Big Fish in a Little Pond

Emily Mistretta in The Nutcracker (Gene Schiavone)

If you’re a talented small-town ballet student, you’ve probably wondered: Should I leave my local studio to study at a top-notch school? At the bigger institution, you’d have more intense training, which would help when it came time to audition for companies. But if you left you’d miss your family and friends—and the super-personalized attention you get from your local ballet teacher.

If you’re thinking about making the leap from a local studio to a major training program, read the stories of these four dancers who did. You’ll find out how it worked—or didn’t work—for them.

Emily Mistretta, corps member, Boston Ballet

Inland Pacific Ballet Academy in California, where I trained for years, is a great school, but I felt I had more to learn than it could teach me. Every time I went away to a summer intensive, I thought seriously about staying for the school’s year-round program. I was always conflicted, though; I wanted to finish high school at home.

After I graduated high school, I went to Boston Ballet School’s summer session, and the school invited me to come year-round. I went home to California for two weeks, discussed it with my family, and got right back on a plane to Boston! I knew it was a great opportunity.

When I first got to Boston, I felt like I was behind. The other dancers had been in full-time ballet schools for years, while I’d only been doing ballet in the evenings. The schedule was intense—we danced for about eight hours a day—and I had a lot of self-doubt: Did I make the right decision? How’s this going to turn out?

Luckily, I was able to make friends quickly. That’s pretty much what saved me. And as a trainee, I got instant exposure by working with the company. I was so happy when I got my contract!

Sarah Van Patten in Swan Lake (Erik Tomasson)

Sarah Van Patten, principal, San Francisco Ballet

When I decided I wanted to be a ballet dancer, my parents said a big institution like Boston Ballet School would have the best teachers. So I started taking classes there when I was 8. But I had a different teacher every day, and I was one of about 30 kids in my class.

Then, when I was 11, I attended a summer program with Jacqueline Cronsberg at Ballet Workshop of New England. I immediately started learning variations and doing real dancing. I had long classes with Jacqueline every day, and was given lots of one-on-one attention. Her training is Balanchine, which puts a lot of emphasis on performance. That suited me.

When I told my parents I didn’t want to go back to BB, they assumed I’d given up on a dance career. If I didn’t want the big school with all the prestige, they thought, I’d just do dancing as a hobby. But it was the opposite. I wanted more time with my teacher. I wanted to be dancing more.

I was much happier at Ballet Workshop of New England. But everybody is different. You have to have these experiences for yourself, and be honest about how you feel.

Leah Slavens (front) dancing at PNB School (Rex Tranter)

Leah Slavens, Pacific Northwest Ballet School’s Professional Division

I went to Ballet Center of Houston from age 4 through my senior year in high school. I got to dance all kinds of big roles, and the teachers trained me really well. But the studio could only offer so much. They don’t have a lot of funding, space or time. I guess that’s why the decision to go to Pacific Northwest Ballet School after graduation was so easy.

It was a shock coming to a professional school with such a difficult training program. It was also hard to leave home, get an apartment and do everything that grown-ups do without having the experience of college dorm life. I just went straight into living on my own, having to cook for myself and take care of my own finances. A lot of kids my age don’t have to pay their own bills yet! And it’s hard only seeing my parents twice a year.

Part of me wishes I’d left home sooner, before I graduated high school. I feel a little bit behind ballet-wise sometimes. Then again, I’m glad I waited, because I feel more mature and ready to start a new phase of my life. It makes it easier that my friends at home have graduated and moved away too, so I don’t feel like I’m missing anything.

Faye Arthurs rehearsing with Craig Hall for the 1999 workshop performances at SAB (Rosalie O'Connor)

Faye Arthurs, corps member, New York City Ballet

Growing up in Pennsylvania, I took classes at Pittsburgh Youth Ballet School, where I learned a lot of George Balanchine repertory. I loved those ballets so much! But I declined invitations to the School of American Ballet’s summer session—SAB is the home of Balanchine technique, and feeds into New York City Ballet, Balanchine’s company—a few times because my parents weren’t ready for me to go. It wasn’t until I was 15 that they finally said OK.

After that summer, SAB asked me to stay for the year. I agonized over the decision. But I eventually thought, “Well, it’s now or never!” I had gotten to a certain place at my smaller school and was antsy to try something bigger.

