Teachers & Role Models
Shana Habel (back left, in gray) leads a professional-development workshop for secondary dance teachers at Lula Washington Dance Theatre. Photo by Mesiya McGinnis, courtesy of Habel

"It's amazing that we're still here," says Shana Habel, arts advocate and dance advisor for the Los Angeles Unified School District. "The arts education branch of LAUSD has a lot of support for what we're doing, but that support can't always translate into funding, because the money's just not there. I tell teachers that the best advocacy we can do is to teach well."

In a city better known for Hollywood films than concert dance, the struggle to find funding for dance education probably doesn't come as a surprise. In spite of this, dance thrives in L.A. public schools, due in large part to Habel, the district's fervent champion for dance. As dance advisor for the second-largest school district in the country, Habel supports teachers in providing high-quality dance education and has advocated for the role of dance in a comprehensive K–12 program since her appointment in 2006. "I feel that I have this great opportunity to carry on the tradition in dance education that honors the philosophy that dance is for everyone," she says. Because of Habel's curriculum and professional-development initiatives and her unwavering support for the teachers she oversees, LAUSD stands out as a model for K–12 dance education nationwide.

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popular
Photo by Naserin Bogado, courtesy of The Dance Studio of Fresno

When she was 20, Sue Sampson-Dalena rented a single room in a strip mall on the deserted north side of Fresno, California, with a simple dream. "I wanted to create a dance school where all disciplines were taught at a high level," she says. "In those days, you were either a ballet school or a tap-and-jazz school. So many people told me it couldn't be done that I decided I was going to try."

Thirty-five years later, The Dance Studio of Fresno has a faculty of 25 and a beautiful seven-studio facility. "I never envisioned I'd have this when I was 20 years old," she says of her 13,000-square-foot space. "But I did know even then that I loved education and all forms of dance and that I wanted to do this for the rest of my life." In 2015, Sampson-Dalena earned a rare honor. Her school was named Studio of the Year at The Dance Awards (produced by Break the Floor, NUVO and 24 Seven Dance conventions) and a top school by Youth America Grand Prix—a well-deserved validation that she'd indeed achieved her early goal.

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Teachers & Role Models
Debbie Lamontagne and Jane O'Donnell. Photos courtesy of Lamontagne and O'Donnell

Every studio has a story. And when two or more are gathered in a 15-mile radius, behind-the-scenes drama and regional rivalries often figure prominently in their histories. In a small town in northeastern Massachusetts, however, the story is quite different. Instead of a tale of stolen students or cutthroat competition, it's a story of love: An act of nature, unexpected kindness and devastating illness resulted in a remarkable friendship between two studio owners.

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Teachers & Role Models
Omega Dance Company, led by Martha Chapman (in pink), performs Invocation for Peace, in 2013. Photo courtesy of UMC Annual Conference

Adriene Thorne gets chills remembering a particular sacred dance performed during a recent church service. “Dancers come from the back, running down the aisle with a big white cloth that stretches the width of the sanctuary," says the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn, New York. “People are seated, and suddenly the white cloth flutters over their heads with a whoosh that sounds like the breath of the Holy Spirit." Thorne, a dancer herself, is describing a work created by Carla De Sola. “They look up to see this enormous piece of cloth that looks like the wings of the dove." She goes on to describe how the dancers dress the table and prepare it for communion. “It's simple walking, with a few other stylized movements, but it is very holy and sacred."

While different from concert dance in motivation and audience, sacred dance (as liturgical dance is now commonly called) shares many characteristics with traditional concert dance, including a profound appreciation for the art of movement.

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Your Studio

Mary Helen Bowers developed a ballet fitness program when she retired from the stage.

Musicians can learn music from a score, but dance has always been passed down from person to person. Even as technology transforms the field, with performance clips instantly available and dancers boasting huge social-media followings, the true work of dancers remains solidly rooted in the studio. Given the need for in-person feedback, it would seem that there isn't a place for online training in dance.

And yet, a small group of teachers and dancers have started to explore the possibilities, and what they've found is surprising: There is an audience for online dance training, but it's not the tech-savvy, smartphone-toting teens who frequent dance studios. Instead, this audience is older and generally far less experienced and confident—and fascinated with ballet. For the burgeoning market of adult beginning dance students, online training holds a particular appeal: classes on their timetable, at their level, in the comfort and privacy of their own homes.

Suzanne Vennard started streaming classes via YouTube in 2006.

