As I take the month of August off to enjoy the end of summer, please take a moment to head over to my podcast on the Premier Dance Network. Last week, I shared tips to prepare students to head back into their school year in dance. Enjoy and see you in September!!!
I’ve been struggling with my weight recently. Now, before I get angry tweets or confused looks, I am aware that I am not actually struggling with my weight. Yes, I could lose about 5 pounds and be happy to see my six-pack abs return. But in the grand scheme of things, I probably look fit to the general public and my doctor would likely tell me that I am in the lower range of healthy weights for men my height and age. Taking all of these things into consideration, there is one more important item to note. I am probably not the image of the person I see in the mirror and that has changed drastically since I retired from the stage and began focusing my energy on choreography and teaching.
Throughout my 13 year performance career, I was always quite confident about my body. Yes, like any human being, my weight fluctuates up and down a few pounds from week to week. And back then, it may have swung a bit more if I had an extended lay-off or was recovering from injury. But I never felt stressed by these fluctuations. I knew that I would soon be back in the studio dancing for 7 1/2 hours a day and the image of myself that I wanted others to see would return. I didn’t have body dysmorphia then. I knew what I looked like and trusted the reflection I saw in the mirror. My stress, confusion, and acute attention with my perceived body image wasn’t an immediate response to retirement, though. It was a gradual shift in mentality after a few events that grew into mistrust about the person I saw looking back at me in the mirror.
Weight is a constant topic among professional dancers. While some of those conversations are serious, more of them occur in jest. Perhaps, this is in response to the stresses of a job where the central product is one’s fitness and ability to control every ounce of their body. I can actually note two singular comments that began my distrust of my own perception of self.
The first of these comments occurred as I prepared for the role of Puck in Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This role requires the dancer to wear a transparent, open-front vest attached to a glorified dance belt over swirly tights down to one’s ankles. The funny thing is that I didn’t even have this costume in mind as I prepared for the role. I had been heavier earlier in the season due to an injury that kept me out of the studio. So, it made sense that I lost that weight as the season dragged on. Also important to note, beyond my rehearsal days and performances that season, I was secretly flying on weekends auditioning to leave the company. All of this dancing and stress had taken a few extra pounds off me. It was after a particularly long weekend of travel that I found myself rehearsing with a Principal dancer who was playing the role of Oberon (the character who acts as my master in the work). While other dancers were rehearsing the part, this dancer pulled me aside and told me, “You look bone.” After I looked strangely at him, wondering if comparing me to a skeleton was a good thing or a bad thing, he must have caught the confusion in my eyes. He very quickly followed up by telling me it was a good thing. I looked in the mirror at my thin frame and sunken-in cheeks and smiled at the compliment. My lowest professional weight had now become my benchmark for physical success, sex appeal, and confidence.
Soon after this “compliment,” I moved on from Pacific Northwest Ballet, joined Ballet X, was let go from Ballet X, and started my life as a freelance dancer. With all of these changes and developments happening so abruptly, it took about a year after the bone comment before I had a moment to process all of the life changes I had experienced and allow my body to rest. It was also around this point that my freelance career began to take off and I careened on the wildest 4 year ride of my life.
One of the first stressors I noted during this period was that it was harder to stay in shape. I went from dancing 40 hours a week to rehearsing in bouts and taking expensive classes less frequently. Here, I began to see my strength, stamina, and weight fluctuate on a regular basis. If I was working a lot, friends would note that I was frighteningly skinny upon my return home. But after some time locally and not dancing due to extreme exhaustion, stress, and financial pressure, my weight would normalize or I would start to look a little soft around my torso. I controlled my frustration by telling myself that I needed the break, I would be working soon, or that it wasn’t as bad as I thought. I believed myself, even if I wasn’t at my lowest weight standard.
It took only one comment to destroy my ability to see an honest reflection of myself. My body dysmorphia was triggered during a guesting opportunity with Festival Ballet Providence. During this gig, I had befriended one of the dancers who was growing into the role of the company’s regular male lead. I hung out with him once or twice outside of work and had briefly met his boyfriend. After an open studio rehearsal that the dancer’s partner attended, he walked over to me and poked me in the stomach with his index finger. I still don’t understand why he felt this was appropriate. But after poking me, he stated that I was “looking a little soft.” While I tried to laugh it off, the stress I was experiencing in my new career style and the concerns I already had about my inconsistent work and how it affected my body sent me in a tizzy. Luckily, I’ve never been at risk for an eating disorder. But from this point forth, I’ve always been overwhelmingly conscious of my weight and how others view my current fitness versus how I looked at my lowest weight. The worst part of this unsolicited poke was that I lost the ability to reasonably judge my own reflection and the memory of what physical attributes made me feel happy and confident.
I handled this issue like I do with everything else. I stress about it and try to micromanage the situation, but have difficulty finding a perfect balance that makes me most comfortable in all areas. My body dysmorphia has only gotten worse since I retired from my performance career. It stressed me out to be dancing less throughout my freelance career. I’m sure one can imagine how it has gotten worse when I am in front of the studio more often than standing at the barre.
The biggest challenge as a retired dancer with body dysmorphia is cultivating an honest, healthy image of what I look like to myself and how I think I should look as a former dancer. Should I hold myself to the skeletal standard that garnered me positive attention during my performance career? Am I expected to have six-pack abs as a choreographer? And, if I don’t, will I lose my sex appeal or get comments about the loss of my “hot” body? I don’t have the answers to these questions. But I do know that it is important to consider a healthy image of myself as I age. In my 30’s, I still want to look like the person I was in my late 20’s. But it wouldn’t be fair for my 45 year old self to try and maintain the gold standard I had during my dancing days.
