Tag Archives: School of American Ballet

How to Move Past Failure

During the time I was a ballet student at the School of American Ballet falling in class was one of my greatest fears. While the fear wasn’t necessarily rational (I never did fall in class) it lurked like a shadowy predator that I couldn’t shake off. The irony was that class was the place I should have been experimenting, pushing the boundaries, trying new things; if there was ever an ideal place to make mistakes, ballet class was it. Since then I’ve realized that fear of failure is more common than most people would like to admit, but it’s not just the failure itself that worries people. The idea of looking bad or foolish can be enough to keep us from even trying something in the first place.

No one wants to be the star of their own ballet blooper…. but everybody’s doing it–even the pros!

Recently I came across this quote and it was a game-changer:

“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”  ~Winston Churchill

Success never happens all at once–it’s a process–and failures are part of that process. No one whips off a triple pirouette the first time they try to turn, nor is a dancer given a starring role the first day they join a ballet company (except for Claire in the new ballet drama Flesh and Bone). Yet each time we try, whether we’re successful or not, it’s a step forward. Churchill’s quote reminds us to use our failures as stepping-stones, to move from one to the next without losing enthusiasm.

SteppingStones

Better yet, move from one to the next…and keep on keeping on. There’s always a next step.

 

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Ballet’s Most Loaded Question

When I was a professional ballet dancer I often felt penned in by a strange irony: although I’d been one out of crowds of thousands of dancers chosen to dance with Miami City Ballet, I found myself often questioning whether or not I was any good. I was also one of a handful of students chosen to study full-time at the School of American Ballet, arguably one of the top ballet schools in the world. But none of it mattered–at the end of the day I never could tell myself I was an exceptional dancer because I never quite knew–not with the kind of certainty that lives in your bones.

The business of ballet is not about handing out compliments, praise, or even the occasional pat on the back. It’s more about repetition and the constant quest for perfection, with the end result (a successful performance) being the reward. When teachers and directors give feedback they don’t use the “sandwich technique” of giving praise, criticism, and then more praise. Ballet directives are straight meaty criticism, no bread (which is bad for the figure, anyway). Dancers learn to crave attention–even if it’s critical–because it’s often the only indication of a dancer’s worth.

Good

Even after I stopped dancing professionally I still wondered if I had been any good. That good old irony just wouldn’t get lost. There never were any answers, really. Only questions. Thinking about it was a fruitless exercise. The past was over.

I found a whole range of new ways to keep dance alive in my life: college dance companies, alternative nightclub performances, Sunday night World Beat Night with friends, African dance class in a church with jewel-box stained-glass windows. After a while I stopped worrying about whether I was “good” and just enjoyed these experiences.

Until last weekend.

I was headed into a Saturday morning dance class when I realized I had a shadow–a pig-tailed little girl in a polka dot dress. I smiled at her. “I like your pants,”she said. (Admittedly they are one of the groovier pairs I own). I thanked her and she continued escorting me down the hall. “Are you good?” she said, out of nowhere.

Ooo, kid, loaded question was my first thought. How to explain all of this stuff to her? But then I had to laugh because it didn’t matter anymore. So here’s what I said:

maybe.

Now that dance is no longer my job I dance because I love it–for no other reason–and that is a huge relief.

Debunking Ballet Myths

 

While many people admire ballet as art form, it’s also often criticized. Unhealthy body image is one of the most common complaints. But are these criticisms based on reality or myth? Let’s examine some of the most common ballet myths and see what’s real:

1. All ballet dancers are anorexic.

The average professional ballet dancer spends anywhere from five to eight hours each day dancing their butts off; imagine how slim you would be if you exercised that much! Ballet also naturally creates longer, leaner lines in the body, unlike other athletic pursuits such as running, which create bulkier muscles. Although they are slender, most dancers are health-conscious—they have to be in order to have enough energy to get through their long, active days…although their busy schedules mean they snack throughout the day as opposed to eating huge meals (it’s hard to be light on your feet with a full belly!).

2. If you want to be a professional ballet dancer you have to start taking ballet classes early, like when you are still in the womb.

Just look at ballet superstar Misty Copeland; her story will burn that myth right out of your head. Copeland didn’t begin taking ballet classes until she was thirteen, yet in 2007 she made dance history when she became the third African American female soloist (and the first in two decades) at American Ballet Theater. Another classmate of mine at the School of American Ballet didn’t begin ballet until she was twelve but later went on to dance with New York City Ballet.

3. All male ballet dancers are gay. There are certainly a lot of good-looking men in ballet but just because they put on tights doesn’t mean there aren’t some hot-blooded heterosexuals in the mix. The real-life partnership between New York City Ballet principal dancers Robert Fairchild and Tiler Peck is not just one of the most romantic love stories in ballet history (teen sweethearts, drama, breakup(s) and a happy ending when Fairchild proposed in Paris), it is one of the most prominent ballet marriages today. Other well-known ballet couples include San Francisco Ballet Principal Dancers Vanessa Zahorian and Davit Karapetyan, Boston Ballet principals Carlos Molina and Erica Cornejo and Nelson Madrigal and Lorna Feijoo, Ballet West soloists Easton Smith and Haley Henderson. Still not convinced? Rent “The Turning Point” (a classic ballet film) and watch Baryshnikov make his moves.

