Rochelle Mendoza-Axle, Courtesy Stiskin

Why Versatility Is Everything, According to 5 Joffrey Ballet School Directors

In today's dance world, versatility is key. It's not enough to be a master of one style—even when they specialize in one area, dancers are frequently asked to fuse multiple genres, or step out of their comfort zone for specific projects. With their wide variety of summer programs, Joffrey Ballet School aims to prepare dancers for the demands of a professional career. We asked five faculty members to share how they do this:


Josie Walsh

Director, Joffrey West LA, San Francisco and NYC Ballet

Jody Q Kasch, Courtesy Walsh

Though the three programs Josie Walsh runs have different focuses, there's one thing they all have in common: daily ballet technique. "The core of Joffrey is to have a solid classical foundation, which sets dancers apart," Walsh says. "You really need to have that, there's no shortcut." From there, however, the programs go in different directions. West LA is a fusion program, offering contemporary, jazz, hip hop, musical theater, ballroom, Afro-Caribbean and Latin fusion classes, among others. San Francisco is more concert dance-focused, combining classical ballet and pointe with contemporary, modern and improv techniques. NYC has a more classical focus, but still includes contemporary or modern training every day. Walsh, who danced with the Joffrey Ballet and in Europe and choreographs for her own company, is well aware of the importance of staying current. She knows that classical dancers need to be able to tackle contemporary choreography, and commercial dancers need classical training. She brings in working artists as her faculty members, and even in the more classical NYC program, students have new work created on them. It's all part of "not losing sight of where things are going, and being at the forefront," she says.

Maximilien Baud

Co-director, Musical Theater NYC, London Musical Theater, Las Vegas Jazz & Contemporary, Vegas Cirque Arts

Courtesy Baud

"Long gone are the days of being a one-trick pony," says Maximilien Baud. "Directors of ballet companies with a vast repertoire need versatile dancers who can dance multiple types of roles during a grueling season. Broadway choreographers need dancers who can do ballet, jazz, hip hop, tap, and more." Baud himself trained at the School of American Ballet. But when he auditioned for the national tour of Billy Elliot, "I had no idea what an audition songbook was, or how to tap. These were just things that as a student at SAB we never imagined needing," he says. "At Joffrey, we open the door of curiosity for performers who might consider themselves strictly a one-style dancer and give them the tools to be more versatile." Much of this is exemplified in the new Cirque du Soleil program. "Cirque is always looking for cutting-edge dancers who are versatile and able to do more than just dance," says Baud. During the program, students work directly with Cirque performers, learn about a facet of the dance world they might not have considered and are connected with potential employers who are looking for dancers that have a range of skills.

Angelica Stiskin

Director, NYC Jazz & Contemporary

Rochelle Mendoza-Axle, Courtesy Stiskin

Angelica Stiskin, who's done everything from assisting choreographer Mia Michaels to performing with Justin Bieber, started her career as a tap dancer. "My curiosity for musicality, rhythm and attention to detail all stemmed from this training," she says. "I quickly realized that I had formed a foundation that was easily applied to all of my other techniques and classes. My success was built on excelling through diversity." In the NYC Jazz & Contemporary program, Stiskin brings that sensibility, as well as a knowledge of what's expected of dancers today, into her programming. "A dancer needs to adapt to any room or movement vocabulary with absolute confidence and grace," she says. "My goal is to bridge the gap between commercial and concert dance. More options lead to more successful careers." Students take ballet and modern, along with contemporary, jazz, hip hop, street jazz, and improv. Extracurriculars expose them to New York City's dance culture, and the experience culminates in a professional-grade performance at Symphony Space.

