The Missed Opportunity in Dance Education for Pre-Professionals
Updated: Aug 5
Each summer, from the ages of 13-18, I would leave my home in Florida to attend a summer intensive offered by one of the major ballet companies in the country. These 5 week periods always offered great opportunities in personal growth. I had to learn to stand out amongst a group of talented individuals in order to get constructive feedback. I had to learn how to live independently from my parents, in a big metropolitan city. I had to learn how to choose and develop good friendships with people who’d support me in this vulnerable time. I’d have to decide whether this was a viable career option for me, as I met dancers who were investing far more hours than I was and who were at prestigious schools in order to become the next principal dancer and whatever company they chose. That’s a lot to put on teenagers and yet they seem to rise to the occasion (Fun fact: I based my college admission essay on this very narrative).
Students learn repertoire they wouldn’t normally have access to. They get to watch company members through the doors of the studio. They get to explore a new city. There’s a lot these programs do offer even though we know there are many that are just cash cows (if you have over ten levels, you’re a cash cow). But thanks to Covid, many programs had to reconsider whether it was truly worth it to go through with their summer intensives. Some cancelled their programs. Some reduced class size. Some maintained normal capacity with strict health guidelines. It certainly paved the way for how many of us professionals are going to have to deal with returning back to work, although I’m not sure how I feel about using students as the guinea pigs for this experiment. Regardless of the course of action that companies took, I’m wondering if there’s a missed opportunity in what could’ve been offered to the next generation of ballet dancers.
So here you go ballet companies. If you were missing some of that income, here is a course guide of classes that students would pay good money to attend for five weeks.
Course Catalog for Virtual Pre Professional Ballet Intensive
- Understanding the Anatomy of the Ballet Body: I think a lot of instructors incorrectly assume that every dancer knows the names of every muscle group and how they are connected. Usually students are used to being barked at “turn out more,” “point your feet,” “ribs closed,” “lengthen more,” etc. If the first time you hear the words “adductor,” “sacrum,” “quadratus femoris,” and no one else seems to be confused, what’re the chances you are going to speak up and say something? After all we are taught to stay in line and know your place, questioning authority isn’t a part of ballet culture (more on that later). But it’s not just about knowing the terms. It’s identifying it on yourself (and on others), on a coloring page, knowing how to activate or strengthen said body term, what ballet steps requires use of that body part, and what activity is going to cause weakness in that body part. For those that do have anatomy classes, one person often teaches the course and this individual either has a specific specialization to physical therapy or medicine. But the connection back to the work in the dance studio isn’t always made. A ballet instructor needs to be there to provide context and terminology that the student is already accustomed to, and bridge the gap. If that connection isn’t provided then the student doesn’t have the tools to do it themselves, so the knowledge is instilled but not applied. (1.5-2 hours Meet at least 2x a week)
- Mental Health of the Dancer: This is something that most professionals (myself included) don’t have a grasp on. When your entire self worth is based on your career it’s a wonder that an entire company of dancers isn’t on the brink of mental collapse. Especially when financial access is often a deterrent from gaining therapy (and you won’t have financial stability as a dancer), how do we better prepare the future generation for this reality? First we need to remove the stigma around mental therapy and what it is. We need to teach strategies for dealing with common struggles that will come up in normal day to day life; casting issues, self doubt, fear of not delivering, stress management, balancing dance and academics etc. And then providing resources to deal with larger issues like eating disorders or trauma and warning signs for how to spot them early and work through them. I’m certainly not advocating for self-diagnosing, but it’s the little tools that we lack and often end up spiraling into larger more troubling problems. Most important aspect is the group component and learning to confide and support your colleagues as they go through difficult times. This can provide students with tools that can last them into whatever professional endeavors they may have. Prioritizing mental health shows that companies value a holistic approach to the health of artists, not just our physical health (aka dancers are more than just a commodity/product). Personally this is an issue I’ve had push back on when I’ve advocated for it. (1.5 hours, 2x a week, plus 15-30 min a week of one on one)
- Decolonizing the History of Dance and Ballet: So some of us got the regular history of Ballet, but that’s a privilege for some not all. You can’t continue a tradition (or challenge it) if you don’t understand where it came from. It’s important to understand the movers and shakers of each historical movement, and what privileges were given them in order to become those important figureheads in this art form. Why haven’t women had more of guiding force in the art form, despite being the centerpiece/focal point in most classical works? Why does ballet reinforce heteronormative standards when there were/are so many queer leaders? How did ballet respond to epidemics like AIDS that significantly affected their own communities? Another important aspect that we need to combat in ballet is the sense of elitism we have over other dance styles. This course will also go cover the history of other dance styles from around the world, and how their training and performance styles relate back to ballet. Meeting three times a week, once a week will focus on ballet history, while the other two lectures a week will focus on various world dance forms. This course can broaden our interests and definition of ourselves as dancers. (1 hour, 3x week).
