The Paris Opéra Ballet School

“Don’t stiffen up, Victoire! Bend your legs. Allez! You have to stretch and bend. You are tense. Breathe, smile, concentrate! Tighten your back—you won’t need as much power from your legs. Do your feet hurt today?”

It’s a July afternoon, and the sun is streaming into the Serge Golovine studio at the Paris Opéra Ballet School. Carole Arbo, a retired POB étoile (“star” in French) and a former student of the school, is leading her senior students through the final steps of the variation d’étoile in Rudolf Nureyev’s Raymonda, giving a relentless stream of corrections.

Sound intense? This is just a normal day at the Paris Opéra Ballet School’s Nanterre campus, which includes 10 dance studios. The vast complex, built in 1987, is nestled in a large park just a short train ride away from the center of Paris. The campus features three distinct areas: the academic wing, complete with classrooms for study; the dance wing, with its magnificent winding staircase; and the dormitories, where students sleep two or three to a room.

In all classes held on this sprawling campus, the French style is ever-present. The academy honors its 18th-century aristocratic origins—it was established in 1713 by Louis XIV—while also incorporating 19th-century Italian dance and 20th-century Russian technique. This mix is further colored by the influence of Rudolf Nureyev, who ran the POB from 1983 to 1989.

Trademarks of the style include the clarity of the épaulement and port de bras, which are slightly rounder than the Russian style, yet not as round as the Danish style. Elegance and strength are emphasized, as is the precision of the footwork. But while all of these aspects represent a French dancer, petite batterie is indisputably the POBS’s signature. For Elisabeth Platel, a former POB étoile and current director of the school, “it’s an essential part of the training. We do sauts, assemblés, petites batteries all the time, all the time, all the time!”

That quick petite batterie was frightening to current American Ballet Theatre principal David Hallberg, who in 1999 was admitted to the school by former director Claude Bessy. It took him nine humbling months to finally get a handle on the dreaded petit allegro. “It was almost impossible!” he remembers. “The kids there just pulled it off. The faster it got, the smaller they danced. They didn’t look tense while they were doing it. Their upper bodies were so calm, but their legs were moving like lightning. It was amazing to watch!”

Although the POBS doesn’t have a written curriculum, the school’s classical teachers, all former POB dancers, are expected to communicate their skills. And they have a lofty goal: By their last year at the academy, students should be capable of dancing any principal role from any of the ballets in the company’s large repertoire. Even then, only two or three from a graduating class of 11 will be lucky enough to enter the company.

For Wilfried Romoli, an instructor who began teaching eighth-grade boys in 2008, the experience is daunting, but rewarding. “I teach them what Nureyev taught me: a focus on placement and orientation,” he says. “If you don’t know your directions on the ground, how are you going to know where to go in the air?”

Now in her senior year, dancer Victoire Debay has a good command of the basics but is tackling another difficult part of her education: personalizing her technique. “We have to have an individual style and demonstrate our artistic interpretation of the steps. That’s something the teachers expect of us but that they don’t teach us specifically.” Rémy Catalan, a fellow senior, finds this approach liberating: “It helps me stop worrying about how well I’m dancing and get beyond myself.”

This performance quality, honed in class and in individual study, is put to use throughout the year. The students, affectionately referred to as “les petits rats” (a name probably inspired by the sound of their pattering feet on the rehearsal studio floor, once located in the attic above the Palais Garnier stage), perform throughout the year. They dance in a range of productions—from Démonstrations, a unique display of classroom work created by Claude Bessy in 1977, to guest appearances in repertory performances. Small parts in The Nutcracker and Raymonda are also on the students’ schedules. But the highlight of the POBS performance calendar is the annual year-end showcase. In full costume at the Palais Garnier, the POBS pupils perform variations from La Sylphide, Coppélia, or any of the 40 ballets that make up the POBS repertoire.

However glamorous that sounds, what students really need to succeed at the POBS, according to Arbo, is grit and determination. “Sure, you need great physical potential,” she says, “but you really have to have the mental strength to match. You have to be open and positive; you don’t get anywhere with a student who is a negative thinker. And you have to love tight rules. The severity here is intense and the schedule is demanding, but the students love it.”