Matthew Prescott

Co-director, Musical Theater NYC, London Musical Theater, Las Vegas Jazz & Contemporary, Vegas Cirque Arts 

Courtesy Prescott

For Matthew Prescott, the key word is integration. Nowadays, he sees more connections between different parts of the dance world that used to be more distinct. "When I first started dancing professionally, you could just be a ballet dancer," he says, "because there were lots of options for you to have a career that was financially stable—you had 32, 34 weeks of work consistently. Those sort of companies don't exist so much anymore." Though programs in musical theater or circus arts might sound very specific, Prescott encourages dancers of all styles to try them and broaden their idea of what they can do with their training. "Ballet has been a huge part of musical theater history," he says. "People like Agnes de Mille and Jerome Robbins, and now Christopher Wheeldon and Justin Peck. There are opportunities as a tap dancer on Broadway, there are opportunities as a hip-hop dancer with shows like Hamilton." The locations of the JBS programs themselves are an education, too. For instance, the new Cirque program, which partners with Tiffany Baker, dance supervisor for the Michael Jackson One show in Las Vegas, will help dancers learn about the Vegas entertainment scene. "Let's explore where they fit, and how they can integrate into the dance community," says Prescott.

Yusha Sorzano

Director, Joffrey Southwest Dallas, has also taught at JBS programs in New York, LA, and San Francisco

Eric Politzer, Courtesy Sorzano

To Yusha Sorzano, who's danced with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Complexions Contemporary Ballet, and Camille A. Brown and Dancers, among others, while a ballet base is essential for today's concert dancers, there's another foundational technique that sometimes gets neglected: modern. She plans to offer both ballet and modern every day as the new artistic director of JBS' Dallas-based fusion program (previously directed by Desmond Richardson). A Trinidad native, Sorzano also grew up dancing socially, and plans to introduce her students to a variety of styles outside of traditional concert dance. "Even before I was doing ballet, I knew how to groove and to dance in a social setting," she says. Elements of jazz, street styles, contemporary, improv, Latin jazz and Afro-based movement are included in her program's curriculum, along with information about the history of each style. The type of career she imagines her dancers entering is multifaceted, with opportunities in concert dance, commercial dance, Broadway and beyond. Training dancers for this kind of career includes preparing them for both the physical and mental demands of today's dance world. "We're training our bodies at a high level," she says. "I think it's really important to slow students down and teach them how to care for their bodies and themselves."

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What should dancers look for in a dance bag?

Dr. Meghan Gearhart, physical therapist and owner of Head2Toe Physical Therapy in Charlotte, NC, recommends dancers opt for a backpack-style dance bag rather than a duffel or cross-body bag.

"A bag that pulls the weight all to one side creates a side bend and rotation in the trunk," Gearhart says. "That is going to lead to muscle imbalances that will affect dancers while they're dancing, as well as just in regular everyday life." Muscle imbalances can mean limited mobility on one side of your body, as the muscles on one side are overly contracted and the other side is overly extended to compensate.

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Dr. Bridget Kelly Sinha, physical therapist and founder of Balanced Physical Therapy and Dance Wellness in Matthews, NC, emphasizes the importance of finding an even weight distribution when choosing a dance bag.

"If a dancer has a lot to bring, like when heading to the theater for a full day of rehearsals and performances, then I recommend a rolling suitcase to offset the load," Sinha says.

How should dancers wear their bags?

Even if you've selected the perfect dance bag, it's important to be mindful of how you wear it.

Gearhart advocates wearing both straps when carrying your backpack. She also suggests placing heavier items towards the back of the bag, where they will sit closer to your body. A bag with straps that are too loose (or a bag that is too heavy) can create an increased arch in the lower back or cause a dancer to compensate for the weight by leaning forward. Ideally, Gearhart recommends a dancer's dance bag weighing no more than 10 to 15 percent of their body weight.

"I usually tell dancers to use their common sense. If you don't have tap today, you don't need to bring the tap shoes," she says. "If your water bottle makes the bag too heavy, just carry it." If your studio offers lockers, take advantage of that storage space to lessen the number of clothes, shoes, and dance accessories that live in your dance bag.

And if you think your bad dance-bag habits have given you alignment issues, seek out a dance physical therapist to prevent further injuries.

"As a dancer, your body is working so hard all day," Sinha says. "It does not need excess strain from your bag."

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