. However, I think that bonding with instructors and fellow students, plus the Concurso results, made a difference. I was invited to audition right after the competition.

Within a few weeks, I learned that I would be joining the company. I was thrilled on many levels—to join one of the most renowned classical companies in the world, to continue to dance with my good friends, and to stay in a country and culture that I love so much. I'm in the midst of a six-month program that's like an apprenticeship, where the company and dancers get a feel for one another and make decisions from there about the future.

Last year while in high school, I watched a video of Roberto Bolle and Diana Vishneva performing the Sleeping Beauty pas de deux about 100 times. At the end, they do a partnered turn—just one pirouette, but it's the most beautiful pirouette I've ever seen. Someday, I want to be able to do something really simple onstage, but project so it looks as beautiful as that one pirouette. My goal now is to work very hard and make the most of my time in the company to improve. Being here is amazing, and it is my hope to stay.

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Social media validates extremes over clean, solid technique. Photo by David Hofmann/Unsplash

The entrancing power of Instagram can't be denied. I've lost hours of my life scrolling the platform looking at other people documenting theirs. What starts as a "quick" fill-the-moment check-in can easily lead to a good 10-15 minute session, especially if I enter the nebulous realm of "suggested videos."

My algorithm usually shows me professional ballet dancers in performances, rehearsals, class, backstage and on tour, which I quite enjoy. But there are the other dance feeds that I find myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by: the hyper-elastic, hyper-extended, gumby-footed girls always at the barre doing developpés to six o'clock. There are the multiple turners, the avid stretchers and we can't forget the endless balancers.

This parade of tricksters always makes me wonder, What else can they do? Can they actually dance?

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Ballet Careers
Ballet Chicago Studio Company in Balanchine's Square Dance. Ron McKinney Photography, Courtesy Ballet Chicago.

"You'll find people say that we're very demanding, but we're not mean," says Daniel Duell, co-founder of the Ballet Chicago Studio Company, a rigorous, Balanchine-based pre-professional training program located in the heart of downtown Chicago. Duell originally formed Ballet Chicago as a professional company, which disbanded after 11 seasons in 1998. Today, the organization is wholly dedicated to training and is one of the only pre-professional programs in the country entrusted with staging George Balanchine's ballets.

In addition to running the Ballet Chicago Studio Company (BCSC) and its affiliated school, former New York City Ballet principal Duell and his wife, Patricia Blair, who danced with Eglevsky Ballet, are répétiteurs for The George Balanchine Trust. The couple's investment in Balanchine's technique and repertoire has afforded Ballet Chicago a unique relationship with the Trust, giving BCSC dancers the opportunity to perform classic ballets like Concerto Barocco, "Rubies," Tarantella and Valse-Fantaisie.

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Just for fun
Boon, Lauren Lovette's furry friend. Photo via @laurenlovette on Instagram.

There's nothing more purrrrfect than some fabulous trinas and their feline friends. We're not kitten: these bonds are paw-sitively adorable! From hanging out backstage to working out together and more, these pairs will pas de chat their way straight into your heart.

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News
Isabella Boylston and Calvin Royal III at Ballet Sun Valley in 2017. Photo by Steve Dondero, Courtesy Ballet Sun Valley.

Wonder what's going on in ballet this week? We've pulled together some highlights.


Isabella Boylston Curates Her Second Hometown Ballet Festival

American Ballet Theatre principal Isabella Boylston moonlights as artistic director of Ballet Sun Valley, which she founded last year. The second annual festival will run July 17–18 in Sun Valley, Idaho, Boylston's hometown. Boylston has created two programs composed of pas de deux and solo pieces from choreographers including George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins and William Forsythe, as well as Justin Peck's In Creases, the one work for a larger ensemble.

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Ballet Careers
Boston Ballet II associate director Peter Stark takes a picture of the group after class. Stark often observes company class when artistic director Mikko Nissinen is teaching. "He'll take notes and give us feedback on what the artistic staff is looking for," says BBII dancer Caroline Buckheit. Photo by Liza Voll.