Fast Facts

Number of students: 138

Age of students: 9-17

Auditions: An initial selection process focuses on the dancers’ physical shape, flexibility and size, while a second, more rigorous process narrows the group down to the chosen students.

International Bounds: Students from eight nations, including Italy, Korea and Ukraine, currently attend the school.

Life at POBS

6:45 am: wake up

7 am: breakfast

8 am: academics begin

10:30 am: short break

Noon: lunch

1:30 pm: classical dance lesson

3:15 pm: rotating classes on variations or style

4:30 pm: break and snack

5:00 pm: dance theory for older students, musical instruction for younger dancers

6:30 pm: dinner

7:30 pm: free time, quiet study

9:00 pm: lights out

Students can phone home twice daily. Down time is spent playing ping-pong or watching dance films. Group outings are sometimes organized to see a Paris Opéra Ballet dress rehearsal or to go to the movies.

Where can you see and learn the POB style near you?

Pierre-François Vilanoba is a POBS graduate dancing in the San Francisco Ballet, while Adrienne Schulte and Sean Stewart of the American Ballet Theatre both studied at the Nanterre school. Rachel Rufer is currently dancing for the Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal and François Perron is managing artistic director of the Manhattan Movement and Arts Center, where they teach French ballet technique. Fabrice Herrault also teaches the POB style at Steps on Broadway in NYC.

How can you incorporate French technique into your dancing?

Concentrate on cleanliness and clarity. Work on a tight 5th position. Place the arms so that they slope slightly from the shoulders. In order to move quickly during petite batterie, keep your step light and let the momentum of the music carry you.

Photos by David Elofer

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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."

Because honestly, what could be better than dancing alongside your mom? (Getty Images/undrey)

How You Can Support the Beginner Dancer in Your Life

Plenty of us have been dancing since we were teeny-tiny tappers and trinas, but walking into a dance class as an older beginner can be seriously intimidating. Luckily, one silver lining of the pandemic is that it's easier than ever to try out a two-step without even stepping into the studio—virtual classes seem to be everywhere we click nowadays.

Is one of your friends, siblings, parents, or grandparents interested in starting to dance, but totally unsure about where to begin? As the resident dancer in their lives, there are plenty of ways for you to encourage them. Here are just a few of the ways to support the newest dancer in your life.

Roll Out the Recommendations

The pandemic has opened up a whole new world of dance classes that you can stream right into your living room. By now, you're probably a seasoned Zoom dance pro. So start by asking your aspiring dancer what their goals are. Are they looking to just become more active? Study a specific genre of dance? Find a new creative outlet? Take that info and help them narrow down what kinds of virtual classes they might enjoy. Then, recommend some studios you know and love.

Be sure to give your friend or relative an impression of what to expect from their virtual class. Don't forget to offer Zoom-specific tips, like where to place their camera, or how to rearrange their furniture to provide enough space for class. And if they're nervous (or don't want the pressure of being on camera for their first few classes), let them know it's okay to leave their camera off until they're ready to try class with it on. After all, if Hugh Jackman can do it, so can they

Join Their Journey

Maybe you'd also like to broaden your dance horizons, or your friend is looking for an accountability partner. Try taking a beginner level class with your friend in a style you're unfamiliar with. Plenty of studios offer workshops for beginning dancers in a variety of styles, like Broadway Dance Center's Absolute Beginner Workshop seriesAbsolute Beginner Workshop series, which offers a series in every genre from ballet to street jazz.

Another option is to find a dance class video on YouTube, like Kathryn Morgan's at-home class series, and take it at the same time over a Zoom call by sharing your screen. That way, you can pause the video if you need to answer a question from your friend. (And try your best to remain calm when they ask you, for the fifth time, what "plié" means.)