This post is more explorational than it is informational. I don’t yet have answers for retired dancers and how they should handle perception of their bodies after their prime athlete days. But what I can share is that I am working to understand how I view myself as I age, while appreciating that wonderful time when my body was fit just because I showed up to work. It would be unfair to always expect to look bone. So, now I need to explore what looks good on me at 34. And after I figure that out, I’ll probably have to reconsider that answer every 5-10 years. Just like the changes our bodies naturally endure as we age, we must also consider the mind.
Summer is the time that most students attend summer programs away from home, visit open class studios in New York City, attend conventions at national competitions, and enjoy short workshops that bring guest instructors to their studios. While this is a very exciting time for young dancers, it is also a time when dance educators have a variety of opportunities to break out of their regular schedules and share our art form with new audiences. These experiences often come in the form of one-off master classes or short workshops where one doesn’t really get enough time to dig into true technique, style, artistry, or choreography. It can be challenging to cultivate your best classes and share your most important lessons when you only get one and a half hours with a group of aspiring dancers. I’ve taught my fair share of classes where I may never get to work with the same students ever again. For this reason, I want to offer you some tips and tricks that I have learned over the years to help you offer your best classes, even when you only get one shot to make your point(e).
Go in with a game plan, but be prepared to be flexible: I like to go into classes with a set idea of what I am going to teach. Though, it took me nearly 5 years in this offstage part of my career to begin teaching at any tuition-based program where I knew who was going to show up from week to week. Working as an open class instructor, a master class teacher, and a sub at the beginning of my career taught me how to adjust my teaching plans on the fly. It is always good to have combinations planned or concepts you would like to get across. But, sometimes, you show up with certain expectations that don’t align with the students who show up to the barre. In the end, it is the teacher’s responsibility to adjust their plans and offer the best classes possible.
Don’t be afraid to ask for etiquette/behavior, but be more lenient than you are with your regular classes: Over time, I have learned that many of the one-off classes I’ve been brought in to teach are my pathway to help students who don’t have access to professional level training fall in love with our art form. I’ve taught at schools where the students show up for ballet in shorts, t-shirts, and socks. I’ve had experiences where the kids talk over me while I’m teaching. And I’ve had a plethora of situations occur in classes that most professionals new to teaching wouldn’t even know how to handle. What I’ve learned is that every classroom has a different culture and I can’t expect any of them to adhere to my standards unless they work with me on a regular basis. For this reason, I set a baseline level of behaviors that I am not willing to put up with. And if any student in particular has difficulty adhering to these expectations, I offer them a “3 Strikes and You Sit” option. Some of these guidelines include: the classroom is not a playground, we treat others with respect, we support our peers, and the fun is in the work. But when things don’t go exactly how I prefer to run my studio, I try to give them an idea of my expectations and suggest that they consider certain things for the future.
Think of your class like a sample at a grocery store: Even the best instructors can’t teach a year worth of syllabus in one master class. If you try to impart too much of your knowledge onto students, they may feel overwhelmed with information that they can’t retain. When I teach these types of classes, I try to get an overview of the students needs during barre or the contemporary warm-up. And from there, I choose 2-3 ideas that I feel will really help push the group forward. If I can get a group of students to understand that placement is more important than a high extension or that 3 properly executed pirouettes are better than 7 spins, I feel that I have accomplished something. When you go to a grocery store, they won’t let you sample everything you plan on buying before you walk through the check out. But chances are there will be a few samples of things that you never considered buying and end up really enjoying.
Don’t expect everybody in the class to love you: Alright! I admit it! I’m really bad at this one. There’s nothing that inspires me more than seeing students work hard, gain results, and smile when they reach new heights. Sometimes, students already know how to learn our challenging athletic art form. But many students have yet to cultivate the joy that comes in hard work and its rewards. Just like ice cream flavors, everybody has a preference. Some students (both as a group and individually) really latch on to certain teacher’s style of teaching, corrections, and energy. At other points, it can feel nearly impossible to make one person smile in a room or respond with an energetic “YES” when you ask if they are ready to go. Don’t assume that every good class ends with students begging for your photograph, eagerly asking where you teach regularly, or looking up your instagram handle. In reality, sometimes it is about connecting with that one student who you inspire to push forth and work towards obtaining a career in dance. So, be sure to do what you do and not what you think students want you to do.
If taking public transport and you aren’t familiar with where you are going, leave a cushion of time: This one is pretty straightforward and one of the most important pieces of advice that I can offer. It can be stressful showing up to teach with little idea whether the advanced level you are about to teach is what you assume to be advanced. Cut yourself some of the stress of teaching one-off classes and take a bus or train that has you arriving earlier than your class is scheduled. I can tell you from experience: if you are going to take a bus that arrives just in the nick of time for class, it is at least 50% likely to be late. So, suck it up and take the bus that arrives a half hour early. It will give you a chance to meet the directors, get changed, see the studio space, mentally prepare, warm yourself up, and assess what you are about to experience. And, worse comes to worse, when your bus is 20 minutes late, you still have 10 minutes to get acclimated.
Be sure to ask information about a school before you arrive: This is something that I’ve recently gotten better at since I’ve become faculty at Broadway Dance Center and had more and more opportunities to share my art form around the world. It is always exciting when a school thinks that you have something to offer their students. But in reality, this invitation isn’t about you. It is about their students. I’ve learned to ask simple questions to make sure that I am catering my classes to the needs of a school. Before I arrive, I ask simple questions to get a feel for the atmosphere I’m about to enter. Ask questions like: What have the kids been working on? Is there anything in particular that would be helpful to focus on? Are you preparing for any performances or competitions? What do you feel are your student’s strengths and weaknesses? Do you run a pre-professional, recreational, or competition program? By asking these questions, you are gaining more information to prepare yourself to offer the best experience you possibly can.