It was hard the first year to be away from my family. You have to grow up so quickly, not only emotionally but practically—you have to do your own laundry and get yourself places on time. But I saw my father once or twice a month when he was in New York for business, which was helpful.

The biggest change from living in Pittsburgh was being able to see live performances all the time. SAB students get free NYCB tickets, and I went every night. That inspired my decision to join the company. You see the actual life of a dancer in a way you can’t at a small school.

SIGNS YOU SHOULD STAY

You don’t want to be “just a number.” If you enjoy getting lots of personal attention from your teacher and don’t want to fight for a spot at the front of the class, consider sticking it out at your local studio.

You get anxious if you’re away from family and friends for more than a few days. Leaving home and a tight-knit group of friends can make you homesick—and too distracted to focus on your training. Skyping, texting and phone calls will be your new norm. If the thought of that makes you break out in hives, you might not be ready to make the jump.

It just doesn’t feel right yet. Trust your gut. Bigger schools don’t always mean bigger rewards. If it seems like the pros of uprooting yourself won’t outweigh the cons, try waiting a year or two before taking the plunge.

SIGNS YOU SHOULD GO

You want more than what’s offered at your home studio. You’re ready for more intense training, different teachers and the chance to work with professional dancers.

You have your heart set on getting into a specific ballet company. Most companies hire dancers from their schools, so it helps to already be in their programs. You’ll also get to watch performances and maybe even dance in some of them as a student at the company’s school.

You’re a risk-taker. If you’re the type of person who enjoys, rather than dreads, new challenges, you’ll probably adapt quickly to the sink-or-swim environment that defines most larger schools. Go for it!

 

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Because all dancers have experienced it at some point or another (Getty Images/patat)

How Dancers Can Beat Zoom Fatigue

Now that we're more than nine months into the pandemic, there's a big chance you're feeling Zoom-ed out. Read: Totally overusing the video-conferencing app for school and dance classes—and everything else. And according to dance/movement therapist Erica Hornthal, MA, LCPC, BC-DMT, there's good reason for that: "Managing your environment in a virtual space is taxing on the mind, and therefore taxing on the body."

Hornthal attributes these feelings, in part, to a mind–body disconnect that happens when we use the app: Your body knows you are alone in the room, but your mind sees a group of people on screen—and managing this COVID-era reality can be, well, exhausting. But we can also feel Zoom fatigue, Hornthal says, from having to "constantly be present to the third 'person' in the room: the Zoom camera." Uh, relatable!

So if staring at a grid of fuzzy faces—or into the abyss of that cold, dark lens on your device—has you feeling less than energized, here are some ways to cope.


Take breaks from tech throughout the day

Tamia Strickland, a sophomore in the Ailey/Fordham BFA dance program, trains both in person (with a mask, of course!) and online but says there are unique challenges that come with the latter. For one, she says, it's hard "to stay focused and motivated when you are in your basement or living room staring at a computer screen all by yourself—and all day long." These feelings can lead to frustration: You want to stay engaged with the class, but after staring at your computer screen for so long, you start to feel unmotivated.

As a remedy, Hornthal suggests taking breaks from your tech devices when you can. "The last thing you want to do," she says, "is exit a Zoom session and then immediately jump onto your phone." Instead, take a breather from everything virtual, and give your mind—and body—time to recalibrate. "Create space to connect or reconnect with your body when you are off technology," Hornthal says. "Take a walk, practice mindful breathing, embrace nature."

Move for yourself—and on your own

Another way to overcome feelings of online-class fatigue, Hornthal says, is to find time to move on your own—away from the camera on your device. As you begin moving for yourself, try to recognize and notice your own body wisdom. As a dancer, this could simply mean taking stock of what feels good and natural to your body as you, say, indulge in an improv sesh.

Tim Roberts, a Maryland dance studio owner and former performer, says giving his students time to turn their cameras off and work through their own movement has helped keep them motivated. "Opening that space for them is so necessary­ and beneficial, and helps them appreciate the time they do have with me," he says.

If you're not feeling up to a movement break, consider cooling down the mind and body by taking some time to stretch out and take up space in the body, Hornthal says. By encouraging greater body awareness, stretching can help give you more insight into what your body needs at any given point—a physical check-in before you head back into The Land of Zoom.