Cheer Them Through Challenges

Most importantly, be there to support your friend or relative in their new dance journey. You know that there can be bumps along the road, but you also know that nothing compares to the feeling of nailing a hard combo, or accomplishing your next dance goal. The newest dancer in your life has all those milestones to look forward to along the way. Don't let them get discouraged when it's difficult —and help them celebrate their accomplishments, big or small.

Photo by Anaiah Simons, courtesy Taylor Jade Edgin

How Dance Helped Me Achieve Success in My Nondance Career Path

Like most kids, by the age of 4 I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up…a dancer. And sure, every kid picks a career to play along with—doctor, veterinarian, princess. But from that young age of 4, I was determined to turn my dream into a reality.

I spent my adolescent years in multiple dance companies, training to make the move to L.A. And then I got it: glimpses of my big break. I began working for and with the choreographers on my bucket list, got accepted into dance companies I'd tirelessly watch on YouTube, and even made it on that national commercial that my friends, family (and don't forget the frenemies!) got to see on repeat.

But then, suddenly, I felt a shift. Was I, the dancer who spent 18 years of blood, sweat and tears (and a crap ton of money) getting burnt out from the everyday hustle of my industry?

If I'm being honest, I always felt like the odd one out in my profession. It took me about four years of paying my dues in L.A. to realize that everything that was different about myself—and my mind—would serve as the catapult towards my new career path as a creative director.

Just Outside of Dance

While grappling with my sudden change of desire, I reflected on where it all started. I remembered being 10 years old, listening to the Black Eyed Peas' Elephunk album in the car, closing my eyes and visualizing a whole music video in my head. And while I thought that meant I would just be the choreographer or the dancer performing in the video, I never realized it might also mean I could be the person to bring the music video to life.

I flashed back to my various experiences on set as a dancer. I remembered how I always took interest in communicating with other departments and learning about their industries, and realized that it's OK to pursue creative endeavors beyond dance. I also paid close attention to how I was treated on set as "talent," taking all the things I learned and didn't like into deep consideration.

Growing Into the Role

Opening my mind allowed for a lot of fun opportunities, like the time I got to star as the lead in a music video that I was also hired to choreograph and direct, or when I started working with my teenage idol and mentor D-Trix, who taught me how to simultaneously choreograph and direct a piece for the camera. Combining my passions just felt right, but the coolest part about developing my knowledge as a creative director was that I got to do it in spaces I was already familiar with. Creating in the dance industry without actually dancing helped me discover that even though I'm focused on this new, creative role, I can still maintain my deep connection with dance.

I've spent the last four years continuing down the creative-direction path, developing artists, producing music videos, and marketing for friends. A favorite moment for me was working with Nya Bloom, a friend and upcoming artist who I convinced not only to create a short film for his first project, but also to hire me as a director.

After six months of brainstorming together, we pitched our ideas to an investor who loved them and granted us a budget. From there, I was hired as set designer, choreographer, stylist and director for the project, which granted me the opportunity to hire all my friends, from dancers and actors to DP and editors. We paid everyone their full rates and ran our production in succinct timing, wrapping everyone 30 to 60 minutes earlier than planned.

I was ecstatic to use all my skills from previous jobs as a dancer on set, and everything I had observed from my previous experiences, to put my skills to the test and produce a visual that turned out even better than we could've imagined.

Edgin getting comfortable in the directors' seat (Avo Guedekelian, courtesy Edgin)

Dancing to My Own Beat

I pride myself in not underpaying or overworking dancers and (subtly) brag about being the person to book you for a 12-hour day, release you ahead of schedule, and still pay you your full day rate. It's really important to me, as someone who has been in the positions I'm now hiring for, to make sure the talent is as comfortable and happy as possible.

As I've gained more experience in my role as a creative director and taking on artist development, I've realized that having a dance background made finding success in these nondancing roles so much easier. So, whether you choose to join a prestigious company as a full-time dancer or become a freelance creative director who dances whenever they feel like it, just know that dance is a tool that can help you achieve success in spaces you may have never imagined.

I'm so grateful for my now 21 years of dance experience for introducing me to my true calling in life. There was never a moment wasted, and I can dance to the beat of my own drum now.

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