Building Confidence

When Suzanne Vennard launched DanceClass.com, a website that streams online dance classes, she focused on adult beginners. “I realized many adults seemed to want to dance, but few were signing up for classes," she says. “Meanwhile, my dance teacher friends were bemoaning the fact that when they offered adult beginner classes, they were poorly attended." She realized many adults feared they'd make fools of themselves in a dance class, and she decided to record classes for them to try at home, where there was little risk of embarrassment. “Once they'd had that chance to 'attend' a class, it gave them sufficient confidence to sign up to their local classes," she says. “Great for the pupil and for the teacher."

Vennard started streaming her recordings online in 2006 and says the number of YouTube views alone (more than 25 million) demonstrates the market for good online dance teaching. She had anticipated that salsa would be her most popular program. “I was completely wrong," she says. “The ballet class outsells all of my other programs put together."

Finis Jhung streams video compilations on his website.

A Sizable Market

Finis Jhung has been creating instructional videos for decades, but it was the adult beginner classes he started teaching at The Ailey Extension that led him to understand the market for online ballet classes. “My adult students are so passionate about ballet," he says. “And they are becoming the biggest market of consumers. There's a whole new consciousness of exercise, nutrition and fitness, and it has everything to do with aging and the baby boomers."

In addition to selling instructional DVDs, Jhung started streaming on his website and created video compilations specifically for adult beginners. In just two years, streaming has grown to 20 percent of his business, with adult beginner classes the biggest seller.

“For a lot of adults, even the beginning classes are too advanced," he explains. “Because I've been teaching at Ailey, I can develop the classes with an awareness of what I need to give them so they can learn ballet."

And online classes have significantly extended his reach. “I can see from my sales that there are adults who want to learn to dance, but many of them don't have access to a studio," he says. “One customer from Australia lives way out in the countryside—she loves that she can stream."

Kathryn Morgan offers live-streaming classes and records them for later viewing.

Technical Tools

Kathryn Morgan also has online students from all over the globe. “It's so funny to be ready for class in New York when students log in and say, 'Greetings from Germany!'" she says. Morgan started teaching ballet online several years ago while dealing with a debilitating illness that had caused her to leave New York City Ballet, where she'd been a soloist. Stuck at home, she watched YouTube videos and was surprised how few ballet dancers had uploaded content. Morgan started posting instructional videos, teaching herself how to film, edit and post material.

When a friend mentioned she could actually be paid for teaching online, Morgan set up online group classes on the website powhow.com, a platform for live webcam classes. She experimented with both an interactive format, where she could see each student, and a live-streaming format, where they could only see her. She settled on the latter for her adult beginner classes (her most well-attended classes). “It's a completely judgment-free zone for them," she says. “I didn't want them to feel self-conscious or like they had to be perfect before even starting."

Morgan both live-streams ballet classes (there's a chat box where students can ask questions, which she answers on screen) and saves classes to the website so that students in different time zones can watch later. Earlier this year, she started offering online interactive private lessons through savvy.com. “It's basically like teaching through Skype, but they handle all the monetary transactions," she says. In addition to private ballet classes, she offers 30-minute private chat sessions (for a fee), during which students can ask her advice.

Online teaching now makes up about half of Morgan's current teaching load, and she welcomes the ability to create her own schedule each week. “It's a nice income," she says frankly. “It's not a full-blown dancer salary, but it's a decent amount of money. When I started, I thought an extra couple of hundred dollars a month would be great, but it's a lot more than that."

Ballet for Fitness

Like Morgan, Mary Helen Bowers started her career with New York City Ballet and has now turned to online teaching. While dancing, Bowers developed a workout program to keep herself at peak fitness, and when she retired from the stage, she realized that her program worked for nondancers, too. Thus was born Ballet Beautiful. One of Bowers' first clients was actor Natalie Portman, whom she trained for the ballet film Black Swan with a combination of ballet technique classes, a customized version of her Ballet Beautiful exercises and lap swimming. Because her work with Portman required a great deal of travel, she used the internet to maintain her then-fledgling business in New York City.

As Ballet Beautiful expanded and Bowers started teaching group classes online, she realized that the software she wanted to use didn't exist. With web developers, she built her own proprietary software that she can use to watch and interact with up to 10 students as she teaches a class. Her clients are typically adults who have taken some ballet as children. “We've been able to encourage a lot of people, especially adults who have returned to ballet, to pick up their ballet slippers again and have the confidence to go back to an introductory class," she says.

