Toe to Toe

I always dreamed of becoming a ballerina, but when I was young, those dreams were far from modest: Not only would I be a ballerina, but I decided I would be the greatest ballerina. I would be world-famous, dance on the biggest stages and partner with the best male dancers. Looking back, my optimism and naiveté seem almost endearing. While these big dreams planted a solid determination inside of me, my journey towards the top in the competitive ballet world was far more difficult than I’d envisioned.

 

As a young student, my ambitions were fairly tame. I envied the girls who could do more pirouettes than I could and those who moved up a level. But as I continued training as a teenager at the School of American Ballet, my competitiveness grew. We were all there with the same goal—to become apprentices with New York City Ballet. But only a few of us would make it. My worries over who could do the most turns turned into bigger anxieties: Who gets the most attention in class? Why is she getting better parts than me? How does she do that step so well? Who is getting interest from companies?

 

Looking back, competing with my classmates gave me the extra drive to push myself. I worked hard in every class and took everything seriously. After a year and a half, it paid off—I was offered an NYCB?apprenticeship. I was thrilled to dive headfirst into the professional dance world as a member of one of the leading ballet companies.

 

Yet my first years with NYCB were very tough. I took every casting decision personally, convincing myself that someone else got a role because I wasn’t working hard enough or I had been eating too many cookies. I struggled with feelings of inadequacy. I was sure the audience preferred other dancers, positive I got the least applause.

 

Determined to prove that I was the best dancer, I decided I had to be better than everyone. I particularly remember one winter when I was one of many girls cast as Dewdrop in The Nutcracker. I wanted to perform the role flawlessly, but I kept struggling with a difficult set of turns. I was relentless, practicing them over and over. Then I started to obsess over how well the other dancers did the same steps.

 

My plan backfired. I’d put too much pressure on myself, and my inability to reach perfection morphed into stage fright. I didn’t trust my body to know what to do, or even if I had the strength I needed. Before shows, I pictured everything that could go wrong. I pictured the audience hating me. I pictured them wanting to see other dancers instead of me. What a horrible way to perform! My dancing, in turn, suffered. In trying to outdo everyone, I smothered my growth. I wasn’t able to simply dance. I couldn’t let go and be in the moment. 

 

Ten years of performing regularly has since given me many valuable insights. First, we are all here because we love to dance. Each of us strives for a perfection that will always be just beyond our grasp. We worry about our bodies. We analyze every ache and pain. We are insecure, yet we must maintain a certain level of confidence to be able to perform for thousands of people. We all want to dance as much as possible, yet we have to understand that we can’t dance everything.

 

It’s still a learning process. Lately, I’ve been working to accept my dancing and its flaws, and to use my time onstage to reward myself. In performance, I try to let myself simply enjoy the benefits of many hours of hard work. I’m able to grasp the concept that I may not be right for every role, but I have my own strengths to bring to the stage.    

 

Now I am working on learning from my colleagues instead of comparing myself to them. I love watching Wendy Whelan and Jenifer Ringer, two of NYCB’s most experienced principals, because their artistry comes from such an honest place. They don’t try to dance like anybody else or please anyone. They are comfortable with their own dancing. I constantly gain inspiration and steal things I like from their performances, but I also have to remind myself that even they have their own strengths and weaknesses.

 

I love being onstage again. I love the exhilaration of a great performance. I’ve learned that my fiercest competitor and harshest critic is the one in the mirror. That’s who must be satisfied. That’s who must be happy.

Abi Stafford is a principal at New York City Ballet.

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The author, Lucy Van Cleef, dancing Balanchine's Serenade at Los Angeles Ballet. Reed Hutchinson, Courtesy Los Angeles Ballet

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Margaret Severin-Hansen, teaches class at Carolina Ballet's summer intensive. Cindy McEnery, Courtesy Carolina Ballet

7 Tips for Making the Most of Your Summer Intensive

Last summer many intensives were canceled or online-only. And the past school year has been spotty and strange for many, as well. All the more reason to look forward to an in-person summer program this year with excitement—but also, perhaps, some nerves. Take heart, says Simon Ball, men's program coordinator at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. "Once you get there the first day, all those fears will be relieved."

Here, Ball and two other experts share their advice for how to make the most of this precious opportunity to dive deep into dance—and how to handle complications that may get in the way, like injury and drama.

1. Show Off...Your Work Ethic

Summer intensives offer a preview of company life: You'll be dancing in a variety of styles over the course of the day, and all day, everyday. But that doesn't mean you have to be company-ready on day one! Though the first day may be filled with placement classes, try not to approach every class as an audition. "This year has taught us that the work is the important thing," says Ball. "Let go of trying to impress. The best impression I ever receive as a teacher is when I see someone receptive to doing things differently, even if that means taking one step backwards initially, to be able to take two steps forward by the end of the summer."

Angelica Generosa, a principal with Pacific Northwest Ballet, clearly made a splash during her first of three summers at the Chautauqua Institution's School of Dance. At 14, she was cast to dance the pas de deux from Balanchine's Stars and Stripes in the final performance. Generosa describes her younger self as "very eager." She'll be a guest teacher at Chautauqua this summer, and says that a similar eagerness catches her attention: "Dedication, and willingness to try. That twinkle in the eyes when a step is really challenging."

