Ballet Steps

Have you ever wondered what life is going to be like after ballet?

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In a whirlwind of unexpected surprises, I found myself in fashion.
Now come full circle, I am opening up my ballet company. Crazy.

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So, Your Professional Dance Career Didn’t Work Out – Now What?

So, Your Professional Dance Career Didn’t Work Out – Now What

By Susie Boyland, contributor

After all the years of training you put in, becoming a professional dancer didn’t work out, and now you have no idea what to do. Living in a cardboard box doesn’t sound like an attractive option…nor does living with your parents for 10 more years…Perhaps injury ended your career prematurely, you just couldn’t find a job, or you realized that as much as you love ballet, you really can’t stand repeating the same 10 seconds of a ballet over and over throughout hours of rehearsal every day.  However, if you had your sights set on becoming a ballet dancer, coming to the realizing that your dream career isn’t going to work out can be devastating.  So what now? There are many career paths that will allow you to remain in the dance world and use your dance experience without being a dancer in a professional company.

Dancers are disciplined, intelligent, driven, and know how to make a commitment.  Plus, being able to smile and look happy while dancing in pointe shoes with toes covered in blisters has its benefits in the outside world: your boss will never know how much you really hate writing those TPS reports (though after you’ve smiled through your fair share of grunt work, be sure to fight for that promotion you deserve!).  You also know how to work on a team: after all the hours of going into excruciating detail during corps work in Swan Lake while your teacher screams at you, working on a team project is a piece of cake!  And speaking of cake, you now can also have that extra slice without worrying so much about how you’d look in that hideous unitard you might otherwise be wearing in your next performance.

Nevertheless, ballet is a big part of your life and you’re not ready to let it go completely.  Good news is you don’t have to!  Most of these alternate career options will require a degree (or two…or three) or perhaps some specialized training, but fear not; the time and dedication you put into your ballet training is proof that you have what it takes to succeed in just about any career.  Here are five (and a bonus list) of the multitudes of other career options you might consider:

1. Physical Therapist
Let’s be real – all dancers end up in physical therapy at some point or another.  Having a physical therapist who does not know a plié from a tendu is about as fun as trying to explain to your non-dancer friends that no, you really cannot miss rehearsal “just this one time” to go to the beach.  Dancers will flock to a physical therapist with a dance background as they are hard to come by.  Helping other dancers to recover from their injuries could be very satisfying, and the training you will receive in physical therapy school will also help you to deal with your own injuries whenever they arise.  Plus, you will ace your anatomy classes, even if you’ve never taken one before.  How many other types of people can tell you where the psoas is before hearing about it in an anatomy class?  From my experience, not a whole lot.

For those who aren’t opposed to completing many more years of schooling, perhaps a career as an orthopedic surgeon is an option.  Every dancer’s worst fear when it comes to surgery is that he or she won’t be able to dance again.  Naturally this field is highly specialized and probably isn’t for most, but former dancers who do become surgeons could become highly regarded in this field.

2. Pilates Teacher
Now that we’re done discussing the scary stuff (surgery = yikes!), let’s get back to something we’re more familiar with.  Love it or hate it, cross training is essential for injury prevention.  Ballet dancers already have an acute sense of awareness when it comes to their bodies, and a pilates teacher who already has this awareness will be able to better meet the needs of his or her students.  Chances are you’ve already taken 203942038 pilates classes or thereabouts in your lifetime, so getting your certification shouldn’t be too frightening of a prospect.  Yoga is another option too.

3. Nutritionist
While you may now be allowed to have that extra piece of cake, most professional dancers have to be much more wary of what they eat.  As you no doubt know, in order to keep your body healthy and functioning at peak physical condition, nutrition is key.  For those who already like to eat as healthily as they can, this may seem like an attractive career option.  For those who wanted to hide in the back during nutrition class at summer programs, perhaps this idea sounds about as fun as repeating a long adage in the center.  In that case, let’s just move on to the next idea…

4. Lighting, Costume, or Set Designer
Jobs that help dancers lead injury-free and healthy lives are great and all, but what you really may be looking for is a way to still be involved in the performance aspect of ballet.  Lighting, costumes, and sets are what help to bring a ballet to life.  Creating a magical stage environment would simply not be possible without the work of these creative individuals.  You already know what does and doesn’t look good on the stage, so you’d be a natural at this!

