Thumb through Ingrid Silva's Instagram and you'll see plenty of beautiful professional photos of her dancing. But her profile feels much less curated than what's usually found online. She's hanging out with her brindle- coat French bulldog, Frida Kahlo. Or she's working with the outreach program Brown Girls Do Ballet. Or she's rehearsing at Dance Theatre of Harlem, where she's been dancing since 2008, leotard and tights on, Afro out. It's the perfect portrait of a modern-day ballerina.
Yuan Yuan Tan is one of San Francisco Ballet's most stunning classical dancers, but her flair for timeless elegance reaches beyond the stage. Her street look is grounded in clean silhouettes and dark shades, but has an edge; she loves leather and isn't afraid of a pop of color. “I look up to Audrey Hepburn, Cate Blanchett and Maggie Cheung for fashion inspiration," says Tan. The one thing she truly couldn't live without? Earrings—but not just any pair. “I got a pair of antique crystal earrings in Prague in 1999, and I wear them onstage for good luck."
If you ever spot Kathleen Breen Combes when Boston Ballet is on tour, chances are she's on a fashion mission with her shopping buddy, soloist John Lam. “We land. We figure out our theater time. We figure out our shopping time," she says with a laugh. “We ask the locals what the best stores are—you want the back streets, not the main shopping area." Though she loves boutiques, Combes isn't afraid of a little DIY. She looks for homemade finds on Etsy and makes her own dancewear, like the navy blue leggings she wore during our shoot. “I harass the costume shop at Boston Ballet a lot with my sewing questions. After that, it's trial and error." The trend she'll never stand for? “I guess some people can pull it off, but I hate leggings as pants."
Outside class and rehearsal, Jeanette Delgado sports a laid-back look. But she rarely goes without a pop of pattern or color—a boho touch inspired by her Miami roots. “Growing up here is a part of me," she says. “The weather, the lifestyle. I'm a mix of all that." Delgado's biggest fashion agenda is lengthening her petite 5' 2" frame: Pancaked shoes and full-length tights elongate her line inside the studio, while outside, high-waisted shorts give the illusion that she's all legs. Her secret to adding a few inches of height? She sometimes buys dresses that are too long and hides heels underneath.
Diana Vishneva likes a little extravagance. Her preferred fashion labels include Céline and Marni. On tour, she carries Louis Vuitton bags, custom made to tote not just clothing and toiletries but also her tutus and pointe shoes. Each piece is stamped with her initials, DV. When asked about her most prized items, though, she sways toward sentiment. “I got a gift from Natalia Makarova, a shawl made from goat wool. I take it with me everywhere,” she says. “And there are the warm socks my mom has been knitting for me since my childhood. If you can believe it, she still makes them for me today.” It seems that even the biggest stars can’t live without their creature comforts.
Vishneva likes dance attire that transitions easily. Her preference for stylish comfort was evident when Pointe caught up with her during her recent performances in Costa Mesa, California, where she sported lightweight pants, simple ballet flats and a jacket casually layered over an easy T-shirt. She usually opts for cool blue and gray tones. “I don’t like shiny or bright,” she says.
“Dance isn’t about fashion. It’s more important that my body feels warm and I can keep it at a good temperature,” says Vishneva. That’s why she layers: tights under pants and socks under ballet shoes. And she likes to mix dancewear and athletic wear, depending on whether she’s rehearsing classical or contemporary work.
When it comes to his look outside the studio, American Ballet Theatre principal Marcelo Gomes errs on the formal side. “Now that I'm choreographing, I often have lunch meetings with designers and composers," he says. “It's easier to not have to think about what I wear and just put on a suit." At our shoot, he wore a wool jacket, accented with leather-paneled sleeves, over a classic flannel ensemble. His latest purchase? “A green blazer made entirely of velvet," he laughs—a touch of retro elegance, like Gomes himself.
Photo by Kyle Froman
When Melissa Hough shifted her focus from her competition studio to the demanding Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC, she felt she needed more than regular classes to catch up. Newly committed to pursuing a ballet career, she sought private lessons outside of the school, working on fixing bad habits, like her tendency to pronate her feet. “I had been dancing a certain way for so long,” says Hough, now a first soloist with Houston Ballet. “Taking privates enhanced all of the work I was doing on my ballet technique.”
Deciding whether private lessons make sense takes assessing your own training and efforts honestly. If you have been giving classes your all but keep falling short of your goals, you might need to consider getting help from a different teacher. In some cases, you may need to leave your current studio or training program. More often, it’s a matter of getting some one-on-one attention. But navigating the world of private lessons can be tricky, especially if your new teacher has a different approach than your main program. You need to show respect for your program, while getting the extra guidance that will help you improve.
Focus Your Goals
Finding a private teacher starts with looking at your current contacts—guest faculty, former summer intensive connections and notable coaches in your area. Be clear about the problems you want to address. Royal Ballet first artist Meaghan Hinkis, who trained at American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, started taking lessons at age 12 with New York City master teacher Fabrice Herrault. She felt that she had hit a plateau in her training and wanted to polish the small details of her barre and center work. “The simplest things tend to be the most difficult,” she says. “Hearing the same correction said in a different way can be the trigger you need for an idea to sink in.”
When she was a student, ABT corps member Skylar Brandt looked for teachers who were experts in specific styles, like former Bolshoi Ballet dancer Valentina Kozlova, former New York City Ballet soloist Diana White, former ABT principal Susan Jaffe and the French-trained Herrault. “Pursuing different methods and approaches helps create a well-rounded technique,” she says.