Tap into your other senses

When you're on Zoom, you're constantly using your eyes—to learn choreography, to support fellow dancers, to catch physical cues from teachers—so it's important, Hornthal says, to give yourself screen breaks. As you give your eyes a rest, take time to whet your other senses: Squeeze a stress ball; smell the outside air; gulp a tasty green smoothie; listen to your favorite playlist. The key here is to take in stimuli that trigger your other senses, rather than continuing to use (or overuse) your sense of sight.

And as a golden rule for your overall Zoom-life health, always remember: "It isn't just dance that is happening online—our entire lives are virtual," Hornthal says. "That means we have to be intentional with our downtime, and turn off technology, so we can tune in to ourselves."

Photo by Matthew Murphy, courtesy Cory Lingner

How Broadway Dancer Cory Lingner Perfected the TikTok Duet

With #SocialDisDancing still very much in place, it's a challenge for dance partners to perform safely, and even harder to perform safely together.

But Broadway's Cory Lingner may have found the solution—on TikTok. He's using the app to tap alongside some of the most iconic movie stars, including Gene Kelly, Gregory Hines, Ann Miller and Shirley Temple. And, no, he doesn't have a time-traveling device.

Lingner has perfected the use of the app's duet feature. On one side of the video is a clip of the tap-dancing icon and on the other is Lingner, dancing in unison. And as a bonus, Lingner's also giving viewers facts about the stars and the performances as they watch.

Lingner's danced in everything from On the Town to An American in Paris, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Carousel. But still, his tapping TikToks may be one of his favorite challenges yet. "I've gotten very lucky to do shows on Broadway," Lingner says, "But I haven't actually gotten to do as much tapping as I'm doing in these videos."

When Broadway shut down last March due to the pandemic, Lingner was in rehearsals for Love Life with New York City Center's Encores! series. Without a stage and a live audience, he's getting his fill of performing from his social media duet series. And it's so popular on TikTok, he's gained more than 8 thousand followers in a mere month.


@corylingner

##duet with @tcm & Gene Kelly!! Couldn’t think of a better way to make my TikTok debut! ##genekelly tapdancechallenge ##tap ##tapdance ##dancechallenge

♬ original sound - Turner Classic Movies

Dance Spirit: How did your "Cory's Duet Series" on TikTok get started?

Cory Lingner: It was kind of just a spur-of-the-moment thing. The very first spark of inspiration was another fellow tapper, Nicole Billow. She actually did the first side-by-side with Gene Kelly from An American in Paris. I watched it and I was like, "This looks really fun." I went ahead and made a TikTok account and made my first duet. I posted that thing with zero followers and by the end of the night, there were 500 followers and it was blowing up with views.

DS: How do you pick which numbers you're going to do?

CL: Well, part of it is going down the YouTube rabbit hole looking up performers that I'm familiar with. The majority of what I've tried to focus on is introducing new performers so I don't repeat dancers too much. The last time that I repeated was with Vera Allen in White Christmas, since it was the holiday.

I also try to find sections where not only I can do the choreography in my limited space, with my little piece of plywood, but also if they're able to stay on a single camera shot for long enough for the 20 to 30 seconds.

DS: How long does it take you to learn the dances?

CL: It depends. If I'm a bit more familiar with it, I can probably pick it up quicker. Sometimes it takes 15 to 30 minutes. One that I worked on that I'm going to share is with Ginger Rogers. That took about an hour and a half. Luckily, I've always been a visual learner.

DS: What do you think about the skill level of some of Shirley Temple's tap steps?

CL: It's remarkable the fact that she did that many films and had that kind of tap dance skill set at such a young age. It is so impressive to me. People were commenting on that video too, writing, "Oh my gosh, I didn't even realize what she can do. That's very impressive."

DS: It seems like we don't see this style of dance anymore, since the Golden Age of the Hollywood movie musical. How do you feel film choreography has changed since then?

CL: This style of dance definitely does feel different. I've always admired it and gravitated towards it. It's fascinating to picture how these choreographers even conceptualized sequences where the stars are dancing all across these sets and sound stages.

I find myself wondering, "Did they have the set to begin with and then worked on it, or did they come up with ideas and then that gave set designers ideas to build?" The rhythms and the tap melodies are pretty bright, and that makes it really fun for me and exciting for anyone watching.

DS: What is some of the feedback you've been getting?