5. Choreographer or Dance Teacher
These are the most obvious choices for a dancer who has to leave the stage but is not ready to leave the studio.  As dancers we have a vast amount of experience with choreographers and teachers, and likely know what we do and don’t like from each.  Many dancers choose one or both of these options after retiring from performing, but there’s no reason why these jobs should be reserved only for retired professional dancers.  These jobs may not be able to provide full-time work though, so perhaps these options could be a part-time supplement to another full-time job.

Lastly, a bonus list (which by no means includes the rest of your options):

  • Dance Photographer
  • Dance Journalist/Reviewer
  • Actor/Actress
  • Massage Therapist
  • Chiropractor
  • Dancewear or shoe designer
  • Business management or marketing work for your favorite company

If none of these sound good to you, then another option is to choose a career which is unrelated to the dance world but will provide you with the financial means and free time to enjoy as much dance as you want!  In my case, I got an engineering degree (undergrad only) and was able to get a job at a large aerospace corporation in a city with ample dance opportunities.  Engineering sounds terrifying, but I’ll let you in on a secret: Ballet is WAY more difficult!  My engineering job allows me to have the financial stability and time to take as many classes as I want (whenever injuries don’t prevent me from doing so) and attend professional ballet performances on a regular basis.  I know several other pre-professionally trained dancers who did the same thing and are also happy with their decision.  Not everyone is math and science oriented, but if you are then perhaps engineering could be a good option for you too.  Most engineers are left-brained and logical, but as a dancer you also have an artistic and creative element which can make you stand out.  Plus, who knows – maybe you could be the one to come up with a new and revolutionary long-lasting pointe shoe!  (One that doesn’t look like a Gaynor…#justsayin)

Each person is different and has his or her own skills and interests, but there is still a bright future for everyone whose dancing dreams didn’t come true in the way they’d hoped.  It will take time and effort, but when you think about all the hard work you’ve put in while training as a ballet dancer, it’s tough to think of something that could be more difficult than what you’ve already accomplished.  The end of your professional dancing days, even if they never begun, is not really an end, but rather the start of a new dream.

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What is Good Ballet?

What is “good” ballet?

I have been asked this a lot… and frankly I was avoiding this conversation as it is super subjective. It is like asking, “What is good art?” There isn’t a definitive answer, which is why I try to explain my opinion. First, we have to go over the context in which good ballet is used.

“I just saw Paris Opera Ballet, and that was good ballet.”

This is referring to a company’s caliber. A good ballet company, doesn’t have to be a big ballet company. A good ballet company has to have numerous artists who are all striving for a vision, in a specific performance. I will say, in order to be a good company, you have to have a strong technical backbone, dancers that can actually move well, and all generally have the same sense or approach to musicality. Some would say they all have the same body type, or body proportion but that is a bold face lie. It really is.

“She is a good ballet dancer.”

This is referring to a professional dancer’s achievement within the art. Just because you are technically sound, that doesn’t make you a good ballet dancer. A good ballet dancer isn’t even defined by turns, or leg up, or ridiculous air time (ballon). A good ballet dancer is an artist, someone who shapes their body to the music, and give the technical steps an emotion, a purpose, and place. A good technical ballet dancer just doesn’t fling their body anywhere in a jump, they have a very specific placement, within a time frame, moving in space, with an intent or emotion.

“This is a good ballet program.”

Referring to the education a dancer is receiving. I think this is the big question that everyone wants an answer to. What is good ballet training. So what, your school didn’t make the Big Ten List … There are plenty of great schools out there… like these ones I wrote about earlier… Well, anyways there are actually two types of good ballet schools. There are ballet schools, and then there are finishing schools. A good ballet school is a where you learn your body, turn out, foot articulation, placement, and clean basic technique. If your school doesn’t emphasize turn out in every combination, it probably isn’t a good school, and probably below mediocre… Turn out is the most important thing in ballet… Unfortunately. A good ballet school teaches you how to use the floor, learn a full ballet vocabulary, teach you how to warm up properly on your own, overly stretch you out, condition you ridiculously, teach you about nutrition, cross train you in pilates, yoga and a secondary form of dance, and educate your parents about summer programs, scholarships, colleges, and careers.