Keep in mind, though, that if you want to become truly proficient in one style, adding new teachers to your roster may hinder your purity, which is one reason why many schools discourage it. “Whether you’re 8 or 18, taking classes from other teachers will confuse you,” says Kay Mazzo, co-chairman of faculty at the renowned School of American Ballet. “Then we have to reteach what you’ve already learned and you’re actually taking steps back.” Additionally,if your dream is to join a school’s affiliated company, you don’t want them to think your interests lie elsewhere.
If you want to seek extra training outside your program, discuss it first with your teachers and school director. While SAB frowns on private lessons, many programs permit students to seek outside help, providing they show real commitment to their core training. “Most of the drama surrounding privates can be prevented if you just don’t go behind your school’s back,” says Brandt. It’s a tough conversation, but don’t try to outsmart your teachers by skirting the issue. Someone who has trained you for years will immediately see if you start approaching the work differently. “Sometimes there were other students taking privates who brought a new habit or arm coordination into a teacher’s classroom and they were not pleased,” says Brandt. “You have to show the faculty you respect what they think and you need to maintain the style of your school’s training.”
Privates can also result in emotional backlash from directors and teachers. They put time and effort into shaping their students’ technique and can feel like a student has turned her back on their approach. “I had to take a lot of flack,” says Hough. She adds, though, that dealing with the conflict helped prepare her for the politics of professional life. Every training program has its priorities; gauge them carefully to determine whether going outside will create a minor or a major issue.
Are You Ready?
Venturing into the world of privates means taking a critical look at where you are in your training. Peter Brandenhoff, who has taught dancers from major programs in California and New York City, reminds young dancers to be patient. (He doesn’t recommend privates for students under 12, though many professional dancers, including Brandt, started taking them as early as age 8.) “The dancer should have a basic foundation in place so that the private teacher can complement that,” he says. Hough agrees that it is important to feel confident and grounded with your work at your own school before sampling other teachers’ methods. “Expose yourself to as much as you can, but always have your consistent teacher. You need a base that you can come back to, and you have to learn the rules before you can break them,” she says.
The work you put into your training lies with you. You don’t want to jeopardize years of effort, but you must be an advocate for your technique—and your own best interests. “We have a finite amount of time in a dance career, so question everything your teachers say—none of us have all the final answers,” says Brandenhoff. “Teachers always say we know what’s best for our students, but, frankly, some students know more about themselves than their teachers.”
Kristin Schwab is an associate editor at Dance Teacher magazine.
Tailor private lessons to work on any personal training hurdles.
Polish your technique: Royal Ballet first artist Meaghan Hinkis took private lessons to slow class down. She felt she needed a cleaner, more precise technical base. “Fine-tuning was the key,” she says. “My privates would follow a normal class from barre to center, but the combinations were never complicated.”
Push your skill level: When you work one-on-one, there is always time for the 32-fouetté coda. “Privates provided a more intense, individualized version of everything,” says Houston Ballet first soloist Melissa Hough. “There were elements that I couldn’t do at first, but I had the opportunity to ask questions because it was just the two of us.”
Refine your artistry: “In a big class you don’t have the luxury to work on the rep you want,” says American Ballet Theatre corps member Skylar Brandt. Working one-on-one allows you to tailor variations and dive deeper into characters.
Make connections: “They don’t teach you this when you’re young, but networking is important to your career,” says Hough. “Working with someone may lead to opportunities in the future.”
New York City Ballet corps member Gwyneth Muller admits that when she signed on as a company apprentice, she didn’t even glance at her contract. Then reality set in. She had to move from the School of American Ballet dorms to an apartment and juggle living expenses, healthcare costs and the notoriously high NYC rent.
Beneath ballet’s tulle and tiaras lies a profession. Dancers can be so excited when they get their first job that they overlook critical points of the contract.
Understanding the fine print is key to making the art of ballet into a career. “It’s funny—when you start you’re not even concerned with wages,” says Muller, who now serves as NYCB’s American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA) delegate, acting as a liaison between company members and the union. She notes that any dancer who gets an offer—be it from NYCB or elsewhere—should look closely at the number of weeks the company spends in season, keeping in mind that they only get paid when they work. Dancers need to consider whether they can afford to live on what they will earn.
A beginner has little leverage in terms of salary. But each company offers different benefits, and it pays to take a look at what dancers will—and won’t—be expected to cover themselves. While virtually every company has a shoe allowance, some do not cover off-site physical therapy, and many offer only partial dental or healthcare.
Dancers at most of the larger ballet companies are represented by unions like AGMA. “They give dancers a voice,” says James Fayette, a former NYCB principal who now works as AGMA’s New York area dance executive. Collective bargaining agreements usually mandate regular breaks and a maximum amount of rehearsal time, which can make a real difference in a dancer’s worklife. Union membership is usually required at unionized companies, and dancers must pay fees to the union out of their salaries. Since the contract covers dancers of all ranks and seniority, examining the terms means a new dancer can get a sense of what lies ahead. “It’s a way,” Fayette says, “to understand what the position can grow into.”
Jesse Tyler, an Atlanta Ballet company artist and AGMA delegate, is glad that his current company is unionized. “At my previous company, we were supposed to get a five-minute break every hour,” he says. “They were good about it, but if they hadn’t been, I couldn’t have done anything. At Atlanta Ballet, I can say ‘It’s time for a break,’ and there’s no question of it being an issue.”
Muller notes that as a dancer’s career evolves, priorities change. “As you get older, you realize this is your life,” she says. “Maybe you have rehearsal issues. You haven’t been getting your breaks and you feel that you’ve been working too many hours. Suddenly, you find yourself asking, ‘What does the contract say?’ ”
Kristin Schwab, a New York dancer, is a Pointe intern.