Don’t be so serious that the kids can’t have fun: This was one of the biggest lessons I had to learn when I began teaching one-off classes. Coming from a background training in world-renowned pre-professional schools and dancing for some of the nation’s most renowned ballet companies, I had forgotten what it was like to be a young kid interested in dance, yet not so serious that I knew it could be a profession. Major schools and companies teach their dancers how to work efficiently and effectively; essentially cutting out the niceties, demanding high expectations, and offering indiscreet feedback with expectations of immediately applying corrections. Most of the kids I have worked with in a one-off setting are still in the process of falling in love with dance. And many of them don’t yet realize that dance can be a career and lifestyle. For this reason, it is important to remember that we teach these kids to help them fall in love with dance. Dance is hard, hard work. But we must cultivate what it means to perform that hard work over time. Otherwise, we risk turning young talent away from our art form. Our job is to teach kids about the rewards of hard work and to share our joy and passion with the future of dance.
The other day I went to the Joyce Theater to watch the New York debut of Dimensions Dance Theatre. While waiting for the curtain to rise, a friend and I were chatting about the fact that I used to know dozens of dancers across nearly every American ballet company. The rosters of companies looked more like a personal year book with a collections of friends from summer intensives, year-round finishing programs, and companies. Today, most of those peers are in the age range of 30-38 years old. In pondering this part of my history, I noted how much things had changed in a short period of time. Nearly everyone who is still dancing are now Soloists and Principals in their respective companies or have left bigger company jobs to dance with smaller ones similar to Dimensions Dance Theatre. One of the most widely known facts is that dancers have relatively short careers. The top inquiry I field regularly in conversation questions the exact age dancers take their final bows. I’ve put a lot of thought into this over the years. So, why not share this retirement chart that I’ve developed and offer some insight to those of you with this common question.
Let me preface this chart with a few things. One of the best pieces of advice that I overheard after a colleague became injured was that there is no timeline to a dance career. I agree with this statement strongly. This is simply my generalized assessment of career duration based off of my own experience and direct research.
The Whole Pool of Dancers (any child that has ever taken class): A great majority of the American female population takes recreational dance classes by the age of 8. Out of this massive pool of dancers very few continue beyond their elementary school years. My assumption is that this is due to lack of interest, curiosity about other activities, financial circumstances of families, and more. I do not believe that many of those who stop dancing do so due to injury.
Middle School Age Dancers: A great deal changes during the middle school years. Aside from the obvious body changes that take place, dancers tend to grow greater interest in social activities with their peers. The next large majority of dancers leave dance during these years. I believe this is due to curiosity about other activities outside of dance (especially if friends are involved), revelations that their changing bodies do not fit certain dance aesthetics, and increased interest in social events. It is also around this age when dancers interested in a performance career will require a greater commitment to classes. Instead of a once or twice a week after school activity, dancers with career hopes will need to be in class 4-6 days/week and commit to longer hours in the studio.
High School Age Dancers: There are many changes for dancers during their high school years. The early years often mimic the end of middle school with some dancers still growing into their bodies and stress over focusing wholly on dance vs. exploring other interests. By the time a dancer is 16-17 years old, they must strongly consider whether they will fully commit to an attempt at “making it,” go to college before pursuing a performance career, or quit and focus on their academic studies. A very small group will choose to continue forward to a finishing school to complete their training with hopes of gaining professional employment. A majority of the rest in the ballet world will end their dance training here. In other genres of dance (modern/musical theatre/commercial styles), it is more common for dancers to attend college before considering professional employment.
Finishing School: Only about 25-50% of dancers who attend finishing school are likely to achieve a professional career. During these final years of training, dancers are pushed to their limit with a multitude of classes, school rehearsals, and (sometimes) company rehearsals. Most dancers need to move away from home as teens to attend. So, they must begin managing how to live, eat, and socialize on their own. Items that can pull this final stretch of training off track include injury (often chronic), disordered eating, lack of balance between work and social life, disappointment (class placement, casting, audition rejections), realization of potential, and more. This and the first two years of a performance career are probably the most difficult periods when it comes to sustaining a dance career.
First Few Years as a Professional: At least 25% of dancers who make it into companies will retire within the first few years of their professional career. Many arrive in a company and think that the success they had throughout their training will automatically roll over to their new positions. But the first few years in a company are a tricky minefield. Most who obtain a career enjoyed dancing leading roles in school performances. When these dancers arrive in a company and are relegated to the back of the studio as an understudy, perform mostly walk on roles in full length ballets, or only receive opportunities to perform dancing roles in the 2nd or 3rd cast of ballets, it isn’t uncommon for dancers to lose interest. Additionally, many dancers sacrifice their social lives during the final few years of their training, only to realize that they have been missing out. Sometimes, dancers will attempt to rectify this imbalance. This can result in loss of interest in dance, loss of focus on work, or too much partying. Also, the mental stress of being responsible for one’s own product and the physical stress of an entire work day dancing can often lead to burn out and injury. For this reason, there is a rather large number of dancers who only get to enjoy 1-3 years of their professional career before retiring and moving into a different field.
Mid 20’s: I’ve noticed that the next cohort of dancers usually retire around the age of 24-27. If a dancer is able to adapt to company life, they usually have a good 5-6 years before they suffer their first major injury. We all have minor injuries on a regular basis, from muscle strains to tweaked ankles, sore backs, and more. But the first major injury dancers have often requires more than a month of recovery or surgery. When this happens, dancers return without the knowledge and maturity to build back into their dancing. Many dancers, fearful that they may lose their jobs, get back to work too quickly and end up re-injuring themselves. Often this second injury causes directors to question a dancer’s ability to perform their job duties (leading to non-reengagement of contracts) or a dancer becomes frustrated and chooses to move on from their performance career.