CL: Oh, my goodness. It's so lovely, all the comments and messages. There was a grandmother that said, "I think you just inspired my 3-year-old grandson to start taking dance." It warms my heart. From what I'm reading and seeing, it still resonates with so many people.

DS: What are some dream duets that you need to do?

CL: I've gotten a lot of people up requesting the Nicholas Brothers. They're the best. I'm going to try to see if I can find something to do them justice and try to keep up with them. But with my little piece of plywood, there's no way I can do their iconic jump into the splits because I'd get splinters.

There were other duets people were recommending, like James Cagney. So I'm trying to find a moment when he stays still. I learned "Moses Supposes" from Singin' in the Rain many years ago, which would be really fun to tackle again. Maybe I'd do that one in two separate sections, so I can do one with Gene Kelly and one with Donald O'Connor.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater dancer and choreographer Hope Boykin (center) after teaching a master class at the Center for Civil and Human Rights (Emily Hawkins, courtesy Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater)

4 Dance Works Honoring the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

Social justice has a been a prominent theme in many Black American dancemakers' repertoires. Today, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day­—and in the midst of ongoing social and political turmoil in America—this theme carries new resonance.

Dr. King's legacy has spurred the creation of many dance works, with many creators using his words to respond to the social issues of the moment. So, today, in celebration of MLK, Jr. Day, here are four of those dances which honor the legacy of the late civil rights leader.


"r-Evolution, Dream." by Hope Boykin

Set to a soundscape that includes music by jazz musician Ali Jackson, narration by Tony Award-winner Leslie Odom, Jr., "r-Evolution, Dream.," performed by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, debuted in 2017. Choreographer—and Ailey vet—Hope Boykin was inspired to create the piece on a visit to the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. "I got a chance to listen to Dr. King's voice and watch the footage of his funeral with the casket running through the city," Boykin said in an interview with the L.A. Times. Boykin says she was especially stirred by the cadence and sound of his voice.

Moved by the timeliness of Dr. King's teachings (over a half century after he first orated them), Boykin set out to create a ballet that, in effect, translated some of his most famous sermons and teachings into movement. The ensemble piece, which also features solos and sets of pas de deuxs, is a powerful reminder of the long fight ahead for racial equality in America.

"Bodies as a Site of Faith and Protest" by Tommie-Waheed Evans

First performed by Dallas Black Dance Theatre in 2018, "Bodies as Site of Faith and Protest" also transcribes Dr. King's words into dance—only this work zeroes in one particular speech: Dr. King's "We Shall Overcome."

The most resounding imagery in choreographer Tommie-Waheed Evans's work is the clump of dancers at center-center, who march and march with searing purpose oozing from their eyes—yet seem to arrive nowhere. It's as if Evans puts on display the historical, present, and future conditions of the Black American: That the battle for equal protection under the law will be ongoing.

"Dougla" by Geoffrey Holder

In response to the assassination of Dr. King on April 4, 1968, Arthur Mitchell, then a principal dancer with New York City Ballet, felt compelled to take action. His efforts would culminate in the formation of Dance Theatre of Harlem.

The ballet troupe performs everything from classical rep to new works—one of the most iconic is Geoffrey Holder's "Dougla," with movement that depicts the wedding of a Dougla couple, in which one partner is of African descent and the other of Indian descent. The ballet features a spectacle of costume, with a thumping, grounding pulsation of drums beneath movement that, in of itself, is bold and unafraid of making a statement.

Perhaps most memorable about this piece are the moments done in unison, when everything is "working together at once," as Carmen de Lavallade, who helped restage the piece for DTH in 2018, said to theNew York Times. The power in these moments of togetherness conjures scenes of Americans marching in unity for social justice, echoing the very reasons Dr. King worked to lead change before his death.

"Deep Blue Sea" by Bill T. Jones

In an interview with our sister publication Dance Magazine, Jones says the work deals with one overarching question in particular: "Are we really still this beacon, this light on a hill, this conglomerate of disparate groups and stakeholders that we call American democracy?" As a young child, he believed that the Black community could overcome the effects of systematic racism, said Jones to DM. Now, he has less faith—and "Deep Blue Sea" dives into the reasons why.

Intended to be performed at the Park Avenue Armory, the cast included not only the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, but also nearly 100 members of the New York City community.

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