Tag Archives: ballet class

Life Lessons Learned From Ballet: The Official WISH Countdown

One of the first pieces of advice I ever heard about writing was to write what you know. It was natural to set WISH in the world of ballet since it’s defined who I am today. Aside from the obvious things like good posture, body mechanics and spatial awareness, ballet works on a subtle, character-building level. Here are some of the ways ballet helps dancers grow:

mistakes are a good thing

Ballet class is an ongoing experiment for any dancer; a place to try new things, fine tune others, maybe fall flat on your face. By the time a dancer performs something on stage, the mistakes have been made and they’ve practiced so many times they could perform in their sleep.

Mistakes are a part of every dancer’s process, a chance to learn and evolve toward perfection. Asking what went wrong and why, and what you need to do differently in the future means that you will get an improved outcome the next time. Living in fear of making mistakes holds you back from trying new things. There is no mastery without mistakes. Ask Edison. It only took him 10,000 tries to get a light bulb to work.

Stand Up Straight

One of the first things a dancer learns is the importance of proper posture. The elegance of ballet demands it, plus it’s a great party trick. As a fellow dancer friend likes to remind me, “You can always tell when a dancer walks into a room.” I can’t tell you how many times my first ballet teacher had to tell us to “straighten your telephone poles.”

Ballet dancers are meant to be graceful, regal beings with a commanding stage presence; the slumped, hunched-over look just isn’t going to cut it. Yet this is exactly the way most of move through life–study the people waiting in line for Starbucks if you don’t believe me. The older we get the worse our posture becomes until the hunchback effect becomes so pronounced we start to look like turtles.

Listening is critical

Have you ever asked yourself how often you truly listen? Dancers spend a lot of time listening; if not, they run the risk of missing choreography and cues. In every ballet class, dancers spend at least 40% of the time listening to instructions and corrections from teachers. Even when they’re dancing ballet dancers are still listening– to the music, coordinating their steps with each beat.

Listening does not come easily for most humans. Random thoughts often fight for attention, causing us to tune out. Before you know it, minutes have gone by and you’ve missed out. Dancers can’t afford this, and neither can anyone else who plans to get where they need to go on time.

What is the risk of not listening? For a dancer, it might mean missing an important entrance or exit on and off stage, or going right when the rest of the class is going left. Either way, there’s the potential to be embarrassed… or worse.

If you fall, get up again (quickly)

Planet Earth is plagued with a powerful yet pesky force called gravity, which constantly sucks everyone and everything towards the ground. Most of the time this is a good thing, a helpful thing, like in the shower, for instance. However, there are moments when gravity is not your friend.

Nothing is more embarrassing than falling on your face, center stage, in front of thousands. You’ll have to trust me on this; I’ve lived that unfortunate reality. The moment is surreal; it seems like it will never end. When a dancer falls, giving up is not an option. There is only one choice: get up again–quickly– and move on. Everyone else will forget about it…probably more quickly than you will.

No one likes to fall, but it happens. With any fall comes the chance to rediscover the strength and grace to get back up again and keep going.

If you can imagine it, you can achieve it; if you can dream it, you can become it

Everything that exists begins as an idea. The chair you are sitting on, the book you are reading, even the clothes you are wearing had to be imagined first. It’s the same with dance (or anything else): every dancer starts out with a dream to dance but the most important key to success is a dancer’s belief in themselves.

The biggest, most important dreams don’t happen overnight. Dream, believe, keep your thoughts aligned with your goals…this is what keeps us moving along the path, one step at a time.



Bunheads 101: How to be a Ballet Dancer…or just look like one

The Rules of Ballet

A Day in the life of a Professional Ballet Student

How to Become a Professional Ballet Dancer

The School of American Ballet Summer Intensive: Week 2

There was a lot to figure out in the early days of my first Summer Intensive at the School of American Ballet. Once I had figured out how to navigate my way through the Metro North train system and the busses of New York City there was a whole other system to figure out: the hierarchy of faculty and students. The faculty was different from what I was used to: not only were they difficult to understand (many of them were hand-picked from Russia by George Balanchine and spoke with heavy accents), they were impossible to decipher—but every comment and correction from them was like a precious nugget of gold (to be later analyzed in private from every possible angle) because you were good enough to be worth their time . The other dancers were easier to figure out because they were all intent on the same goal: being asked to stay on at the end of the summer as a permanent student.

