Addressing the needs of late-starters
Jenna Savella, a second soloist with The National Ballet of Canada, didn’t get serious about ballet until she was 15. When she auditioned for Canada’s National Ballet School, she was placed two levels lower than most of her peers. “I didn’t have a fundamental understanding of technique. I was playing catch-up the whole time,” she says. Savella admits that even now, she struggles to gain strength. “That challenge will never stop.”
When a student starts dancing in their teens or later, it’s difficult for her body to physically adapt to dance. Megan Richardson, certified athletic trainer at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries in New York, says a crucial time in dancers’ training is between ages 7 and 12, when muscle and joint tissue is pliable enough to be stretched and shaped. It becomes more difficult for a student who begins dancing past that age to change their physique. “When you’re working with kids who are young and growing, you can mold their bodies and get the most out of their anatomy,” she says. “Some late-starters have a gorgeous line if they’re naturally inclined, but others will have to work extra hard to achieve the aesthetic.”
Assigning a class level to a late-starter may depend on their previous experience, since many become interested in dance through similar physical activities, like gymnastics. Regardless, students should be in a level appropriate for their ability, not their age. This may mean grouping a teenager with 10- and 11-year-olds, which was the case when a 13-year-old recently enrolled at The School of Pennsylvania Ballet. Principal teacher Arantxa Ochoa asked the student to take classes with two different levels so she receives basic training but still feels challenged among dancers who aren’t significantly younger than her. In the more advanced class, Ochoa alters the combinations to suit her level. For example, instead of a diagonal of piqué turns, she’ll suggest a series of simple piqué passés from the corner. “I simplify things for her,” she says. “We want to challenge her without letting her develop bad habits.”
When teaching late-starters, Eastern Connecticut Ballet artistic director Gloria Govrin works very hands-on to help them form the muscle memory of correct shapes and coordination, concentrating on their alignment, legs and feet. During class, she’s constantly kneeling on the floor, shaping dancers’ feet with her hands and poking them in the stomach as a reminder to pull up. “You have to stay on top of them,” she says. “They’ll shake their head ‘yes,’ but physically they can’t feel it. You have to go over and do it for them so their bodies can respond.” Once they understand a shape or concept, it may help to repeat the step with their eyes closed, so they can begin to sense what that position feels like without the mirror.
Play to Their Strengths
It’s easy for late-starters to feel embarrassed, so taking a positive approach and offering encouragement will help them excel. “You don’t want to deflate them and make them feel like a failure before they even get started,” says Texas Ballet Theater School Ft. Worth principal Kathryn Warakomsky, a former Houston Ballet principal who began dancing at 14. A beginner may not actually know what their strengths are, so if their musicality is beautifully phrased, they’re a gifted turner or they have a commanding stage presence, let them know. “Technique is important, but it’s not the end all to making a good dancer,” says Warakomsky, “especially if they have other qualities that shine through.”
Govrin adds that these new students are often some of the most driven, committed and focused. Sure they’re behind, but they will progress much faster than a young child. “Intellectually, they can process corrections better, and they’re more focused,” says Govrin. “With somebody a little older, you can get them to understand that they have to crawl before they can walk.”
Savella agrees that the pressure she had put on herself to catch up lessened when she finally acknowledged that it wouldn’t happen overnight. “Understanding the basics of technique doesn’t take a day or even a year,” she says. “And I feel like that’s something I’m still learning, even today.” DT
Julie Diana is a principal dancer with the Pennsylvania Ballet. She has a BA in English from the University of Pennsylvania.
Photos from top: by Matthew Murphy; by Vanessa Murgio, courtesy of Eastern Connecticut Ballet