This story originally appeared in the June/July 2016 issue of Pointe.
Harper Ortlieb knew something needed to change. Her three-hour commute to daily classes at the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre was unsustainable, and her obsession with ballet was intensifying. The family considered “away-from-home" training, but when Ortlieb, then 14, was accepted to the Bolshoi Ballet Academy's year-round program in Moscow (after attending their summer intensive in Connecticut), they were caught off guard. “Harper had an unshakable dream of training in Russia, but until that point it was just that—a dream," says Layne Baumann, Harper's mother. “We knew time was moving swiftly, and this was one of those rare opportunities that can truly shape your future."
The idea of moving to Russia to study is huge, but even in less-extreme situations the factors to consider are the same. Often, summer intensives lead to offers to stay for a school's year-round program. It's an exciting honor to be asked, but leaving home to train is a big deal, no matter how near or far. With so much at stake, it's a time for honest conversations between students, their families and their teachers to assess whether they're ready to leave home.
Are You Mature Enough?
Bo and Stephanie Spassoff, co-directors of The Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia, first ask potential students to define their goal. "Assess the situation objectively," says Bo Spassoff. "Do you really want to be a professional ballet dancer? If yes, the only way that's going to happen is with a very good sense, from the get-go, of what it's going to take and how much work it's going to be."
Ortlieb poses outside Red Square in Moscow after being accepted to the Bolshoi Ballet Academy. Courtesy Layne Baumann.
While serious students know what hard work is, training full-time without the comforts of home or parental support adds a lot more pressure. Living 24/7 with peers might sound like a blast at first, but what about balancing dance, academics and household responsibilities? Houston Ballet corps member Tyler Donatelli says her mother needed evidence that she had the maturity and organizational skills to handle it. "She made it very clear that I was staying home until I was 16 and could prove I could live in a somewhat adult environment," Donatelli remembers. "I didn't really agree with her, but now I realize she was right. At 16, I could make better decisions about things I would have questioned if I'd been younger."
An important gauge of a student's readiness is emotional maturity— which may differ from their sense of responsibility or independence. Will residential life make it hard to stay focused? "It's impossible to hide poor social skills or bad behavior in a residential setting," says Donna Mattiello, academic director of The Nutmeg Ballet Conservatory in Torrington, Connecticut. "So if a student struggles at home with poor judgment, following rules that they don't agree with or self-discipline (like keeping their room clean and doing homework), those issues will be magnified at school."
Pointe class at the Nutmeg Ballet Conservatory. Don Perdue, Courtesy Nutmeg Ballet Conservatory.
Artistic director Victoria Mazzarelli agrees, saying even students who've attended Nutmeg's summer program should visit during the school year. "It's just completely different. Spending a couple of days to pick up on the vibe and see how it feels will reveal a lot. It tells you pretty quickly whether it's the right experience for you, because emotional readiness is the most important thing. Without that, everything will fall apart."
Handling the Workload and Competition
For those offered year-round study, both Nutmeg and The Rock School conduct in-person talks with the whole family, if possible. The Spassoffs want to make sure everyone is involved and committed. "We listen to their concerns and never try to manipulate their decision," says Stephanie Spassoff. "Sometimes a student is very enthusiastic about coming, but just doesn't want to leave home yet—and that's fine."
Nutmeg students on a weekend outing. Courtesy Nutmeg Ballet Conservatory.
The increased number of dancing hours will be physically strenuous, but Bo Spassoff also notes dancers must transition mentally when going from a regional school to a larger one. "Students have to realize that here, they may not be the best in their class. They need to accept the challenge to work hard. Some can't come to grips with that and are unhappy."
Weighing Pros and Cons
Even if you feel you can handle the workload, responsibility and emotional strain of living away from home, it's important to consider what you'd truly gain—or stand to lose. Donatelli knew that along with the great training she was already getting at her home school, Southland Ballet Academy, there were other valuable benefits that gave her extra confidence when she joined Houston Ballet II. "Because it's a smaller school, I got to do bigger roles in our productions," she says. "In a professional school, dancing the lead in a full-length ballet isn't something you'd find yourself doing."
A student dorm at the Rock School for Dance Education. Courtesy Rock School.
Focusing on what's truly best for you—and your family—will make the choices of whether and when to leave home much clearer. The Ortlieb family had heart-to-heart talks about logistics and finances, extensively researched what life in Russia would be like and decided the time was right. Donatelli's plan worked because she trusted that turning down an offer to stay at Houston Ballet Academy wouldn't mean shutting that door forever. Communicating with the school's director and expressing her interest was key. "We kept in touch, and I got the HBII contract two years later. They knew I'd come when I was ready."
Tips: Have a Family Conversation
Because it's hard to predict how you'll feel once you move away from home, it's critical to dig deep before you make a decision. What should you and your family talk about? Here are some starters:
- What makes you excited about going to this particular school?
- How do you feel when you imagine leaving your family, pets, teachers and friends?
- How structured is the school's residential program? Do thoughts of adhering to rules, following a set schedule and being monitored by someone other than your parents make you squirm?
- How hard will it be to miss out on birthday celebrations, family events and holidays?
- What would you do if you and your roommate disagreed about bedtimes, cleanliness, socializing?
- How do you handle stress? Boredom?
- What will you gain by moving away from home to train? Is there anything you stand to lose?
- It's expensive to live away from home. Can this opportunity wait a year while you save up and make a financial plan?