Ballet

My First Summer Intensive

Raechel Sparreo (second from left) and friends outside the Miami City Ballet studios during the school's 2010 summer intensive

You’re about to head to your first summer intensive. Congrats! You’re on your way to a life-changing experience. But right now, you’re probably super-anxious—overanalyzing, as dancers tend to do. “I was excited at first,” 16-year-old Raechel Sparreo remembers of her first away-from-home summer intensive at Miami City Ballet in 2010. “But then I started to think, ‘Will I make friends? Will the teachers like me? Will I be good enough for my level?’” (Raechel’s story has a happy ending: She loved the summer program and is now a full-time student at the MCB School.)

Nerves are natural before any new experience. But your fears don’t have to overtake you. Read on to learn the truth behind your top summer intensive anxieties.

How intense will it be?

If the word “intensive” freaks you out, you’re not alone. “It sounds so intimidating,” says 13-year-old Bella Halek, who dances at Summit Dance Shoppe in Plymouth, MN.

Basically, what makes summer programs “intense” is the amount of time you’ll spend dancing: Anywhere from seven to 10 hours a day, five to six days a week. You’ll work hard, and you’ll have to adjust to new teachers, but you shouldn’t be overwhelmed in every class. The trick is to take the program one class at a time. “It’s a lot of dancing,” Raechel says, “but once you get into it, you just adapt, no problem.” And if you do feel overwhelmed, there will be teachers, counselors or chaperones on hand to help.

Bella in her dorm room at PCDF

My studio takes a summer break. What if I’m out of shape by the time I get to the intensive?

Even if your studio’s not in session, stay active. “It’s when dancers arrive at a summer course hoping to get back in shape that the injuries happen,” says Denise Bolstad, administrative director at Pacific Northwest Ballet School. If you have free weeks before your intensive, try swimming or biking to keep up your stamina. “I did a floor barre Pilates workout almost every day, stretched and did ab exercises,” Raechel says. You’ll probably still be sore the first couple of days at the intensive—that part might not be avoidable—but you’ll be safe.

If you do get injured, nearly every program has physical therapists on site who can keep little pains from turning into big ones. Contact your summer program to see if physical therapy is included in your tuition fee.

What if all the other dancers are better than me?

“When I went to my first intensive, I thought everyone was going to outshine me,” says New York City Dance Alliance Summer Intensive teacher Lauren Adams. First of all, that probably won’t be the case: You wouldn’t have been accepted to the program if you weren’t up to its standards. But Adams also suggests refocusing your approach: Rather than worrying about how you measure up to other dancers, work on developing a positive classroom relationship with your teacher. “Even if you have a rough class, there is some knowledge that you can take with you,” she says. “Put the emphasis on, ‘What am I learning? How can I bring it home with me?’ ”

What if I’m placed in the wrong level?

Raechel (in blue) and friends before the MCB school's 2011 summer intensive performance

The teachers at summer intensives want you to be in the level that will benefit you the most, and if they do happen to place you in the wrong one, they will move you during the first couple of days. Sometimes it can be disappointing to be placed in a lower level than you hoped—especially if you’re in the top level at your home studio—but here’s a secret: Levels don’t matter much in the long run. “At Pacific Northwest Ballet, we place students according to age and physical strength level,” says Bolstad. “The level you’re in doesn’t indicate your potential.”

What if the training contradicts what my teacher at home has taught me?

With a new set of teachers at the intensive, you’ll be sure to hear different ideas about how to approach your technique. Maybe one will want you to think about “pushing down” through the floor instead of “pulling up,” like your teacher at home says. The key is to be open to trying new things. “We tell our students, ‘We don’t want to change you, and what you have learned is not wrong. We just want you to try it this way,” Bolstad says.And one of those new approaches might fix your pirouettes or improve your balance. Once the intensive is over, you can choose which ideas you want to bring back home.

What if I get homesick?

Leaving home for the first time can be hard, but your life at the intensive will be full of dancing and dorm activities that should make separation from your friends and family easier. “I made tremendous bonds at all my intensives that took the pain of homesickness away,” Adams says. If you do get sad, it’s helpful to talk with someone instead of keeping it to yourself. Bolstad works regularly with homesick students. “You shouldn’t feel bad about it,” she says. “But try to stick it out instead of going home, because you will be really proud of yourself if you do.”

What if I don’t get along with my roommates?

Your roommates are your first built-in relationships of the program. You might become best friends with them, but you might just be acquaintances—if you don’t get along, you

Bella jumping into the pool at PCDF (by Stephanie Crousillat)

don’t have to hang out all the time. If you’re anxious, you might be able to talk with your roommates over Skype or Facebook before the intensive. And if you have a serious roommate problem, the program may be able to change your room.

What should I pack?

The basics—dance clothes, toiletries, etc.—are obvious. But here are a few things you might not have thought of.

  • More pointe shoes than usual. At a ballet intensive, you’ll probably go through at least one pair per week.
  • Pillows, blankets or photos from home. Never underestimate the value of making your dorm room feel “homey.”
  • A dance bag with comfy straps. You’ll be carrying it all over campus!
  • A swimsuit and a nice dress. You may think that you’ll be living in dancewear, but plan ahead for the intensive’s fun activities or weekend trips.
Photo by Joe Toreno

The coolest place she's ever performed:

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Signature look:

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