Although technology can at times be frustrating, with poor or delayed internet connections affecting classes, these four teachers are convinced that online training is a viable option for adult learning. “When it's working well, it's so exciting because it's connecting you with a global audience," says Bowers. All four are adamant that ambitious young students need to be in the studio with a teacher. But for adults, an online class can be just the impetus they need. “Once they have the ballet bug, they come back," says Jhung with a smile. “Streaming is the wave of the future!" DT

Based in San Francisco, Caitlin Sims is a frequent Dance Teacher contributor.

Photo courtesy of Ballet Beautiful; courtesy of DanceClass.com; Hugh Brownstone, courtesy of Finis Jhung; by Nathan Sayers for Pointe magazine

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How-To

San Francisco Ballet School dancers choose their own academic study time.

A generation ago serious ballet students often agonized between pursuing a performing career and going to college. Now they’re facing that decision even earlier. Attending online high school has become common for teenage pre-professional students who spend upward of five hours a day dancing.

“It’s where the ballet world’s headed,” says Jenifer Ringer, director of the Colburn Dance Academy in Los Angeles. Ringer initially worked hard to schedule Colburn classes so dancers could attend an abbreviated day of regular high school classes. But when she realized nearly all her students had opted for online high school, she made the choice many school directors have made—to hold pre-professional dance classes during academic school hours.

The demands of pre-professional training and the rapid proliferation of online schools and improvements in both their rigor and reputation have coalesced to make alternative schooling more appealing to a wider range of students and their parents. Dance schools large and small have responded by creating academic environments within their schools to support students’ independent study. But how does it work? And how active a role should the dance school take?

For dancers, the primary appeal of alternative academic programs is flexible timing, both in their daily schedule and over the long term. “Most of the programs are flexible enough that if you don’t do your four hours of schoolwork Monday, you can make them up later in the week,” explains Christina Rutter of San Francisco Ballet School. Online programs vary widely, ranging from free cyber charter schools to rigorous programs created by elite universities, and from programs with little to no interaction with virtual teachers to those where students Skype with teachers several times a week.

Recognizing that students have differing academic goals and financial resources, most dance schools allow dancers and their parents to choose individually among programs. San Francisco Ballet School provides students and parents with a list of programs. “Our philosophy is that flexibility is the most important aspect,” says Rutter. “The families drive the academic goals for their children, so they ensure they have the right program for their students’ needs.” Though SFBS doesn’t administer any particular online program, it does provide support in the form of free Wi-Fi and a library. Students choose their own study time.

The Rock School schedules formal academic study periods.

Other schools formalize the academic schedule, setting times for students to be in the school’s classroom, with school administrators and occasionally tutors on hand to help. The Nutmeg Ballet Conservatory, for instance, schedules academics in the morning and dance in the afternoon. At The Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia, students switch back and forth between academics and dance. Nutmeg also provides a large community room that offers offshoot rooms for small-group work and quiet spaces to record foreign-language practice.

Among dance schools that have elected to administer one primary online program for students, the Keystone School is popular. It’s run by the publicly traded, for-profit company K12 Inc.—the nation’s largest online education company. “There are two main things Keystone brings to the table,” says Robert Hodges, academics and student affairs director at The Rock School, which has been using Keystone since 2001, in addition to Commonwealth Connections Academy, a public cyber charter school for the state of Pennsylvania. Among the many considerations involved with selecting these programs (accreditation, tuition/fees, graduation requirements, teacher availability, range of support services, courses/electives offered, religious affiliation), Hodges considered what size course load would be optimal for dancers.

“At Keystone there are no deadlines per se, except students have 12 months to finish,” Hodges says. “And there’s a good balance between academic rigor and accessibility. The amount of work fits with the time dancers have.” Students have the option to register individually for Keystone, or the dance school can create an academic program that includes a certain number of Keystone classes.

While many schools rely almost entirely on online curricula, others such as the Joffrey Ballet School blend online programs with in-house teachers to mitigate some of the primary challenges of online schooling. 

“Definitely the hardest thing is to get the kids to take ownership of their education,” says Hodges. “To be very honest, it doesn’t work for everybody. While it can be a much more efficient way of getting a high school education, the lack of deadlines can be difficult for some students.” A recent study by Stanford University found that online charter school students working from home learn less on average than students in traditional schools, in large part because of lack of support. “That’s why we have tutoring and weekly updates, so students don’t fall through the cracks,” says Hodges. “And I, too, act as tutor, teacher, principal, guidance counselor and cheerleader.”

