It's the American dream, ballet-style: A small-town girl works hard, turns heads in the big city and wins her way to the top of a world-class company. Teresa Reichlen is one such story: Before joining New York City Ballet, she studied at The Russell School of Ballet in Chantilly, VA. “It's nice to be a big fish in a small pond to start out," she says. Instead of always dancing in the corps, “you get to perform the challenging parts."
Several small studios around the country are producing professional-caliber dancers. These schools may not receive the same publicity as their counterparts with companies or boarding schools attached, but they prove that you don't need high-profile training to make it as a dancer. In fact, the extra attention, performance opportunities and lower-stress environment might be what you need to grow—not just as a dancer, but as an artist.
Greenwich Ballet Academy
Greenwich, CT, and Port Chester, NY
GBA has only been around since 2006, but its strong Vaganova training (modeled after the Vaganova and Bolshoi academies' eight-year program) is unique in the region. Students get lots of one-on-one attention—classes only have 4 to 15 students. Plus, the studio's close proximity to New York City means that guest teachers such as American Ballet Theatre principal Irina Dvorovenko and NYCB legend Allegra Kent can easily drop in for the day.
Classes: Ballet, pointe, repertoire, pas de deux, modern, contemporary ballet, men's class, character, yoga
Number of students: 105 (audition required)
Performances per year: Two or three
Competitions: Youth America Grand Prix
Alumni: Kelsey Connolly (Juilliard)
Fun fact: The Port Chester loft-like studios used to be a Fruit of the Loom factory.
Founded in 1949, Alexandra Ballet has made a reputation for itself through Regional Dance America—the school's pre-professional company recently represented RDA's Mid-States Regional Ballet Association at the 2010 International Ballet Competition in Jackson, MS. Alexandra Ballet also keeps up a connection with Cincinnati Ballet, whose dancers often give master classes and perform with students.
Classes: Ballet, modern, character, pointe, pas de deux, men's class, variations, Pilates
Number of students: 200 (no audition required)
Performances per year: Up to 12
Competitions: The school doesn't emphasize competitions, but supports students who compete.
Alumni: Louise Nadeau (former PNB principal), Antonio Douthit (Alvin Ailey), Rodney Hamilton (Ballet Hispanico), Makensie Howe and Dillon Malinski (Houston Ballet II)
Fun fact: The school was recently filmed for a British documentary called SwanSong, about Alexandra Ballet alum Ian Archer-Watters (former Les Ballets Grandiva dancer).
Metropolitan Ballet Academy
MBA students benefit from an inside connection to Pennsylvania Ballet: Led by former PAB assistant ballet mistress Lisa Collins Vidnovic, the faculty includes several current and former PAB dancers and artistic staff, including the artistic director of the second company.
Classes: Ballet, modern, jazz, repertoire, pas de deux, men's class
Number of students: 375 (no audition required)
Performances per year: At least nine
Competitions: Youth America Grand Prix
Alumni: Phoebe Gavula (Pennsylvania Ballet II)
Fun fact: MBA has a special Boys' Scholarship Program with more than 60 boys enrolled.
Southland Ballet Academy
Fountain Valley and Irvine, CA
Students at this California studio gain connections all over the world—SBA regularly brings in top master teachers, such as Royal Ballet School director Gailene Stock, NYCB principal Megan Fairchild and even Kirov director Yury Fateyev.
Classes: Ballet, pointe, pas de deux, men's class, Russian character, modern, stretch, Pilates, jazz, hip hop
Number of students: 400 (no audition required)
Performances per year: Three
Competitions: Youth America Grand Prix, Prix de Lausanne, USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Helsinki International Ballet Competition
Alumni: Bryn Gilbert (Ballet Memphis), Jamie Kopit (ABT apprentice), Kirby Wallis (Ballet Austin), Jade Payette (The Washington Ballet), Quenby Hersh (Scottish Ballet)
Fun fact: Southland students are loyal: The school (now almost 30 years old) currently has third-generation students—the grandchildren of some of its original dancers!