4. You have to be a twig if you want to be a ballet dancer. While this was true during the Balanchine era, perspectives on dancers’ bodies is changing dramatically and today’s dancers are more muscular and feminine. Take a look at the lineup of dancers from companies like LINES Ballet, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet and Ballet Black. English National Ballet Artistic Director Tamara Rojo recently made it known that she’s not interested in employing underweight ballerinas. Ballet dancers such as Kathryn Morgan, a former New York City Ballet soloist, St. Paul Ballet dancer Brittany Adams and New York City Ballet veteran Jennifer Ringer are becoming more vocal about promoting a healthy body image. If you want to delve deeper on the issue, check outStrength and Beauty,” a documentary about ballerinas’ personal accounts of dealing with issues like weight.

 

5. Ballet dancers are weak, timid girlie girls who love anything pink. If that were true, why are droves of football players signing up for ballet? Headliner Steve McLendon of the Pittsburgh Steelers says, “ballet is harder than anything else I do”. Ballet dancers are not delicate little flowers, nor is ballet easy. It’s actually enormously difficult both physically AND mentally. A dancer has to remember several ballets’ worth of choreography at any given time PLUS be strong enough to leap, turn, grande battement, and relevé for (sometimes) HOURS on end.

balletGirls

6. Pointe hurts. Stretching hurts.

It doesn’t hurt if you’re doing it right! Well, okay, pointe shoes sometimes hurt when you wear them day after day for hours at a time. But dancers build up their flexibility and foot strength over time. It’s a process where things progress slowly. Beginning pointe classes, for instance, are very brief. If things hurt, it’s time to slow down or back off and if you experience pain when you’re stretching it’s actually a clear indication that you’re pushing things too far.

7. Ballet dancers naturally dance well at parties and nightclubs. Just because someone is a ballet dancer does not mean they’ll be a hit on the dance floor at your next party. Trust me; these are two very different types of dancing. In fact, ballet is so regimented and precise that it’s difficult for ballet dancers to cut loose. It’s much more likely they’ll resemble a spastic electrocuted chicken on the dance floor.

8.All female ballet dancers are ballerinas. Typical cocktail party conversation: “Oh, I didn’t know that you were a ballerina!” Um, I’m not. I’m a ballet dancer. Only the highest-ranking female dancers in a ballet company are ranked as ballerinas. The corps and soloist dancers in the company are not ranked as ballerinas yet.

9. Since ballet terms are French all ballet dancers speak fluent French. Sadly, no ( je suis desolée). Just because ballet terms are in French does not mean that we speak French fluently, nor is there any guarantee that our pronunciation incredible…or even correct.

10. Ballet dancers are not the brightest bulbs in the pack. Refer to item number 5 above, for how much dancers have to remember (A LOT). This skill also serves dancers well in school, since more dancers are choosing take college courses in the midst of their dance careers, with the blessings of top ballet companies including American Ballet Theater and New York City Ballet (who offer scholarship money to their dancers). Boston Ballet recently teamed up with Northeastern University to offer a program to help dancers earn their degrees while they are dancing. The university’s flexible schedule accommodates dancers’ routines and the company’s scholarship fund covers up to 80% of tuition…which means there are a lot of brainiacs on pointe out there.

As you can see, most myths don’t stand up to investigation. Whether your attitude towards ballet is “love it” or “leave it”, you can now make an educated choice.

What A Summer Intensive at the School of American Ballet Feels Like

While every day at the School of American Ballet held all the promise of my ballet future, I often felt one step behind, unsure of where I stood or whether I was even noticed. There were some days when the white walls of the studio felt like they were closing in on me. Other days it felt cavernous, full of so many other people I felt like I might be swallowed up. Every day I tried as hard as I could to be perfect.

Regardless of the cloud of uncertainty constantly hanging over my head, I loved ballet and performing and I had been dreaming of attending the School of American Ballet for years.

So I continued taking the overly-refrigerated train every day with a clump of men in suits, and riding the bus (no air-conditioning) to and from SAB in temperatures that hovered over one hundred degrees, and I did everything my teachers asked. I was lucky to have the ability to learn choreography quickly, which differentiated me from some of the others, because I always knew what the next step was.

The teaching style at the School of American Ballet was very different from what I was used to: we were shown each exercise (either an actual demonstration by the teacher or told verbally with a series of hand gestures to illustrate) and we repeated what was given. Days and weeks passed this way, usually with no comments from teachers.

We had technique class every morning, variations en pointe two afternoons per week, and character class. I hadn’t been dancing en pointe for long, but my feet were already giving me problems. The bunions on the joints of my big toes continued to grow and every class was excruciating—it felt like being stabbed with skewers or hot daggers. Some days I was close to tears. Most days I surreptitiously took off my shoes for a split second while the other group of dancers were in the center… a few blessed moments to relieve the pressure was the only way to get through each class.

One class at a time. One day at a time. That was the only way to keep moving ahead and I was determined to do exactly that.