Early 30’s: A majority of the dancers who retire at this age are long-time corps de ballet dancers who were able to sustain their career, but never had the privilege of promotion into higher ranks of companies. Dancing in the corps de ballets puts the greatest amount of stress on a dancer’s body, especially dancers who also get to perform soloist and leading roles. The body can only take so much. So, it makes sense that a corps dancer’s body is likely to give out before a Soloist or Principal (who may dance more demanding roles, but is usually given more time to recuperate). Additional factors that contribute to this group retiring also include frustration with lack of advancement, directors needing to free up funds for less experienced/less expensive dancers, aging out of roles like peasants, and more.
Mid 30’s: The next cohort of dancers who retire tend to be Soloists. These dancers don’t have the demands of dancing corps roles, so their bodies last longer. Many dancers really begin to complain about recurring injuries and constant aches during their mid-30’s. This age group also seems to feel very fulfilled with the amount of time that they have been dancing professionally. Most soloists appear to hang up their slippers before their bodies completely falls apart.
Principal Dancers: Based purely on my own experience, Principal dancers tend to dance until their body can no longer continue to dance at the high level their rank requires. It is very rare for a director to force a leading dancer to retire. So, it is usually up to the Principal to create a valid timeline as their body and technique begin to falter. Men tend to retire in their late 30’s because their backs can’t handle the load of partnering much further beyond this age. For women, especially those with natural physical facility, it isn’t uncommon to dance into their early 40’s.
Modern Dancers: It seems that the only dancers who completely defy the stressors of an aging body are those who perform works in the genre of modern dance. I have seen professional modern dancers working from the age of 15 to 74 years old. Modern dance has a more realistic progression of roles for dancers of all ages, so it isn’t wildly uncommon to see mature dancers continuing to find artistic fulfillment well into middle age and beyond.
Hey there, dear readers! I am in Los Angeles vacationing, so there is no blog post this week. If you are hungry for content, either head on over to listen to my podcast (Pas de Chát: Talking Dance) or check out the archives of my previous blog (Life of a Freelance Dancer). Happy Summer and see you in a few weeks!
Over the past few months, I’ve been lucky to see a lot of dance in New York City. I had the privilege of seeing American Ballet Theatre in their production of Firebird/AFTERRITE last Saturday. My husband really wanted to see Misty Copeland perform (and often jokes that they are related because they are both from the Los Angeles area and his mother’s maiden name is Copeland) and I was curious to see Wayne McGregor’s interpretation of my favorite Stravinsky score. After the performance was over, I left satisfied with the evening, even though I didn’t love either of the works on the program. It’s been a few years since I left my performance career. But I find that I still experience a range of emotions that likely have something to do with the conclusion of my time onstage.
As any of you who followed my Life of a Freelance Dancer blog know, I didn’t have a straightforward retirement from the stage. I didn’t choose my end date. I wasn’t working with a company that could have asked me to retire or chosen not to renew my contract. I was dealing with a severe injury and burn out, but wasn’t convinced that my performance career would end because of this situation. It took me a few years to find my way to the other side and there was absolutely no denouement when the decision was made. Due to my odd transit offstage, I have had a unique evolution over the past few years when it comes to watching dance performances.
During the period that I mourned the loss of my stage career, I didn’t see much live dance. My freelance career had left my finances in shambles and I was traveling a great deal for work. Most of the dance I experienced was on television. I used to drink glass after glass of wine watching So You Think You Can Dance pondering with my husband whether I should have auditioned for the show when I had been age-eligible. The next morning never made me feel as hopeful as I did on these wine drenched nights. Another dance production I was excited to watch was when PBS aired the School of American Ballet workshop back in 2014. Being an alumni of the school, I was looking forward to reminiscing about my time at this famed institution while watching ballets that I loved and had danced during my career. But a nostalgic evening quickly turned tragic as I internalized what it felt like to dance these works. I shed no tears. But by the 2nd act, I was a grumpy, morose wreck that nobody could console. Here and there, I would see a live performance, usually comped by friends in Pennsylvania Ballet or New York City Ballet. But I had trouble enjoying the art form that was every part of my being. It was just too painful for me to experience because I wanted to be onstage.
As I got some distance from my stage days, some pain over the death of my career began to fade. It became easier to watch dance without feeling like I belonged onstage. But while I didn’t want to be up there, my inner critique became overly acute. My husband and I would watch a performance and he would often wonder if we saw them same show. He would love the show and I would have nothing positive to say about it. I spent a couple of years in this stage watching dance post-career. I was overly critical of everything I saw and was quick to compare every dancer to my peers in top-ranked American companies. It was almost like I was experiencing the anger stage of grief. To my husband, it appeared that I was unhappy with anything I saw. And while I wasn’t outraged, I couldn’t find enjoyment in the productions that once gave me life.
The next stage of watching dance in the post-mortem of my career was more romantic. When I would watch shows during this short period, I might as well have been singing the famous A Chorus Line lyrics, “Everything was Beautiful at the Ballet.” This happened during the first few months after I moved to New York once I had the time and expendable income to start watching dance regularly again. I had finally gotten to a place emotionally where I remembered what it felt like when I first fell in love with ballet. I was far enough away from the time that I wished I was still onstage and no longer felt the pain of unmet dreams and expectations that every dancer has when they finish their careers. I also started to realize that enjoying a dance performance wasn’t about tearing people down, most who were just like me. It was actually about being inspired and celebrating the achievements of people in my field.
I think I’ve finally come through to the final stage of watching dance as a retired dancer. Since I am still very involved in the dance world as an educator and choreographer, I find myself happily in the middle of all of the things I mentioned above. I miss being onstage, but I don’t want to be onstage. I am still very critical of what I see. But I look at my criticism from the standpoint of assessing where a dancer is on the timeline of their career and hoping for maximum growth. I only wish the best, even if I feel they need work. And just because I am critical about a performance doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy it. I enjoy nearly every production that I see. In fact, I use my opinions and critiques as a tool to improve my own choreographic work and to better develop the range of students I teach.