Each class I sweated profusely (both literally and figuratively), watching my technique (in the mirror) and the instructors (out of the corner of my eye). It soon became apparent that once we finished barre exercises and moved on to the center of the floor, dancers were placed in rows according to rank—the further front you were placed, the more in favor you were.

I wasn’t used to being in such a competitive arena. While most of the other girls were nice, some went out of their way to be catty. More than once I had to defend myself from snide remarks from a girl from New Jersey who decorated her bun with a ribbon tied in a big bow that exactly matched the color of her leotard. She was annoying, but I found her whole color coordination thing even more ridiculous and more than once I wanted to tell her to where to stuff New Jersey.

In the end I decided to focus on being my best and tuning out the rest—it was just noise. Knowing that everyone else was there for the same reason I was made me work harder than I ever had before.

More from today’s dancers at the School of American Ballet:

How a Mentor Changed My Life

Who are the people who have changed your life? Somewhere in the middle of celebrating Mother’s Day I thought about someone who was like a mother to me: my first ballet teacher, Irene Wiley Lander (referred to as “Miss Wiley” to her students). Even though she wasn’t my mother she was a very important part of my life. She was not only the person who shaped my dance technique, but the driving force that lead me to audition for the School of American Ballet, which eventually led to a professional ballet career. Through her guidance, support and relentless demands to reach higher and work harder, my life was forever changed.

I started classes with Miss Wiley when I was 5, after my preschool creative dance teacher suggested I go real ballet classes because she thought I had potential. My first ballet classes always started with everyone sitting in a circle on the floor; we learned ballet terminology through show and tell. Miss Wiley would hold up a giant cardboard flashcard with the name of a step and ask for a volunteer to go to the barre and demonstrate for the rest of us. Hands shot up in the air— there was always fierce competition to be the shower. After show and tell was over, the real work began with Miss Wiley frequently reminding us to “sharpen our pencils” (straighten our legs and point our toes) and “fix our telephone poles” (stand up straight! and pronto!). She was strict and a little scary, so we listened to what she said.

© Grier Cooper 2008

A good ballet teacher (like Miss Wiley) gives his or her students a solid foundation of dance technique. But performance opportunities are important too. After five years of classes with Miss Wiley (except for that one year I took off to pursue competitive swimming, which she never quite forgave me for), she had me audition for a local theater production that needed a young dancer. I ended up performing twelve weeks on stage, and after that I was hooked (getting a paycheck was pretty cool, too… I earned enough money to buy a horse, but the idea was immediately vetoed by my parents).

Two years later Miss Wiley arranged for me to audition for the summer intensive at the School of American Ballet. Miss Wiley rode the train with me to New York and brought me to the audition. I was accepted, and at the end of my second summer intensive, Miss Wiley was the one who went into Madame Glebov’s office to receive the news that I had been asked to stay on as a permanent student. She then talked my parents into letting me move to New York by myself (I was fourteen)… a feat that I still can’t quite wrap my head around.

But everything I’ve shared so far only paints part of the picture. My home life was dysfunctional and difficult and these problems sometimes made it impossible for me to be my best in ballet class. I’m not sure if Miss Wiley knew that my mother was an alcoholic, but she did know there were issues at home and she spoke to my mother on my behalf several times. She even went out of her way to take me on outings (probably to get me out of the house and away from my mother)… we often went to the beach or the movies. Now with hindsight I’d say she saved me from years of more abuse from my mother by making sure I went to New York.

Here’s an interesting dichotomy: although Miss Wiley was instrumental in jump-starting my dance career, she was also the one who told me, years later, to leave dance altogether when I felt like I had hit a wall. I’ll never know why she advised me to go to college and start life over; perhaps because she knew from experience how difficult and painful the world of ballet can be.

I know many of my fellow dancers at SAB had teachers who helped them advance to the professional level, like Miss Wiley did for me, but as my first mentor she took things to an entirely different level than most. It still amazes me that someone would be willing to give so much time and energy simply to help someone else. I am forever grateful to her.

Who are your mentors? How have they changed your life?

New York City Ballet’s Tiler Peck talks about her greatest mentor.