- Solving the Systemic Issues of the Dance World: We know that ballet is sexist. We know ballet is racist. We know ballet is transphobic. We know ballet is ableist. Now what? Here is the opportunity for the next generation to learn the scope of the issues and brainstorm solutions that will help progress the art form into the future. Students will be the future change makers so let’s give them the tools to create that change. As artists we’re supposed to comment on these issues, so if we can’t critically engage within our own art form, how can we be expected to create art that pushes greater society on those issues? In turn artistic leadership can learn from a generation that’s just as (if not more) invested in these issues, and apply some of their solutions to practices of the company. This will encourage students to be invested in the art form, and validate their ability to affect change within it. This investment will also ensure that the next generation can create strong work that is socially conscious and connects back to their communities and industry. (1 hour, 2x week)
- Nutrition and Exercise: At summer intensives there is always a nutrition talk. And that’s it, just one talk. If this is the ballet industry’s way of tackling eating disorders, it’s clear why this continues to be a major issue. Students need to understand how food works for their body, how those plans needed to be adapted for varying scenarios (training, rehearsal, performance time), and most importantly they need personalization! Every one is different and comes with different baggage. Those goals need to be matched with personal fitness goals and workout regimes so they can work together to meet goals. Again you need to provide students with the tools to connect these activities, they can’t be expected to do it on their own. Like the nutrition plans, the workout plans need to be personalized and adaptable. As someone who struggles with body dysmorphia (most dancers do), a course like this would’ve actually delivered on the solutions that I expected from the one nutrition talk we used to get in an entire summer program. It gives the students autonomy and control but in a way that prioritizes their health instead of sacrificing it. (1.5 hour, 1x week, with 30 min one on one 1x a week)
- The Business of Dance (Advocating for Yourself as an Artist): Most ballet companies are non-profit organizations. But what does that mean and why should dancers care? Dancers are the face of a company, without them there is no art. So why are we some of the worst paid members of the organization. Why do we have the shortest contracts? Why aren’t boards advocating for us? In order to fight the system you have to understand how it works and functions. How can dancers know if they are making too much or too little when joining a company, if they aren’t allowed to talk about their salaries with anybody else? Now those of you who haven’t been professional dancers would probably say “that’s illegal,” but dancers don’t know that, so companies get away with doing it (thus keeping wages low). In addition to learning the intricacies of the non-profits, students will learn how to embrace their self-worth and show their value to a company. If you have value you get hired (but mostly it’s just luck). If you have value, it’s hard to fire you. If you have value, you deserve to make more. These skills will even help them in the studio, as they learn the confidence needed to excel in high-pressure situations. This can be coupled with traditional instruction of resume/website building, which is usually the only tool students are given, if anything. This course develops business savvy, self worth, and knowledge of non-profit work, and forces companies to re-evaluate how their work is benefitting the community not just themselves. (1 hour, 2x a week).
- The Art of Collaboration: When more creative minds are included the potential for art only increases. As a dancer, I’ve performed onstage with opera singers and the orchestra multiple times. Those were some of the most fulfilling moments of my career. As a choreographer, getting to work with visual or theatrical creatives enhanced my work ten fold, and brought it to depths I couldn’t even conceive. In this seminar, choreographers, directors, and other artists will break down the creative process of works that ended up on the mainstage of the company’s season, and how collaboration helped provide new depths to the work. This course will also challenge students to broaden their identity from just ballet dancers to artists, and provide them with the opportunity to find collaborators and create art they typically don't make. (1.5 hour, 1x a week, with a multi media thesis presentation)
- The Lessons I’ve Learned as a Professional Ballet Dancer: The voices we never hear from and most desperately need to are those of the current professional dancers. From first year corps member, to the seasoned principal, each dancer has their own unique story and journey to get to where they are now. Plus it allows students to have someone they can relate to and cheer for as they watch them in dance videos or on the stage. I remember that San Francisco Ballet used to do this, and these were some of the most enlightening experiences, because they found ways to connect us to the artist and then to the art. This fosters a new generation of both artists and audience members at the same time. Each class a different company member tells their life story and receives questions from the group. Students at the end of the course will submit their own talk, further solidifying who they are as artists, and giving them the self-worth needed to advocate for themselves as artists. (1.5 hour, 1x week).
This last course is a project I’ve kind of started at the Louisville Ballet titled “Making a Moving Artist.” Each week I interview one of my fellow company members asking them about the pivotal moments in their career, how they develop their artistry, and how they’ve integrated themselves into the local community. This stemmed from the idea that ballet dancers are more than the athleticism we are asked about, but also the artistry. What has followed is a series of life advice for a future generation of artists and the ballet world at large. There’s no one path to a destination, and we are constantly learning more about ourselves with each season we go through. Check out episodes 1-9 of “Making a Moving Artist” below (episode 10 will go live Wed 8/12 at noon EST on @louballet ‘s Instagram Live). Hit up my Venmo or PayPal and maybe I can find a way to make these other courses work out (and pay these dancers, they all graciously volunteered their time and stories).
Making a Moving Artist:
The Moments that have Shaped them. The Artistry that Moves them,
The Home they've Built here.
Episode 9: Emmarose Atwood
Episode 10: Justin Michael Hogan (Premieres on Instagram Live @louballet, Wed Aug 12 at noon EST)