Beyond setting up classes and registering, Nutmeg’s academic program director Donna Mattiello helps students negotiate the realities of online schooling. “Especially coming from a brick-and-mortar school, it can be hard to understand that there’s a teacher out there looking at their work and caring about what they do,” she says. “Kids need help developing a relationship with their teacher.”

Online schooling also requires “a huge amount of discipline and self-motivation,” says Rutter. These are qualities pre-professional ballet dancers usually possess in abundance. But they are teenagers, often more excited about pas de deux class than trigonometry. “It’s difficult for anybody, let alone teenagers, to focus for four or five hours on academics,” says Mattiello. “A lot of my job is making sure they stay focused—not sneaking text messages—and take breaks.”

This emphasis on academic focus is essential, because, realistically, not all students will become professional dancers. For some, the path may lead to a college dance program. “I tell them they’re doing a college prep course whether they like it or not,” says Hodges. “We want them to be set up to be successful wherever they end up.” And there is evidence that online schooling can breed academic excellence: In recent years SFBS students have gone on to Stanford and Princeton.

In fact, the independent thinking cultivated in online school can provide a lifelong lesson. “Every negative of online schooling has a flip side that’s positive,” says Hodges. “One of our greatest joys is when a freshman who is struggling finds that moment when it clicks and then realizes she can take ownership of her learning. That idea alone can translate into a profitable dance career, and it’s something that they might not learn in a traditional high school.” DT

Caitlin Sims, a dance parent based in San Francisco, is a frequent contributor to Dance Teacher.

Photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy San Francisco Ballet School; Cat Park, courtesy The Rock School for Dance Education

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How-To

Joining the family business is a timeless, storied rite of passage, from the ancient pharaohs to Caesar and Augustus, to the modern-day Kennedys and Gettys. For the children of dance teachers, there’s a well-worn path from studio to stage, with a notable few, like Marie Taglioni, Kyra Nichols and Patrick Swayze, becoming legendary performers. And yet, there’s another, less publicized path, perhaps less glamorous, but tailor-made for those whose love of creativity and the daily practice of the artform outweighs the lure of the spotlight. DT spoke to four dance teachers who followed in their mothers’ footsteps—about why they chose teaching, the challenges, joys and inspiration in their careers, and whether family gatherings truly do become all about dance.

A Childhood in the Studio

“I grew up as a studio kid,” says Jaci Royal, now an L.A.-based teacher/choreographer, whose mother Carole Royal directs Royal Dance Works in Phoenix. “I ended up loving it, but sometimes it got overwhelming, and I didn’t want to be there all the time. It can consume everything when your mom is running the studio.”

The studio mother/daughter dynamic can be intense in other ways, as well. Jamie Wallace, who, with her mother Cheryl Dupuis, owns Extreme Dance Arts in Saginaw, Michigan, has experienced the same power struggles with her own daughter as she did with her mother when Wallace was the dance student. “Sometimes my daughter will be a bit too teenage-girl with me,” Wallace says, with a laugh. “I tell her the same thing that my mom told me: ‘When you’re in this classroom, you’re either my daughter or you’re my student. If you want to be my daughter, I won’t correct you. If you want to be my student, I will.’”

With Mother as Role Model

Although Sophie Alpern, now a ballet teacher in New York City, grew up studying ballet seriously, she didn’t start taking class regularly with her mother, renowned ballet teacher Nancy Bielski (DT, January 2015), until after graduating from Vassar College. Despite her mother’s immense success, Alpern hadn’t considered teaching until an opportunity arose in college. “Growing up, I thought it was so cool that my mom was a ballet teacher, but it wasn’t something I envisioned for myself,” she says. “But it makes sense that’s what I fell into, because what I like most is the daily ritual of class.”

Jaci Royal had the opposite experience, realizing at a young age, while watching her mom, that she wanted to teach. “I must have been 10 when I started looking at teachers and thinking, ‘That’s what I want to do someday.’ I thought it was this beautiful, amazing thing that my mom could bring dancers together and guide and lead them. It was changing these young dancers’ lives, and I admired that.”

This kind of influence isn’t always the case. Asked if her mother’s example inspired her to become a teacher, Breeonna Fiamengo’s answer is a resounding “No!” She explains that she fully changed her focus from performance to teaching and choreography at age 21. “I realized I could create, rather than do other people’s creations,” she says. “Instead of doing movement that other people thought up, I could think of whatever I wanted, put it on a dancer and make it come to life. That was more fun and rewarding than dancing.” Fiamengo and her mother, dance teacher Dyan Lopez-Fiamengo, opened Elite Dance Studio in Rolling Hills Estates, California, when Fiamengo was 19.