Now, a good finishing school is a school that teaches advanced technique and those ridiculous jumps and turns that no one did give years ago.. Haha just kidding, not really. But a finishing school is where a student really becomes a dancer. They learn how to use their technique to really dance. Some finishing schools focus on a specific style, breeding you for their company… like School of American Ballet. Some finishing schools focus on the strength of technique aka Houston Ballet.

It is really hard to actually say what is a good ballet school, because the reality is, a good ballet school will start and finish you in their company. If your school doesn’t have a company attached, what was the point of being at that school? To train their way and leave? It really doesn’t make sense, and at the same time it really isn’t fair. Paris Opera, National Ballet of Cuba, Vaganova School, are prime examples of start to finish schools… At the same time they are all state funded, which is cause for a whole different post in which I am too tired to get into right now. Plus, I am having a conversation via Facebook with a friend about it. Haha.

Buenos Noches everyone— and cheers to “good” ballet.

Company Profile: Ballet Austin

Ballet Austin,  http://www.balletaustin.org

Location: Downtown Austin Texas, The Butler Dance Education Center

501 West 3rd Street Austin, TX  78701

Artistic Director: Stephen Mills

Current Season: 5 playbills including the Fire Bird, The Nutcracker, Belle Redux/ A Tale of Beauty and the Beast, Director’s Choice, Swan Lake

Theatre Residence: None, but performs at the Long Center

Dancers Hired: 21, Ballet Austin also has a second company for apprentices. A lot of ballet companies use second companies as fillers for their main company’s season and, to test dancers as the transition from student to teacher. Ballet Austin employs 10 dancers.

Budget: Unknown. But Ballet Austin does boast a numerous amount of corporate sponsors and underwriters. Financially, Ballet Austin just might be one of the more fiscally responsible companies around.

Affiliated School: Ballet Austin Academy

Annual Tuition: $3,600

Summer Program: yes.

Ballet Austin has been charming audiences for 57 years. Most people don’t really know Ballet Austin as the classical type, as their strong suit comes in contemporary and new works. I think their biggest break through was their Light Project, in fact it was so inspiring, I auditioned for them. I auditioned in January at the company auditions and was offered a traineeship, and a full ride to the summer program.

Unfortunately, after arriving in Texas, within the first week of being there, I realized that Ballet Austin was not for me. It wasn’t because the program was bad, in fact that program had amazing faculty. I was actually quite fond of taking class with Michelle Martin, I was not fond of the guest faculty but that was my opinion. I think I was just not a fan of Texas. I actually think of the group of trainees that I was with, no one actually joined Ballet Austin. I know Ashley Jackson went to join LINES after the summer, and Scott went to Statestreet. I want to say that Brian went to Ballet Met, or some other midwest company. And so on… But that doesn’t mean Ballet Austin isn’t good.

In fact Ballet Austin is amazing. Especially for those dancers who prefer the look and feel of contemporary ballet. Anne Marie Melendez and Paul Michael Bloodgood definitely are Ballet Austin’s charming couple. They are married, but they both possess numerous talents and bring them all to their dancing and the dance community. Orland Julius Canova possess a Balanchine flare, and brings a genuine quality to the stage. The company has definitely aged together, most of the company seems to be around the same age, and actually balancing family and personal life. Like all ballet companies do,  I am excited to see the turnover at Ballet Austin and what the next crop of Ballet Austin dancers will bring. I think Stephen Mills definitely has a way of creating his dancers, which possess a very unique look. In comparison to the other Texas companies, I definitely prefer Ballet Austin the most.

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Baby Ballerinas, and the costs of being one.

This one is for all of the parents who has a child starting out in ballet. (I have gotten a lot of e-mails asking a lot of really good questions, and I have been trying to individually reply but it has gotten to be too much. I am going to try lumping it all into one post, kind of.) So, your child is in ballet, and you don’t want to go all dance moms on your kid, or be that stage mom at the studio. Here is some advice, so you don’t overwhelm school owners, teachers, and your child. This is all my opinion once again, so here we go.