During certain stages of viewing dance in my post-performance career, I feared that I was beginning to fall out of love with ballet. But this is just another aspect of the fact that “A dancer dies two deaths.” Standing in front of thousands of eager audience members and laying your sweat and soul on the stage is a special thing. To watch others do the same and not have that outlet anymore can test the best of us. There is light at the end of the tunnel. And I find that most former dancers walk a similar path and find their way back. Though, we are no longer the ones standing under the light, we sit eagerly in our seats as the house dims and enjoy the memories of what we once had and the talents of those who followed us.
One of my goals in creating this blog is not only to share my own stories and experiences as I navigate my post-performance career, but to also offer a platform for my peers to discuss what life is like after they have stepped off the stage. My first guest blogger for Dancing Offstage is Michael Patterson, Artistic Director of Patterson School of Ballet. I met Michael while he was teaching in the Philadelphia area and have followed him as he moved to Erie, PA, eventually opening his own school. Read on to hear his story and the challenges he has faced as he traverses his second career in dance. Enjoy!
There are many roads to opening and operating a pre-professional ballet school. This is my story. Every story starts somewhere and mine began in Titusville, PA on my family’s dairy farm.
Titusville’s claim to fame is Edwin L. Drake who is credited with the start of the oil industry and football’s John Heisman. Had it not been for PBS, I never would have known that ballet even existed; there were no dance studios in Titusville. No one that I knew had ever seen a ballet before. But at the age of 6, my sister and I were watching our local PBS station and The Nutcracker came on starring Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov. I remember being totally mesmerized by their grace and strength and we were glued to the television throughout the duration of the program. I told my mom shortly thereafter that I wanted to take ballet. Her response was, “if that’s what you want to do,” and she went back to work.
At the age of 11, after losing interest in other activities (including baseball, soccer, and piano lessons), I approached my mom and again asked if I could take ballet. This time she signed me up for classes with my sister at Cathy Turner’s Dance Studio in nearby Franklin, PA. It wasn’t until I was 12, at the recommendation of my teacher, that I began studying classical ballet under the direction of Sharon Filone in Erie, PA. Later, I studied at the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet under the direction of Marcia Dale Weary and then joined Pennsylvania Ballet in 2002.
While dancing with this company, I was given many opportunities to perform lead roles and toured internationally (with Edinburgh International Arts Festival in Scotland being a highlight). Though I was progressing within the company, I was battling an injury that wouldn’t heal, even with time off. It was at this point that I left Pennsylvania Ballet and began teaching for the legendary American ballerina, Barbara Sandonato, whose daughter I had danced with in the company.
Though I had taught at summer programs on lay-offs, this was my first experience teaching in a school where I was responsible for the long-term training of students. It was also here where I got a crash course in dealing with parents, staging choreography, and setting schedules. With Ms. Sandonato’s guidance, I was able to feel more comfortable in a classroom setting, as well as honing my abilities to produce results and mentor aspiring students. In 2013, I was approached by a local university back in Erie, PA to head their children’s dance program. This new proposition would also serve as an opportunity for me to resume my college education.
When I arrived in Erie, there were only three students enrolled in the program I was to head. In order to promote the school, I dropped off flyers at many of the local businesses and by mid-year had 12 students in my classes. The program was nearly self-sustaining when it was cut only nine months later due to an unforeseen financial situation at the university. I had already planned a summer intensive that had enrolled 20 students, and I was crushed. It was at this time that a family whose daughter was returning to the area (after many injuries at another school) asked if I was interested in starting a school. At the conclusion of my intensive, I decided to meet with a lawyer who helped me incorporate my own school. The Patterson School of Ballet was born on August 18, 2014.
In seeking a home for my school, I looked at many places. But due to financial constraints, I couldn’t afford to renovate a brand new space. As luck would have it, and with some persistence, I found a former yoga studio that was already equipped with a cushioned floor, mirrors, and had been modeled in a way that befit a dance school. The interior was a warm inviting atmosphere, reminiscent of a lodge, and didn’t have the clinical feel that most studios have. I wanted a studio where moms and dads would feel comfortable and guest teachers would feel welcomed. Also adding to the warmth of the studio was a gas fireplace, which is great for Erie winters, and double doors that can open during the summers to allow the warm lake breeze to pass through the studio.
There are many challenges in having a small business, especially a ballet school in Erie. First, the community is inundated with dance schools. I set out to make something different in our community using lessons instilled in me as a child . . . “jack of all trades, master of nothing.” Our students learn how to master classical ballet technique, which gives them the ability to evaluate other dance forms and learn them much more quickly. While they continue to make strides in their classical education, many of the students attend high schools in the area that offer other forms of dance as an alternative to their physical education requirements. So, our students still have the benefit of being exposed to other dance forms. As I mentioned previously, affordability prevented me from building the ideal studio I dreamt of right away. As the Patterson School of Ballet has grown, we recently held a successful fundraiser to raise enough money to build sprung floors in our studio, which will be much better for the long-term health of my students.
When it came to scheduling our Fall classes for the first time, there were many factors that were also challenging. Our greatest challenge was the limitation on evening class times for students. It was difficult to keep up with the numerous school districts, as well as private schools, so I spoke with many parents about class times that would be convenient for them. It was important for me to have my students take the necessary number of ballet classes that a serious program requires. Another aspect that was crucial to the success of the program was finding a pricing scale that was competitive with surrounding studios. Most studios in our area charge very little for classes, with most charging as little as $10/hour. The Patterson School of Ballet’s tuition begins at $10/hour, but as students take more classes the price drops so students that are taking 14 hours of class have an hourly rate that’s under $6/hour. Unlike other studios in our area, our program is all-inclusive, meaning that students have regular guest/master teachers at no additional cost and there are no costume, rehearsal, or performance fees associated with our program. Any rehearsals are in addition to class time, so as to not take away from the purpose of our pre-professional training curriculum. As they say, you get what you pay for. At Patterson School of Ballet, parents make an investment in their training, without ending up with a closet full of costumes.
