Kathleen McGuire is a former ballet dancer and a contributing writer to Dance Magazine. As a dancer Kathleen trained in the pre-professional divisions of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School and the San Francisco Ballet School, she also attended summer intensives at the School of American Ballet and Chautauqua. She earned a BA in writing from the University of Pittsburgh and began writing for Pointe in 2010. Kathleen is passionate about mental health issues that concern dancers. She is the founder of Minding the Gap - www.wearemindingthegap.org.
Bourbonniere as Bernardo in Robbins' West Side Story Suite. Photo by Aimee DiAndrea, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.
When Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Corey Bourbonniere arrived onstage in the company's production of Jerome Robbins' West Side Story Suite last May, he wore the role of Bernardo like a custom-made leather jacket. Bourbonniere's Bernardo was puckish and sly, with a command and subtle likeability that made him the most delicious of anti-heroes. He shone brightest during the "Mambo" scene, where he deftly partnered his Anita (principal Julia Erickson) without missing a beat.
With nearly 43,000 followers on Instagram, Elisabeth Beyer is a social media sensation. The 16-year-old Ellison Ballet student came in first place in the senior women's category at the Youth America Grand Prix's New York City Finals this year and has been medaling all over the ballet competition circuit since she was 11 years old. But despite the thousands of likes she gets on each post, she also receives criticism. "It happens a lot," says Beyer. "I get accused of being too skinny or being anorexic, and it just isn't true."
The rise of social media has given dancers more visibility than ever before. The Pew Research Center reports that 71 percent of Americans 18 to 24 years old are on Instagram. And in ballet, which strives for the pinnacle of visual perfection in both execution and physicality, it can be deflating to see perfect penchés fill your feed on #whackedoutwednesday. But there are also great benefits for dancers connected on social media: Instagram can broaden your worldview and open up doors to opportunities you never imagined. The following five rules of Instagram will help you to focus on the positives and develop a healthy relationship with your favorite app.
Julia Erickson in William Forsythe's "In the middle, somewhat elevated." Photo by Rich Sofranko, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.
Julia Erickson grew up training at the Pacific Northwest Ballet School. Once she'd spent some time in the professional division, she started feeling like a member of the company. She performed with PNB extensively, even touring with them to London, Scotland, Alaska and Hong Kong. So when contracts were offered her final year, she was disheartened not to receive one, especially because she had given up other opportunities to stay there. "It was hard not to take it personally," says Erickson, now a longtime principal dancer at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.
Rejection does tend to feel deeply personal, especially as you start auditioning for companies. But don't let disappointments take the wind out of your sails. In truth, the audition process is the first of many challenges, such as casting and contract renewals, that you will face as a professional dancer. But by looking at the big picture, making a strategic plan and trusting the process, you can learn to take rejections less personally and keep moving forward.
Early in Carrie Imler's 22-year career with Pacific Northwest Ballet, she was excited to be cast in Balanchine's The Four Temperaments. But immediately following dress rehearsal, she was removed from her role in "Melancholic." "My artistic director at the time pulled me aside and said, 'We can't put you out there,' " she remembers. "My weight fluctuated my entire career. Just when I felt like I had figured it out, I would gain it back and have to start all over again." Despite becoming one of PNB's most celebrated principal dancers, Imler never shook the fear of what might happen when a leotard ballet was in the repertoire.
Ballet prides itself on high standards, and the classical ballet physique is not the least of those expectations. Fear of the "fat talk" still lurks in studios, but, as Imler points out, weight is a challenge that many dancers face, while others may struggle with the arches of their feet or turnout. If you are confronted about your weight, know that many talented dancers have been there. Having "the talk" doesn't mean you can't become a professional, but if you take a mindful approach to the conversation, it will show your maturity and ultimately your ability to navigate a career.
Boston Ballet's Dawn Atkins in Balanchine's "Episodes." Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy Boston Ballet.
When Boston Ballet artist Dawn Atkins was a little girl, she set a goal: to be a principal dancer by age 21. More specifically, a principal at New York City Ballet. Atkins was a successful student, joining Boston Ballet School's trainee program in 2011. She moved up to Boston Ballet II the following year and was given a company contract in 2013. But it was after knee surgery in 2015 that Atkins completely changed her approach to dance goals. "I had to set small ones, like being able to plié on one leg," she remembers. "I learned that I had to be kind to myself and celebrate those little goals."
Goal setting can help you advance as a dancer and a person. But it's easy to overly focus on far-off accolades rather than on meaningful advancements that will take you to the next level. "One should aspire to have dreams, of course, but it is important to keep reality in perspective," advises Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School co-director Dennis Marshall. Instead of tethering yourself to a dream that is ultimately out of your control, you can learn to set goals that will feed your dance career and your confidence.
The summer I turned 16, my head swirled with "what ifs" as I counted down the days until the start of the Chautauqua intensive. I'd attended the program four years earlier, and the experience had been a harrowing one—my first lesson in the competitive nature of ballet. Leaving the temperate waters of my little pond, I'd found myself a very small, uncoordinated fish in a pool deep with talent. Now, I was going back to test myself again, this time in Chautauqua's top level. Would I be as good as the other dancers? Would the teachers like me? Would I make friends?
Summer intensives are aptly titled. Their extreme demands can cause anxiety, nerves, jealousy and stress. But put down the question marks! Don't let a negative state of mind keep you from soaking up everything your summer has to offer.
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.
Lying awake in her hotel bed in Washington, DC, the night before her audition, Richmond Ballet dancer Valerie Tellmann-Henning was tormented with anxiety. At 31 years old, she was comfortable in her career. So comfortable that she decided to seek new artistic challenges. With the support of her director, she decided to audition for The Suzanne Farrell Ballet with the hope of juggling two contracts. The only thing that stood between her and her goal was a bout of anxiety. "I felt like I was 19 again trying to get my first job," she remembers. "It made me second-guess a lot of things about myself: Is Suzanne going to like my body type? Will my legs be high enough?" The anxious feeling made Tellmann-Henning irritable, and she even found herself holding her breath during the audition class, as a stream of insecurities cycled through her mind.