The Russell School of Ballet
Directors Karla and Hans Petry, the husband and wife team at The Russell School, offer a nurturing environment, and students and teachers become close in this tight-knit community.
Classes: Ballet, pointe, variations, character, jazz, tap, modern, lyrical, stretch
Number of students: 375–400 (audition required for higher-level classes)
Performances per year: Three
Alumni: Teresa Reichlen (NYCB principal), Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch (Martha Graham Dance Company principal), Ian Thatcher (formerly with SFB, PNB and Ballets de Monte Carlo)
Fun fact: The school is beginning its 47th year.
Santa Monica, CA
Westside students have a direct link to George Balanchine himself: Director Yvonne Mounsey was an NYCB principal under the choreographer, so she teaches his style as she learned it firsthand.
Classes: Ballet, jazz, pointe, pas de deux, variations
Number of students: 390 (no audition required)
Performances per year: Two
Alumni: Andrew Veyette (NYCB principal), Melissa Barak (choreographer), Anna Liceica (former ABT soloist), Kylee Kitchens (PNB)
Fun facts: This past summer, New York's School of American Ballet held a two-week summer session at Westside Ballet.
International Ballet School
IBS takes the “international" element of its name seriously, inviting former Bolshoi and Paris Opéra Ballet dancers to teach master classes, and producing stylistically versatile students who go on to dance all over the world—from Monaco to Switzerland to Germany.
Classes: Ballet, character, contemporary, pointe, variations
Number of students: 60 (no audition required)
Performances per year: Two, plus outreach
Competitions: Youth America Grand Prix, Prix de Lausanne, World Ballet Competition
Alumni: Erin McAffee (The Joffrey Ballet), Anisa Scott (Dresden SemperOper Ballet)
Fun fact: IBS has recently begun purchasing sets and costumes from companies like London Festival Ballet and Houston Ballet. In a recent Peter Pan production, the school rented rigging so that the dancers could fly onstage!
At Your Feet
American Harlequin is in the business of providing dancers with a solid foundation—both literally and figuratively. This year, the dance floor company will award between $500 and $5,000 to 10 aspiring dancers selected at random. You must be an American or Canadian citizen, ages 15 to 21, enrolled in a dance school to enter. Fill out an application at harlequinfloors.com. by November 1.
ABT Down South
The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School boasts star teachers, an unbeatable connection to American Ballet Theatre and dozens of high-profile alumni. But the school has never been able to offer a full boarding experience complete with dorms and academics—until now. This fall, JKO took the University of North Carolina School of the Arts School of Dance ballet program under its wing. UNCSA faculty members have become certified in the ABT National Training Curriculum, and ABT staff will visit Winston-Salem annually to give master classes, judge exams and scout for Studio Company prospects. ABT staff will also assist the search for a permanent replacement for Ethan Stiefel, who served as the dean of UNCSA's School of Dance for the past four years before leaving to become artistic director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet. See uncsa.edu.
At competitions, it's usually every man for himself. But the Youth Dance Festival of New Jersey aims to give dancers a place to perform without sacrificing artistry in service of splashy tricks. Winners are chosen, but everyone receives written feedback, a certificate of achievement and access to workshops taught by jury members.
Dates: October 8 and 9
Location: Ramapo College in Mahwah, NJ
Founded: 2005 by Leonid Kozlov
Genres: Ballet, contemporary, jazz, folk dance
Past participants: ABT's April Giangeruso, Boston Ballet's Whitney Jensen, Billy Elliot's Kiril Kulish
To register: Go to ydfofnj.org.
Win Up To $1,000
Can you write passionately about your ballet training? You could win Costume Gallery's annual Beverly Miller Scholarship. Judges will award up to $1,000 to 19 dancers ages 12 to 21. Selections are based on dedication and financial need. The money can be used for anything that furthers your training. Apply by November 1 at costumegallery.net.