The Patterson School of Ballet’s curriculum is unique to the area, as we keep small class sizes and a proven graded-level ballet syllabus. Our program offers superior training, but also provides many performance opportunities. Since our first summer program, Patterson School of Ballet has established a 5-week intensive, a super hero half-day camp, and an August intensive. We have had guest faculty and master teachers Theresa Crawford, Matthew Carter, Abigail Mentzer, Melissa Gelfin, Danae Patterson, Frank Galvez, Catherine Gurr, Halle Sherman, Bob Vicary, Elysa Hotchkiss Walls, and Barbara Sandonato (who serves as Artistic Advisor to our school). Our students have had the opportunity to watch company class with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Pennsylvania Ballet, and the Joffrey Ballet, and have seen performances by them on numerous occasions. Our students also regularly participate in enrichment programs provided by Ballet In The City, where they’ve had the opportunity to work with Sonia Rodriguez, Francis Veyette, Lauren Fadeley Veyette, and other fabulous teachers. Performances include outreach with local non-profits in our area, in addition to our year end June Show. This year’s showcase will include Act II of Swan Lake with guest artists Catherine Gurr and Logan Martin.
It can be hard to deal with the competitive nature of having a business in the local dance community. But at the end of the day, I wouldn’t give up my school. While there are many in our community who are incredibly supportive, unfortunately, there are always those from other local organizations that will do or say anything to discredit you personally and professionally. However, it is very important for me to not let that enter in through the doors of my studio. Although the students are not my children, I do have a responsibility to mentor them and help them become the best version of themselves, both inside and outside the studio. My mission is to enrich children’s lives and provide opportunities for personal growth and achievement by utilizing the skills developed in the studio. Any program should be an investment in a child’s future. It is not only our goal to train professional dancers, but to also give students a clear understanding of what it takes to be good at something, to take pride in knowing that you do it well, and to aspire to be more.
1. I opened a credit card and put nearly $2500 on it at the age of 19 to join Houston Ballet. At the time, my family didn’t have the means to support me financially. So, I used this line of credit to purchase my airfare, put down a security deposit for my apartment, pay my first months rent, purchase a cheap, uncomfortable futon to give me a place to sleep and sit, get cable/internet for communication and entertainment, and stock my fridge.
2. I wasn’t initially planning on becoming a ballet dancer. At first, I saw myself having a career in jazz, musical theatre, and modern dance. After attending his master class workshop in the Philadelphia area, Bob Rizzo (former NYU professor, Steps on Broadway faculty, and current owner of Riz-Biz productions) took me under his wing and generously mentored me for 3 years towards a career in musical theatre. At the age of 16, I fell in love with ballet hard, which quickly changed my focus and the trajectory of my career.
3. While I danced throughout my childhood, my first artistic love was classical music. I started playing piano when I was 5 years old. By middle school, I added mallet percussion (xylophone/bells/vibraphone), flute, clarinet, and saxophone to my repertoire. In my free time, I would record myself playing one part of a duet on a cassette recorder and play it back so that I could practice duets with myself. Additionally, I used to transcribe music on the fly during band practices at school from different keys (for example, playing flute music on the saxophone). At my peak, I could play major classical tunes just by listening to them. When I was in 9th grade, my music instructor called my mom and suggested she send me away to a conservatory for music. I didn’t find this out until about a year ago in a passing conversation on the phone with my mom. I guess she felt I needed to focus on dance at the time. As an adult, I have unfortunately lost some of my skills due to 6 years traveling and focusing on my dance career.
4. I was severely asthmatic as a kid. I had my first asthma attack at the age of 3, which was so severe that I passed out in the car on the way to the hospital. By the age of 16, I was hospitalized 16 times for separate attacks. I only stopped using my in-home nebulizer, 2 inhalers, and pill medication after having nasal surgery in my mid-20’s to clear up scar tissue, congestion, and fix my septum. I attribute both this surgery, playing wind instruments, and dancing every day to relieving my asthma symptoms. Today, I only have to use my nebulizer or inhaler when I’m sick.
5. I have always been very lucky to be surrounded by people who have generously supported and mentored me throughout my career. The famed American Ballet Theatre Prima Ballerina Assoluta Cynthia Gregory was one of my main mentors from the age of 16 throughout much of my early career. She helped guide my decision-making without ever telling me what to do as I entered my career and provided valuable insight as I found my footing in the professional world. I also had the generous support of Daniel Baudendistel during my final years of training with private instruction in pas de deux, as well as him providing me with private instruction with the legendary David Howard. Also, as I mentioned previously, Bob Rizzo was a great guiding force in my teenage years as I really sunk my teeth into the idea of a career and life in the dance world.
6. Alaska is practically my second home. Back in 2012, I was first brought out to Anchorage to dance with the now defunct Alaska Dance Theatre professional company. Over the past 6 years, I have spent almost an entire year in the state between professional performance work, directing Alaska Dance Theatre as Interim Artistic Director, and creating my own intensive programs for intermediate/advanced students.
7. A lot of my choreographic work has focused on my fascination with the human psyche. A lot of this (and likely a huge part of my diving into dance training) is due to the fact that I was raised in a house with a parent who had an undiagnosed mental illness. A few years after leaving home, my step father was officially diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression. While I learned how to cope in an unconventional home throughout my childhood, he wasn’t the only person in my life suffering. As a teen, I helped a few friends cope with mental health situations that could have become potentially life threatening situations. And as an adult, I have found myself in regular contact with people suffering with diseases and disorders from Bipolar to Schizophrenia, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and depression.