For children under the age of 5, there really is no reason to have your child in ballet class everyday. There is also no reason to have your child in private lessons unless your child has scoliosis or flat feet. Then private attention is needed, and you might want to consult with doctors for orthotics to help correct, and prevent long term problems. In addition, you should let your child do jazz, tap and hip hop for fun. Jazz teaches a young dancer tenacity, aka Tiler Peck is a good example. Hip hop teaches a dancer to be daring and good at free styling. Tap teaches a kid how to understand music, and the process of building and deconstructing music. This is also good because they will stretch a lot more, and flexibility in the back, hips and legs matters in the long run. There isn’t really a reason to have your kid in competition at that young of an age, unless you are in it for the fun of it all. With that being said, competition is expensive and you have be prepared to pay for all of that. More importantly, if your child wants to be a ballet dancer, it might just be more expensive than college… Well it is, and this is why.

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Children between 6-9 should be in ballet class at least once a day. This isn’t because we are crazy, it is about discipline, and the start of muscle memory and the shaping of the muscles. Children are growing like crazy and need sleep, so it isn’t smart to have to them in hour and half classes. One hour a day three-five days a week is a great start. They have to build an entire ballet vocabulary, know the etiquette of a ballet class, and most importantly they have to thrive in the environment. Discipline is built, and this is when you see kids really starting to excel. (Wait for it, the money hasn’t really started yet. So before you go out and buy your child a million cute leotards, and a pay for expensive dance bags… Wait.)

First Position's Aran Bell, now with ABT Studio Company at CPYB.
First Position’s Aran Bell, now with ABT Studio Company at CPYB with Ashley Miller.

Then, from the ages of 10-13 the real journey begins. Pointe shoes are introduced. And your child should be dancing at least four days a week in an hour and half class a day. On top of that, they should be training either in pre pointe or pointe at least twice a week. They should be cross training in yoga, pilates, and constantly stretching. If you don’t know a lot about pointe here it goes. Pointe shoes (Freed Classics) run about $70.00 a pair. Your child will probably go through a pair every month, maybe not at first, but it will start. This is when teachers will start to find and nit pick at your child and this is when private lessons are a good thing. Because starting now your child should be going away for summers. Yup, you should be sending your kid off to a summer program every summer, this means they will be gone between 4-7 weeks. What does this mean? Money. First auditions run between $25-35 dollars class.

Rachel Neville Photography, click the image to read her guide to audition photos. She is one of the best audition photographers based in NYC and beautifully elaborates on photos.
Rachel Neville Photography, click the image to read her guide to audition photos. She is one of the best audition photographers based in NYC and beautifully elaborates on photos.

Most kids audition between 4-8 places a season. Just like college, you have your first picks, back ups, and safety nets, of course hoping for scholarships. Audition photos will run you anywhere between 3-6 hundred dollars depending on where you are at, and who is taking the photo. Don’t be cheap, because a photo can make or break an acceptance, and can help get a scholarship. Teachers who are holding the auditions will see thousands of kids a season, and it isn’t till they are back at their office looking at audition pictures, waiting for that picture to remind them and think, “Oh that is the girl with the pretty feet from Atlanta.” Yup, so now your child has gotten into a summer program and it will cost you anywhere between 5-10k depending on the program, traveling expenses etc. 

So, lets do some math… Lowballing it, it will take you about $8,000 a summer to send your kid away. (That is including leotards, pointe shoes, tights, traveling expenses etc.) If your kid goes to a summer program at 12 or 13 and you are expected to go away every summer till 18, you are no looking at about $56,000 in just summer expenses. This isn’t including year round tuition, leotards, and pointe shoes for during the year. We aren’t done…

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Students and San Francisco Ballet School, photo by Erik Tomasson. Click the image above to visit SFB’s site.

From the ages of 15-18, your child should be at a pre-professional school attached or school associated with company. So, your home studio’s tuition was low, now multiply that by 4, and add room and board. Oh no, we are so not done. Now that your child is a pre-professional school, she will probably be going through pointe shoes a pair a week. Then, you now have to start saving for company auditions. Company auditions vary in price, most are free. But, the problem is getting to these companies. You can do the normal cattle calls in NYC, which you need pictures for, but the big expense will be traveling expenses (flights, hotel rooms, etc). Most companies only hold auditions in two or three cities outside of their own, unlike summer programs. This means your child will get to see the US and the World just by auditioning. 