More on dance mentors from the Ballet Shoes & Bobby Pins blog.

Alvin Ailey’s Robert Battle on his mentors.



Favorite Dance Firsts

January is a month of firsts. With just a few days left to this month, I thought I’d share some of my favorite and memorable dance firsts:

1. First ballet class

Although I have already admitted that I was initially a reluctant ballerina, once I got into the studio I always had fun. These were the days when there was no uniform so it was fine to show up in over-the-top girly tutus. Back then ballet meant complete creative freedom, and my favorite thing in the world was “run-run-jump”, where we would do flying grand jetés over pretend puddles.

photo by Grier Cooper

2. First time en pointe.

Nothing beats the thrill of the first time you put on a pair of pointe shoes. Most young ballerinas dream about this day for years before it actually happens, waiting until they get the go-ahead from their teacher. Pointe shoes must be properly fitted as no two dancers’ feet are alike. My big day was a big deal: we had to drive forty-five minutes to the nearest shop. But that was all forgotten the moment I rose on my toes and took the first step towards a professional career.

photo by deafstar


   3. First partnering experience

Hello, awkward moment. When I got a last-minute phone call to fill in and perform in place of an injured friend, I didn’t exactly know what I was signing up for. Turns out I had to partner with one of the hottest boys in school and I’d never partnered with anyone before. I have never been so aware of every contour of my body and I don’t think I breathed the entire time.

4. First serious audition (SAB)

My ballet teacher brought me to my first real audition at the School of American Ballet. I was twelve. We rode the train from Connecticut to Grand Central Station. While the building that housed SAB was completely ordinary, the studios were the most gorgeous I’ve ever seen. Huge, pristine, light-filled and perfectly appointed. A glossy black grand piano stood in the corner, and a pianist played live for class. The infamous Antonina Tumkovsky conducted the audition and half the time I thought she was speaking a different language altogether. Embarrassing moment: she asked me to demonstrate a jump combination and the heel of my pointe shoe slipped off in the middle of it. I kept going but I was sure I would never get in.


photo by William Berg-Hillinger

5. Leaving home.

I left home and moved to New York City when I was fourteen after SAB asked me to stay on as a permanent student. I quickly learned how to navigate the streets and public transportation, although it was overwhelming. Life was a delicate balancing act of ballet, school and homework which didn’t leave much time for anything else. Even though it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done and I missed my family it was the opportunity of a lifetime and that is what serious ballet dancers do.

photo by melodi2










6. First Hair Accessory

This is going to sound silly but it wasn’t until I went to my first SAB summer intensive that I had an epiphany: buns were made to be decorated. I wasn’t one of those people who wore a color-coordinated bow to match every leotard. Instead I fell in love with flowers. One of the older dancers made and sold hair combs decorated with fake flowers. She’d lay the multi-colored assortment out at her feet at lunchtime while she sat quietly sewing ribbons on her pointe shoes.

photo by Laura Morariu

 7. First solo.

My first solo also happened to be my first New York performance. I was lucky enough to have the chance to perform with Pacific Northwest Ballet for their production of Chaconne, an ethereal, hair-down Balanchine ballet. It was also the first time that my family saw me perform, which made the occasion triply memorable.

8. First costume made for my exact measurements.

There are always issues when you wear costumes from past seasons, made to fit other dancers. A tutu might be a little short in the torso (causing a pinch in the crotch, seriously uncomfortable) or too large in all the wrong places. But when you are the first cast to ever perform a new ballet, your costume is custom made for you. Mine was a beautiful purple romantic tutu made by the uber-talented Haydee Morales of Miami City Ballet.

photo by Piotr Bizior, www.bizior.com

 9. First Nutcracker.

I performed my first Nutcracker with San Francisco Ballet. Night after night I was a flower and angel (winner of the most hideous costume since forever award) Performing was a blast but this was the first Christmas I did not spend with my family because our last performance was at the end of December.

10. First international tour

Israel seemed like an exotic place to visit and it was seriously old. Anyone who’s read the Bible knows that this is the place where it all happened.  I will never forget this Miami City Ballet tour, for so many reasons, including bombs at breakfast, touring Bethlehem, Masada, Jerusalem, swimming in the Dead Sea and riding a camel.