Trending

How My Approach to Class Changed Once I Went from Student to Professional Dancer

The author with Sarasota Ballet corpyhée Weslley Carvalho. Photo Courtesy Madeleine Purcell

When you graduate from student to professional dancer, you still need to take daily class. But while the structure of class is the same, I've found the mindset to be drastically different. My first job post-graduation was with the Sarasota Ballet, and the last thing I wanted to do was look like a student. I knew wearing a black leotard and pink tights without warm-ups could be a dead giveaway, but all another new company member had to say was "Why are you wearing your tights under your leotard? You look like a kid," and I hurried to the dressing room to change! Beyond the way I dress as a professional, my class philosophy also changed. Here are four things I've noticed:


Company class is a bit more relaxed.

A company class is full of people with jobs—they're more secure than pre-professional students with uncertain futures. The general atmosphere is more relaxed, too. There's room to check a combination or timing with another dancer if you're unsure. More than once I've asked someone next to me for clarification, or quietly commiserated about a difficult step. Also, class won't be the only dancing you do all day—in fact, some dancers view it only as a warm up, or a way to prepare for rehearsal. It's not necessarily required to take all of class, either; if an injury is flaring up, you might not jump, or only repeat the combination once. If I have a light day, I try to give class the energy of a performance, whereas with a heavy schedule, I'll go easier. It's up to you to determine what you need from class each day.

When it comes to corrections, you're often on your own.

Photo by Indiana Coté, courtesy Madeleine Purcell.

Like in an open class, company teachers give general corrections but very little individual attention: It's assumed you know what you need to work on. Because improving is up to me, watching more experienced dancers is the most valuable part of company class. I love observing their artistry when they rehearse and perform, but seeing seasoned dancers in class means I can study their technique, break down exactly what they're doing, and apply it myself. That way, when I repeat the combination I have my own correction to apply. It also serves as a reminder that even principal dancers aren't perfect—the polished Princess Aurora you see onstage can miss a step in class, fall out of a pirouette or have an "off" day.

You'll be exposed to a variety of techniques and ideas.

I trained at American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School and at Ballet Academy East. Though the style of each school is different, their respective looks are cohesive: everyone's technique is similar. In company class, however, there's much more variation because dancers are from all over. It's sometimes even surprising: I spoke to one dancer who I thought looked very classically trained, only to find out she was from School of American Ballet.

As I'm exposed to a variety of ideas and aesthetics, I'm discovering what works for me and building it into my technique, even if sometimes it requires more than observation. When I really admire the way someone does a step, I'll ask them after class what they're thinking about or aiming for in their execution. I might not always receive a helpful answer, since I've discovered some dancers don't think about anything specific. But talking about a step and learning how they were taught can help me figure out what I should change. There's nothing wrong with incorporating an idea or tool that works for you, even if it's not necessarily in the training you received!

Dancing is about the big picture.

Purcell with Sarasota Ballet coryphée Nicolas Moreno. Photo courtesy Madeleine Purcell.

In school classes, certain complex combinations could terrify me to the point of psyching myself out of a double pirouette on pointe. Because I felt so stressed, I wasn't able to focus on anything other than what the most difficult steps, and could get stuck in self-doubt and self-criticism if a turn didn't work. As a professional, I quickly realized that the whole picture of dancing was more important than a single step. Yes, a clean double is essential, but the dancers I admire most are those who can make a difficult transition appear effortless. That's what I want to master.

Company life has freed me from a lot of the stress I used to feel in class. At times when I feel anxiety creeping back in, I stop and remember my former teacher, Peter Frame, saying to me, "Stay present! I want to see Madeleine. Show me one hundred shades of you." Now, because class is for me, my focus is on growing as an artist. It's the greatest gift to find myself in my dancing, let go a little bit more, improve beyond the technical and aim for excellence rather than perfection.

Ballet Careers
Sisters Isabella Shaker and Alexandra Pullen. Photo Courtesy Alexandra Pullen.

This is the second in a series of articles this month about ballet siblings.

My mom was in the corps de ballet at American Ballet Theatre. A generation later, so was I. As if that's not enough for one family, my younger sister Isabella Shaker dreams of following in our dancing footsteps. Her endeavor, and her status as somewhat of a child prodigy, stirs feelings of pride and apprehension within me, since I have lived through the ups and downs of this intense yet rewarding career.

Ballet will always be my first love and the thing that brings me the most joy, and my dance career has opened endless opportunities for me. However, it's a difficult career path that requires a lifelong dedication. It's super competitive and can lead to body image issues, physical injury and stress. Most dancers will face some of these problems; I definitely dealt with all three.

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Stars
Photo by Gabriel Davalos, Courtesy Valdés

For decades the name Alicia Alonso has been virtually synonymous with Ballet Nacional de Cuba, the company she co-founded in Havana in 1948. Alonso died on October 17, just shy of what would have been her 99th birthday. In recent years, she had stepped back from day-to-day decision-making in the company. As if preparing for the future, in January, the company's leading ballerina, 42-year-old Viengsay Valdés, was named deputy director, a job that seems to encompass most of the responsibilities of a traditional director. Now, presumably, she will step into her new role as director of the company. Her debut as curator of the repertory comes in November, when the troupe will perform three mixed bills selected by her at the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso. The following has been translated from a conversation conducted in Spanish, Valdés' native tongue.

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Stars
Photo by Jayme Thornton

It's National Bullying Prevention Month—and Houston Ballet breakout star Harper Watters is exactly the advocate young dancers facing bullying need. Watters is no novice when it comes to slaying on social media, but his Bullying Prevention Month collaboration with Teen Vogue and Instagram is him at his most raw, speaking about his own experiences with bullies, and how his love of dance helped him to overcome adversity. Watters even penned an incredible op-ed for Teen Vogue's website, where he talks candidly about growing up queer. Catch his amazing anti-bullying video here—and, as Watters says, "Stay fabulous, stay flawless, stay flexible, but most importantly, stay fearless."

Keep reading... Show less
News
Alicia Alonso with Igor Youskevitch. Sedge Leblang, Courtesy Dance Magazine Archives.

Her Dying Swan was as fragile as her Juliet was rebellious; her Odile, scheming, her Swanilda, insouciant. Her Belle was joyous, and her Carmen, both brooding and full-blooded. But there was one role in particular that prompted dance critic Arnold Haskell to ask, "How do you interpret Giselle when you are Giselle?"

At eight, Alicia Alonso took her first ballet class on a stage in her native Cuba, wearing street clothes. Fifteen years later, put in for an ailing Alicia Markova in a performance of Giselle with Ballet Theatre, she staked her claim to that title role.

Alonso received recognition throughout the world for her flawless technique and her ability to become one with the characters she danced, even after she became nearly blind. After a career in New York, she and her then husband Fernando Alonso established the Cuban National Ballet and the Cuban National Ballet School, both of which grew into major international dance powerhouses and beloved institutions in their home country. On October 17, the company announced that, after leading the company for a remarkable 71 years, Alonso died from cardiovascular disease at the age of 98.

Keep reading... Show less