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Daniela Aldrich, CPYB and SAB Alumna in George Balanchine’s the Nutcracker. Click the image above to go hear Daniela’s Story with Balancing Pointe or download the podcast.

This is also in the best case scenario that your child doesn’t need extra privates, your child gets injured and has to see a specialist, or they are having chronic pains and have to see a PT. 

Now, your kid is 18, but we still are done…

Most 18-20 year olds don’t even land full company contracts. Maybe paid apprenticeships, or small stipend second company jobs. For the next two years their income money will fluctuate and might still need help with bills. Since they aren’t in a school, dorms are usually not an option so you are looking at rent, utilities etc. And, well, we still aren’t done. This scenario, which was the normal scenario for a long time is changing, because more and more kids are making appearances at the YAGP and other international competitions. (See my guide to ballet competitions here.)

National Ballet of Canada's YOU Dance Apprentices . Miyoko Koyasu. Trygve Cumpston. Photos by Sian Richards.
National Ballet of Canada’s YOU Dance Apprentices . Miyoko Koyasu. Trygve Cumpston. Photos by Sian Richards. (Click Image above to got NBS)

So, before you go out and buy your child the most expensive dance bag, and tons of crazy leotards, thing of the long run, just in case. The plus side is, if your child is talented, and doesn’t get a job, he or she will easily get a scholarship to go to a dance college. Downside, ballet is extremely expensive in the US since it is not state supported, but this gives every dancer a fair shot at becoming a dancer, if money permits it. The opposing argument is that in most countries you only become a dancer if you are selected based off of body type.

These are the financial costs of ballet, this isn’t just the emotional, physical or mental costs of ballet. The stakes are high there too. And none of this guarantees your son or daughter a job in ballet. Unfortunately, no one is ever guaranteed anything in life, but there are ways to give your child a fighting chance in ballet.

Create a safe and healthy environment at home. This means finding the balance between ballet and “real life.” Dance isn’t everything and for most it will be a short lived career, so making friends, going to prom and seeing a movie is important. Additionally, the balance between rest, dance, and school is just as important.

Give your child the best education possible. This means finding the best schools in your area, even if that means you have to commute a little longer. Start saving in advance, just in case, and if your child doesn’t go to a summer program, you now have vacation money. 

Be educated, don’t be overbearing. It is more important for you to understand ballet than watch your child’s every move in class. Ballet technique is based on a slow process, that happens everyday, little by little. It isn’t like one private later they will have 32 double fouettés. Education will also help you have conversations with your child about ballet. For example companies, body types, natural facility, and possible careers. Just because VOGUE pushes SAB doesn’t mean everyone is meant to go to SAB. 

Students at Walnut Hill, click the image above to visit their school's site.
Students at Walnut Hill, click the image above to visit their school’s site.

Exposure. Making sure your child sees good ballet is important. Yes, youtube is great, but going to a ballet performance is even better. Videos highlight principals not the entire cast. Kids should see an entire company, so they understand all of the different parts of a company. Not everyone is going to be a prima… (article here)

Loving it. What makes or breaks a dancer in the adolescent years, if that phase isn’t awkward enough, imagine living through it in tights and leotard… Bodies change, mentalities change, and they will either fall deeply in love with ballet, or they will do it for the sake of doing it. It is most important to remind your child that if they don’t love it, they shouldn’t do it. Also, if they just love ballet but don’t want to become ballet dancers, then maybe it isn’t necessary to push your child to go to PNB or Royal Ballet School.

Finally, my last advice to all parents: GIVE YOUR KIDS A FIGHTING A CHANCE! So many dancers don’t end up becoming professionals because the lack of training, and the lack of support at home. Ballet takes 130% commitment, and if your child is willing to do all that, plus their chores, homework and family duties, then let your child have a chance in ballet. Find the best schools, the best teachers, and find a way to make it happen for your child. Drive the extra 30 minutes to the better school, talk to your child’s regular school to see if they can get out of PE since they are dancing 20+ hours a day, and if they can’t, get a doctor to sign a note saying they aren’t allowed to run… Fight for your child. They only get one body, so you have to do everything you can to protect it. Also yes, costs are high, but if your child is talented, there is always someway to work something out with a school to find a way for your child to dance.