Letter To My Teenage Self
Kathleen Breen Combes George Balanchine's "Serenade."
(Photo by Rosalie O'Connor)
Kathleen Breen Combes may be only 5' 4", but she looks like the tallest person onstage—an optical illusion created by her oversized jump and radiant charisma. Raised in Fort Lauderdale, FL, Combes had difficulty walking as a child because her leg muscles were underdeveloped. Hoping to strengthen Combes’ legs, her mother enrolled her in ballet class, and Combes took to it immediately. She trained at the HARID Conservatory and Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet before earning a contract with The Washington Ballet in 2000. Three years later she joined Boston Ballet, where she became a principal dancer in 2009. Catch Combes in BB’s “Pricked” program and George Balanchine’s Jewels this spring. —Margaret Fuhrer
My dearest Kathleen,
First, thank you. Thank you for your hard work, your sacrifices and the strong foundation
you’ve laid for your future. Here are a few things to remember on your journey:
Right now you’re wondering if you have what it takes to be a professional dancer. Deep down you know you do. It’ll be hard work——I’m not even going to tell you how hard——but it’ll be worth it. During those rare onstage moments when all the work combines with your passion for dance, creating an indescribable feeling, the hours of training and rehearsal will seem like nothing.
photo, Bill Keefrey
Watch people to learn, not to compare or critique. It’s great to admire pointed feet, high legs and multiple pirouettes, but spend more time watching the approach, the intention, the tilt of the head and the focus of the eyes. At some point everyone in the room will be just as talented as you, and the little things will be what set you apart.
Become reliable. Use your brain just as much as your body. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want——be strong and know your worth. It’s OK to acknowledge your abilities and fight for them.
Quit hiding your weaknesses. Everyone has them. Strive for perfection in rehearsal, but when you step onstage, know that it’s your imperfections that make you interesting. And don’t be afraid to fail. You’ll learn a lot from your failures. Give it your all——the worst you can be is bad.
Enjoy every day, even when you’re tired, unmotivated or sore. Your career will fly by, so relish the process.
Work on yourself as a person. Remain authentic, listen, learn and watch. And enjoy the ride, because it’s a really great one.
P.S. Listen to your mom when she tells you to keep taking college classes
Harper Watters is a ballet dancer for today's generation. A social media maestro and a charismatic performer, the Houston Ballet soloist is equally at home in front of the camera hosting his hit YouTube series, "The Pre Show"; interacting with fans on his crazy-popular Instagram account; or showing off his beautiful classical technique onstage. It's a multifaceted identity that's proven to be invaluable to his career—and it's taking him to places he never even dreamed of.
Getting corrections from our dance instructors is how we grow, and as students, it's important that we do our best to apply every correction right away. But sometimes—whether it's because we're in physical pain, or have a lot on our minds, or are just not paying attention—those corrections don't sink in. And from a teacher's standpoint, giving the same corrections time and time again gets old very fast. Here are 10 important corrections dance teachers are tired of giving. Take them to heart!
The dancers who take our breath away are the risk-takers, the ones who appear completely fearless onstage. "When you see somebody trying to travel more, go farther, push the limits of their physical abilities, that's always going to be inspiring," says Ballet BC dancer Alexis Fletcher.
But dance training can feel like it's in conflict with that idea. We spend thousands of hours in the studio trying to do steps perfectly, and that pursuit of perfection can make us anxious about taking risks. What if we fail? What if we fall?
Luckily, fearlessness is a mental skill that you can work on, just as you work on your technique. Here's how you can learn to push yourself past your limits.
When we think of a dancer who's broken barriers, American Ballet Theatre principal Misty Copeland tends to be the name that comes to mind. And though Copeland has been a crucial advocate for equality in the world of ballet, Raven Wilkinson—a mentor of Copeland's—is considered one of the original pioneers of the movement.
In 1955, Wilkinson became the first African American to dance with the renowned Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Her fortitude in the face of bigotry and hate cemented her legacy. Now, with the release of the new children's book Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson, a new generation of dancers will be inspired by her tale of overcoming obstacles to achieve a dream.
The book details Wilkinson's life, from her experience as a young dancer training in Harlem, to her run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan while on tour with Ballet Russe, to her later ballet career in Europe. "There were times where my heart really hurt because of the situations I had to deal with," she says. "But I always had faith that I was made to be a dancer and that I was gonna dance."
Dance Spirit spoke with Wilkinson to discuss the new book and get her take on racial equality within the ballet world.
Postmodern pioneer Trisha Brown redefined how dance is seen and felt. A founding member of Judson Dance Theater, Brown frequently collaborated with other experimental artists like Yvonne Rainer, Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, and Steve Paxton.
She embraced pedestrian movement, pairing everyday gesture with rhythm and fluidity. "It's liquid," says Wendy Perron, who danced with Brown in the '60s and '70s. "Like a river with many tributaries, water coming out of a faucet, or being on a raft and seeing the water move away in different directions." Brown also pushed beyond stages with choreography in fields, museums—even on the sides of buildings.
There's a common misconception that a dancer's body has to be thin. But the truth is that talent knows no body type, and the number on the scale never determines an artist's capabilities. Here are some extraordinary dancers fighting the stereotype of what a dancer "should" look like.