8. When I was finishing up my ballet training, I was concerned that I wasn’t going to be offered a contract to start my career. As a counter to my anxiety, I auditioned for 17 ballet companies. Considering my expectations, it was quite surprising to me when I ended up with offers ranging from Corps de Ballet to Second Company contracts with Houston Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, Kansas City Ballet, Colorado Ballet, Carolina Ballet, Alberta Ballet, Oregon Ballet Theatre, and a trial contract with American Ballet Theatre. I was quite lucky that my expectations didn’t match my reality.
The first day that I worked with American Ballet Theatre was filled with an enormous sense of accomplishment and a great deal of anxiety. It was during my final year of training at the School of American Ballet when I was one of 4 boys offered a trial contract with the company to go on tour to the Kennedy Center as a member of the corps de ballet in MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet (before ABT’s JKO school existed). I was David Hallberg’s 2nd cast when he would step out of the corps as the 2nd cast for Benvolio and I was tasked with learning intricate fencing and intertwining corps sequences from the moment I walked into the studio. My excitement of dancing with my dream company was equally balanced by my stress level, as I had never been shown so much choreographic material at once or been expected to retain it with such immediacy. This style of learning was a grand departure from what I was used to in school when it came to learning new material and preparing to perform it. Now that I have moved forward into the realm of choreography and coaching for a range of student and professional dancers, I use experiences I’ve had as a tool to help prepare dancers in the most appropriate, economical fashion possible.
There are a couple of ways in which students are treated differently when it comes to preparing for performances. Those moving in the direction of a professional career will often learn choreographic content that is progressively closer to what professionals perform. When I learned my first classical pas de deux at the age of 15, I learned it off a VHS tape (yep, throwing it back) of fully realized dancers in performance. While we were young and had not completely developed as artists, we put in our best effort and performed the pas de deux as we saw it on the video. While a teacher or coach can offer a simplified version of choreography, student dancers will (for the most part) perform the same steps as professionals. The only difference here is that technical tricks like pirouettes may not be performed with as many rotations or certain sequences may be simplified for safety until enough strength and coordination is gained.
One of the main differences when it comes to coaching a student is the amount of time allotted to learn the work, clarify material, and build stamina. When I performed the Don Quixote pas de deux for my graduation performance at the Kirov Academy of Ballet (you can see footage here), we began rehearsing for our May show at the beginning of February. With 2-4 hours of rehearsal each week on the pas de deux alone plus additional time for rehearsal of the variations, we had many hours of practice to ensure that we knew the steps, understood the characters, and had the physical prowess to get through this challenging, pyrotechnic 8 minute piece. Students are often given a greater cushion of time to allow them to safely find their way through the material of a professional while still working as a student.
The final aspect of coaching kids that differs from working with pros comes in the form of how the coach approaches corrections. For me, I find that there is a huge emotional aspect when it comes to giving feedback, as it involves giving that feedback and seeing how the student responds both physically and psychologically. I have been coaching students to compete at the Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP) international ballet competition for nearly 4 years. My approach has changed over this period as I have gathered more experience working with different kids from a range of schools. When I first started working with new students, I would coach them in the same way that I was throughout my final years of training and as a professional. I gave direct feedback that got straight to the point without any coddling or wasted time. What I found was that some students felt demoralized by certain corrections, as they weren’t used to this style of coaching, weren’t taught how to receive corrections in that way, or didn’t understand that a correction wasn’t an attack on them as a person. Dance can be confusing in that way because while we are correcting the body’s form and the way one portrays a character with their face, it doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with a dancer as person. It is just our pathway to express our art form and necessary to convey characters through dance. Now, when coaching my students, I make sure that we take time throughout lessons to discuss corrections, why I am giving them, and how they should be addressed.
This past week, 4 students I worked with competed in the final round at YAGP. One 13 year old in particular that I worked very closely with this season has made great progress throughout our rehearsal process. When we began, I offered a warmer approach to guiding her through corrections. As she developed during our time together, I began to alter my approach to working with her and started to give more direct feedback. By the end of the final round of the competition while discussing how she felt about her performances, it became clear that she had matured to a point where she understood critical feedback and had began self-critiquing her performances. In that moment, I recognized that she was ready to begin working in a more professional format. I sat her down and explained that my approach with her in class and rehearsals will be changing. I noted that I will greatly increase my expectations of her in class and rehearsals and that she should be prepared for a much tougher approach from me. I am a big advocate of teaching emotional well-being to my students and I feel it is important to carefully guide kids and teens into a state of understanding when it comes to extremely critical feedback. With this student in particular, she is there.
I tend to go back and forth between periods of working with students and professionals as a coach. Generally, when I work as a coach with professionals, it often comes in the form of me choreographing on them and then providing feedback to ensure that they perform my work at the highest caliber. After reading the above information, you can probably see where I am going when it comes to explaining the coaching process with pros versus students. Coaching professionals is much different than working with kids. There isn’t as much emotional coddling in a professional work environment. With less time available in most professional rehearsal processes, corrections are given in a matter-of-fact way and it is expected that they will immediately address issues. We also expect dancers to be critiquing themselves and working to fix issues before we have to call them out.
Beyond all of this, most rehearsal periods are much shorter for the pros. As I was discussing at the beginning of this post, going from learning choreography as a student to rehearsing with American Ballet Theatre, I experienced a major learning curve. There wasn’t really a progressive period from student to professional where I was shown how to learn choreography at the speedier rate in a company. This tends to be a sink-or-swim period for new dancers coming into their own. I was one of the lucky ones that figured out how to learn material at a much faster pace. Without much guidance, many talented dancers fall behind their peers with this new expectation. To help a bit with the learning curve, many apprentices and young corps dancers spend multiple hours of their rehearsal days standing in the back of the room understudying roles. They are essentially being taught how to retain material faster. For this reason, it is so important that professional division students in schools and early career dancers that are asked to understudy take this role very seriously.