2. Make Friends

Even if friends from your year-round school will be with you this summer, branch out. During breaks at the studio, you may be tempted to spend time on your phone. "Take your headphones off," suggests Margaret Severin-Hansen, director of Carolina Ballet's summer intensive. "Share that ballet video with the person sitting next to you! Their eyes might see it differently; you could learn something. Or find that you have other things in common, too."

Do things outside the studio, too, even if your social circle is limited for safety reasons to a "pod" of classmates. "Sign up for activities," says Generosa. Go on that weekend shopping trip, or out for ice cream. "Be open," she says. "These are people you might see along the way in your future."

Simon Ballet, wearing dark clothing, is shown from behind demonstrating ecart\u00e9 arms while in front of him, a class of teenage ballet students perform d\u00e9velopp\u00e9 ecart\u00e9 devant on pointe in a medium-size studio. The dancers, all girls, wear leotards, pink tights and pointe shoes.

Simon Ball leads class at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet.

Courtesy CPYB

3. Stay Healthy

"The first week is tough—you're going to be sore," says Ball. "Prepare yourself." He means that literally. Before your program begins, ramp up cross-training, especially cardio to build your stamina. Severin-Hansen recommends you also keep dancing. It no longer matters that your regular school might be on break: We now know it's possible to take virtual classes from home or in a rented studio. If you're on pointe, make sure to put the shoes on every day, at the very least for some relevés. Keep the skin on your toes tough; the last thing you want is to be sidelined by blisters.

If you are recovering from an injury or managing something persistent like tendonitis, take action even further in advance. Find out if your intensive provides access to physical therapy, and if not, make a plan before you leave home. Learn exercises and massage techniques that you can do on your own, and ask about virtually checking in with your regular doctor or PT. Once you arrive, says Ball, communicate with your instructors. "Chances are it's a common ballet injury that teachers understand. They'll be able to help you."

During her summer intensives, Generosa often suffered flare-ups of inflammation. "I knew the tendonitis in my knees was from over turning out, and in my ankles from lifting my heels in plié." She was able to alleviate some of her pain by dancing more thoughtfully, addressing those habits. She also got creative about taking care of her tendons during off-hours. "I basically did ice baths in Chautauqua Lake."

4. Deal With Disappointment Constructively

Whether you're placed in a lower level than you'd like or were hoping for a soloist role that went to someone else, disappointment is understandable. Try, on your part, to understand too. The faculty may believe you'll thrive more in that particular group, or see a technical issue better solved by not pushing you too fast. If you're not sure exactly what you should be working on, ask. "Trust that you can make the most of your experience, whatever level you're in," says Ball. "Don't be afraid of the conversation."

5. Avoid Drama

Competition is inevitable, but unproductive competition is unnecessary, and bullying unacceptable. Severin-Hansen lays down a very clear guideline: "Nobody should ever feel uncomfortable." If you hear or see anything that bothers you—whether directed at you or someone else—don't hesitate to speak up. "If there's even one person creating drama, you feel it in the class. Summer is short. There's no room for that." Tell the resident advisor in the dorms, or bring the problem to the school administration.

Angelica Generosa performs an arabessque elong\u00e9 on pointe while her partner stands behind her holding her waist and with his left leg in tendu. She holds her left hand on her hip and extends her right arm out to the side with her palm up. Angelica wears a purple leotard, black tights and a white Romantic tutu while Kyle wears a yellow shirt, black tights and tan slippers.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Angelica Generosa (shown here in rehearsal with Kyle Davis) made notes of corrections she'd received and variations she'd worked on during her summer intensives to help retain what she had learned.

Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB

6. Fuel the Long Day

Depending on your housing arrangement this summer, you may be on your own for buying or preparing your own meals. Generosa recalls her first time living in a dorm and eating cafeteria food: "I wanted to try everything: pizza, chicken tenders, the salad bar, the dessert section—that was also my introduction to coffee." She found, however, that caffeine and sugar rushes would give way to energy crashes, and soon enough her better knowledge prevailed. "I told myself, 'Angelica, get your protein, vegetables, complex carbs—the right kind of energy.'"

Masking requirements may make snacking at the studios slightly more difficult. Nonetheless, there will almost certainly be somewhere you can safely have a nibble in between classes, whether that's a dancers' lounge or socially distanced in the studio itself. Make sure you always have something with you that's easy to munch on during breaks. Ball recommends protein bars or fruits and veggies. "Hydrating is huge," he adds, and suggests bringing packets of powdered electrolyte supplements to add to your water.

7. Retain Corrections

Take a moment each evening, Severin-Hansen advises, to write a few things down. "Say the whole class got a general correction, like 'Use your head.' The person who takes notes will think about it: 'When could I have used my head?' It's all about how you come back the next day and improve."

Generosa set a goal for herself to get better every day. To accomplish this, she would stay late to practice, she says, "so my body could adjust to what I was trying to achieve in that class." If you're inclined to follow her example, ask a friend to practice with you. You can film each other to get a glimpse of your own progress.

At the end of her Chautauqua summers, Generosa made notes of some things she had worked on and which variations she'd learned. "Then it wasn't like I left and that was that. I brought the summer experience with me, for my whole year."

Michael Cousmano, AKA Madame Olga. Courtesy When I'm Her

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