Washington, DC: Blossoming Ballet Scene

On a muggy morning in early July, students in The Washington School of Ballet’s level eight class do not get to take it easy. On this day The Washington Ballet’s artistic director, Septime Webre, is teaching. He susses out potentials for the Studio Company, while preparing these pre-professional dancers for the stage. “Think glamorous,” he says before a tendu combination at the barre. “You are wearing false eyelashes and tiaras with rhinestones.” Two dancers from South Africa, one from Japan and one from Argentina will likely join local students to stay the year and train, he says later about the mix of students in the class.

Scenes like this one reveal how Washington, DC and its environs have transformed into a place to which aspiring dancers now flock, not flee. The DC  metropolitan area offers a broad selection of high-caliber and diverse training, along with the world’s best companies at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. “Professional dance students used to leave Washington for New York, L.A. or Europe,” says Fabian Barnes, founder and artistic director of the Dance Institute of Washington, home of Washington Reflections Dance Company. “Now there are so many more opportunities to train and perform.”

The Washington Ballet has been around for more than 30 years; Washington Reflections and The Suzanne Farrell Ballet are more recent additions to the city’s cultural panorama. Their rise, coupled with the Kennedy Center’s heightened dance presentation, has given local students ample reason to remain in town, infusing the ballet scene with a fresh jolt of energy.

Webre arrived at The Washington Ballet exactly 10 years ago. Since then, the company’s budget has exploded from $2.8 million in 1999 to $8.5 million this year. Some of that growth has gone to expand the school. At its main branch, The Washington School of Ballet has 450 students enrolled during the year and 300 in its summer intensive program. It added a second school in Anacostia in Southeastern DC, with 200 school year students and 100 in the summer.

When those students are ready to graduate to the next level, they can now audition for The Washington Ballet’s Studio Company. Formed five years ago, it currently employs 8 to 10 dancers who range in age from 18 to 20. They receive weekly stipends and perform in some productions with the main company’s 22 dancers. Last season, Studio Company dancers gave 20 performances on their own at colleges and other venues throughout the region. “The Studio Company gives our students a deeper incentive to stay,” says Webre. “We used to lose our most talented to places like American Ballet Theatre.”

When Fabian Barnes’ Dance Institute of Washington moved into its new home in November 2006, another world of dance opened up to area students. The school trains about 125 students a year, with 30 attending its summer intensive. While the emphasis is on Vaganova training, the school also offers classes in modern and jazz. Barnes says a big draw of the Institute is the opportunity for students to be onstage. They perform at least five times a year at various local venues, such as the National Cathedral and Dance Place.

Dance Institute of Washington’s professional company, Washington Reflections, arrived on the scene in 2002. As a new company trying to carve out a niche in the African-American community, Reflections has experimented with various styles and signature pieces. This year, the company’s six classically trained dancers will perform modern works in New York and Austin, as well as throughout the DC area. The edgy repertoire, choreographed by Barnes and others such as Thaddeus Davis and Christopher Huggins, includes works set to Lauryn Hill, Nine Inch Nails and Duke Ellington.

Many of the dancers are professionals Barnes worked with before and wanted to bring back to the city. “Some of them went to New York, but came back when they couldn’t find their fit,” says Barnes, who danced with the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Since 1993 the Kennedy Center has hosted a summer intensive with Balanchine muse Suzanne Farrell. Students from around the world come to train with Farrell during her three-week residency, which culminates in a performance. The 30 or so students ages 14 to 18 take two technique classes a day, six days a week. “I try to keep it relatively small so that they all get attention,” says Farrell. “I know their names. If there are 30 students, you can’t teach a class—you have to teach 30 ways because they are all at different points in their lives.”

The students also get to explore the city’s arts and culture scene with trips to museums, historical sites and performances. “She’s one of a kind,” says Meg Kowalski, the Center’s director of dance programming, about Farrell. “She’s brought so much artistry and influence to our stages.”

Farrell’s company at the Kennedy Center dates from 1999, when it debuted as part of the Kennedy Center’s Balanchine festival. Last year The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, composed of nine principals and soloists, stepped up its dedication to Balanchine by creating a Preservation Trust to showcase the choreographer’s lost or rarely seen works. This year the company kicks off its season at the Kennedy Center with Balanchine’s Episodes, Ragtime and Liebeslieder Walzer.

The Kennedy Center has played a key role in all of this dynamic growth. DC’s dance scene swirls around the Center’s nine stages. It’s where most touring companies perform, giving young dancers a chance to see the greatness to which they aspire. Ballet Across America, in June, for example, brought nine companies to the Kennedy Center for three days of performances. That’s in addition to a regular season schedule that featured The Royal Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, The Kirov and the Bolshoi Ballet.

Besides presenting such companies, the Center also has a strong education component. The Kennedy Center Ballet Class Series gives 20 to 25 local students a once-in-a-lifetime chance to study alongside the world’s best dancers. Students—who must audition for the highly competitive spots—get to take class onstage at the Opera House during each visiting company’s Kennedy Center run. At press time, the artistic directors of The Joffrey, Kirov and San Francisco Ballet are scheduled to teach. While the series doesn’t culminate in a performance, the students get a taste of professional training and a sampling of different company styles. It’s a peek into company life and a chance to measure themselves against professionals—just one more reason that the nation’s capital is a great place for an aspiring dancer to call home.

Renuka Rayasam is a freelance reporter based in Washington, DC, who has written for U.S. News & World Report and Fortune Magazine. She is trained in ballet, modern and classical Indian dance.

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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."

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