There is no guidebook when it comes to coaching dancers to perform at their best. But it is important that those of us who are coaching students don’t blindly walk into a studio and treat dancers exactly as we were taught. It is important to look at the individual dancer and assess what their needs are. Sometimes, this comes in the form of finding appropriate material for the physical form of a students. While at other times, it includes determining how to build a dancer’s emotional stamina. If this process is appropriately followed for the individual, we will create professional dancers who can function properly in the challenging work environment that often accompanies company work. And in the end, students who become company dancers will have all of the tools they need to become efficient at their jobs and help their organizations turn out the best product possible.
I was sitting with one of my favorite dance partners catching up over lunch nearly 3,000 miles away from the city and company that we had danced in for 4 years together. At the time, I was still dancing with Pacific Northwest Ballet. But my former colleague had moved on from her career and was transitioning into her second one. As we caught up over avocado toast, figs, brie, and honey from Le Pain Quotidien, I was struck by my friend’s perspective of her career and how it had changed so drastically since her final years dancing. As with many professional dancers who don’t track in the direction that they dreamed their career would go, she had become quite bitter and jaded during the final years of her time sharing the stage with me and our fellow dancers. While she didn’t project this onto her colleagues, she was quite vocal about the day-to-day happenings she was not pleased with and with situations (like casting) that she felt were unfair. Long gone was the woman who approached her dance career with a sharp, sarcastic wit. I was now conversing with a former dancer who spoke of fond memories of her decade dancing with one of America’s top ballet companies. I was confused.
What I was experiencing sitting across the table from my sentimental friend was something that I wouldn’t understand until I hung up my performance slippers and stepped into the same retirement shoes that she was wearing. Dancers are a very unique bunch with quirks that go well beyond their obsessive drive to perfect their technique. The best example I have of this in my own life was when I was sharing drinks with a non-dance friend back in 2013. After they intently listened to me discussing my travels as I freelanced around the nation, they responded with an inquiry that didn’t relate to the experiences I mentioned or my success in cultivating a unique career-style. He instead threw this query at me, “Do you find that you are generally a negative person?” In my baffled response to his question, I think it took me about 30 seconds of non-coherent starts and stops to find some sort of rebuttal. While I just thought I was having a normal conversation in my typical brand of candor, this friend had touched upon a personality trait that is bred into a majority of ballet dancers.
There must be a reason that many dancers are known to skew towards the spectrum of negativity. While there seems to be work on resolving this item (I’ve discussed emotional training in dance on my former blog), many students in my generation and before were taught that positive affirmation of your successes in dance training could possibly cause a dancer to become complacent about their technique and prevent them from continuing to critique, analyze, and improve their dancing. I believe that this style of training tends to develop young minds that are overly critical of things in their lives well beyond their dancing. Beyond this assumption, considering the fact that hiring, casting, and promotion are greatly based upon the opinions (vs. factual evidence of success) of those in artistic leadership roles, dancers tend to learn how to cope with disappointments that don’t always have clear reasoning more often than enjoying the elation and positivity surrounding the harder to get, exciting successes. When a dancer with high hopes for their career finds that they are coping with more disappointments than successes, they may become bitter about more than just the major upsets that they experience. Lastly, dance is an exhaustively difficult career that requires daily class, hours of time working into and through exhaustion, and pain and sore muscles that stay with you well beyond your time onstage. When a dancer wakes up in the morning and it hurts just to get out of bed, they may not be thinking positive thoughts about how lucky they are to get to dance for a living. In my deductive analysis, it makes sense to me that dancers tend to be negative or bitter about more in their lives than they are positive. It is infused into our DNA.
As I mentioned previously, it took until I was out of my performance career to really understand why I often discussed things in my career with a tinge to full-on negativity and bitterness. Just like everything in life, dance will eventually take everything back that you have worked so, so hard to achieve. Only this happens at a much more exponential rate than other careers and life happenings. When I joined Pacific Northwest Ballet, I was thrilled to get a job with one of my dream companies. But after 7 years existing in the small, insular bubble of our company, I forgot what it was like outside of this organization and didn’t appreciate what I had because I felt stagnant and wasn’t achieving that promotion to Soloist that I felt I had worked for and had proven that I was worthy of. Only when I started dancing for smaller, regional companies as a freelancer did I actually appreciate the financial stability, the quality of work and productions, and the appreciation/treatment given to us as dancers with Pacific Northwest Ballet. Additionally, only now that I am outside of my performance career can I look at the challenges I experienced as a nationally-touring freelancer and be grateful that I got to see the country and learn about organizations and communities of every size and caliber as a part of my job. As the typical saying goes, “Hindsight is 20/20.”
Now that I am retired like my friend who I listened to with curious intrigue about her completely contrasting post-performance personality, this conversation makes so much more sense to me. As more and more of my friends have entered retirement and I have interacted with more dancers who retired before me, I find that the regular frustrations and disappointments of a performance career fade much faster than the aches and pains leftover from the physical commitments we make to our art form. Instead of casting disappointments and studio stresses, dancers remember the sound of the orchestra tuning before an overture begins, that feeling when the curtain flies out and you feel the rush of cold air on your face that immediately precedes the first step of a performance, the camaraderie one experiences achieving superhuman feats alongside their friends, the adrenaline rush and elation that is felt as an audience applauds your efforts, and the hugs and smiles one receives from friends, family, and audience members. Our career field is difficult, yet it is so special. And no matter what a dancer is feeling in the moment while in their career, I promise that almost every one of us will walk away from the stage with nostalgia and mostly positive memories of a dream that few others get to experience.