For the members of Boston Ballet II, Thursday mornings are a special treat. At 9 am, well before the company arrives, they begin their own class with BBII associate director Peter Stark. It's their chance to talk through corrections and dig into the details of their technique—a welcome break from the fast-paced company environment they're just getting used to. "I really enjoy our Thursday class," says Catherine Livingston, 19, who joined BBII last fall. "It's just the 10 of us, and Peter coaches us all individually."

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popular

Cleaning is a daily procedure. Proper maintenance will help extend the life of your floor and protect its special slip-resistant surface.

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Viral Videos
via YouTube

What do you do when you finally have some time off after a busy season? Well, if you're the dancers of New York City Ballet, you find new ways to dance, obviously. Ahead of the company's 52nd annual residency at Saratoga Performing Arts Center, corps members (and super creatives) Peter Walker and Emily Kikta teamed up with their fellow dancers to choreograph and produce a series of videos leading up to the mainstage performances July 17-21.

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Editors' List: The Goods
Left to right: Via Elevé Dancewear; Via LeaMarie

Planning to spend the majority of your summer sweating it out in the studio? Don't worry, you're not alone. And while you're definitely going to want to save the warmups for the winter, you can still accessorize your studio look without adding bulk, thanks to the always-in-style ballet skirt. From bright florals to washed out pastels and wild prints, we rounded up our favorite short (and a few long!) ballet skirts for summer.

AinslieWear Limoncello Wrap Skirt

via AinslieWear

f you can't spend your summer in the Mediterranean under actual lemon trees, this skirt is a solid backup. Plus, it gives us serious Beyonce "Lemonade" vibes, which will help you feel more fierce and less sweaty-mess in class (hopefully).
ainsliewear.com, $50

Health & Body
Thinkstock

Monthly periods can be a huge hassle for anyone. But donning a leotard and tights or getting through a tough barre when you're having your period can make it even harder to deal with. Dr. Lauren Streicher, clinical associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University, offers these tips for bunheads to ease pain and symptoms.

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Just for fun
Photo by Amy Velasquez via Unsplash

Have you ever referred to your feet as biscuits or your pointe shoes as dead in front of a non-dancer friend or family member and seen a wave of confusion cross their face? Dance, like most activities, is chock-full of words and phrases used only by those in the know. In honor of their 90th anniversary, the Oxford English Dictionary wants to change that. They've put out an appeal to gather "hobby words," and dance is on their list (we know that dance is more than a hobby—try not to take offense).

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Viral Videos
Screenshot via YouTube

Last summer, Mariinsky Ballet prima ballerina Uliana Lopatkina retired after more than 20 years as a principal. Adored in Russia and by audiences around the world, Lopatkina's virtuosity, elegance and humble presence have been sorely missed. Although best known for powerful interpretations of classical roles like Odette/Odile, Lopatkina also brought unparalleled drama to contemporary works, as in this clip by Dutch choreographer Hans van Manen. Lopatkina performed the austere, but emotionally fraught duet, titled Trois Gnossiennes, with her frequent Mariinsky partner Ivan Kozlov at the Hans van Manen Festival in 2007.

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News
Leanne Cope and Robert Fairchild. Photo Courtesy Trafalger Releasing.

An American in Paris, the wildly popular musical directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, comes to movie theaters nationwide September 20 and 23. Filmed in London in 2017, this version features the show's original stars: former New York City Ballet principal Robert Fairchild and former Royal Ballet first artist Leanne Cope. Based on the classic 1951 Gene Kelly film with a score of Gershwin standards, An American in Paris played on Broadway and in London's West End to rave reviews and numerous awards, including a 2015 Tony for Best Choreographer. This limited screening will bring the best of Broadway up close to the masses. For a full list of participating theaters and to purchase tickets, available July 12, click here.

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