Sophie Alpern teaches at the American Ballet Theatre JKO School.

Finding a Distinct Path

Regardless of how successful they are, few young women relish being told they are becoming their mother. The second- and third-generation dance teachers we spoke with have worked hard to create their own separate identities. Wallace and Fiamengo assert that they are much stricter than their mothers, each referring to her mother as “the fun teacher.”

For Alpern, the challenge is stepping out of her mother’s considerable shadow. “Sometimes I get worried; I hope that I get the jobs because of who I am as a teacher and not because my name is associated with her,” she says. “But I’m establishing myself through my master’s degree [in ballet pedagogy through NYU and ABT] and my years teaching, so I can make my own name.”

Despite a desire for independence, all four teachers agree that their mothers have influenced their teaching in a positive way. “The cool thing is that I learned so much from her without realizing it,” says Royal. “I’ll teach something, and I’ll realize, ‘Oh, that was totally from my mom’s teaching.’” Alpern takes her mother’s morning class every day, observing and learning as she dances. “Even if there are 70 people in her class, she has a way of having control and being authoritative, but still teaching with a sense of warmth and compassion,” she says.

As for leaving work at the studio, most agree that it happens—occasionally. “We talk about ballet a lot,” says Alpern. “I go to her for advice or to figure out how to teach a certain step. The ballet world is so small, and to have someone so close to me understand it is very nice and helpful.” Family holidays generally are a different story; in deference to dads and nondancing siblings, most at least try not to talk shop. Yet for Wallace, family gatherings are also a gathering of dancers: In addition to her mother and grandmother, five of her own six kids study dance, and she has three sisters, all of whom danced and have children who dance.

As those in the younger generation find their way as teachers, their passion for dance can come full circle to influence their own teachers. “She has changed me, too,” says Fiamengo’s mother Dyan. “She makes me want to be less complacent as I get older. And if I’m going to choreograph…” she pauses, thoughtfully, “maybe I can go to the next level and have some wow factor in my old age, too.” DT

Caitlin Sims is a former Dance Teacher editor, now based in San Francisco.

Stacey Tookey

When Your Student Is Your Daughter

Teaching teens has its own set of challenges, but teaching your own teenaged kid? Emmy-nominated choreographer Stacey Tookey grew up in her mother’s dance studio, Shelley’s Dance Company, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. At the Dance Teacher Summit last summer, she told a story of clashing with her mother in a ballet class when she was a teen, and why it ended up being great instead of disastrous. —CS

“My mom is a genius, and she is a phenomenal teacher. But I was 13, and we all know how it is when you’re 13. She would say something, and I would be like, ‘I’m not doing that,’ or I would make little comments. Finally one day in class, she was making us go across the floor, and she said, ‘Hey dancers, shirts off,’ so she could see our leotards and our lines underneath. I wasn’t feeling it, so I said, ‘I’m not doing that today.’ I was leading the pack across the floor doing my tendus with my baggy T-shirt on. Well, my mom came up to me and said, ‘Stacey, take off your shirt.’ I was like, ‘No.’ Then she proceeded to take the shirt from the back of my neck and tear it off my body. It tore down both the sides, and what did I do? Like a bratty 13-year-old, instead of taking it off, I tucked in the sides of it and kept dancing.

“My mom went like this, pointing: ‘Out.’ She came into the office and said, ‘That’s it. You’re going to ballet school. I’m kicking you out of my studio.’ And I said, ‘You’re not going to do that. That looks terrible; your own daughter doesn’t dance at your dance studio?’ She said, ‘Watch me,’ and she picked up the phone: ‘School of ballet, I’d like to register my daughter.’

“No joke, I went to ballet school. She drove me every single day. I was not allowed to take tap, jazz, nothing else. I did ballet for an entire year. And that was my ‘punishment.’ I ended up loving it, and to be honest, my mom’s studio didn’t have a strong ballet program at the time. She was more of a tap and jazz studio, so going to ballet school was the best thing that happened for me and for her studio.”

Photos (from top) by Thinkstock; by Susie Morgan Taylor, courtesy of the JKO School; by Joe Toreno

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Featured Articles

Galina Alexandrova delivers a rare take on classical ballet training in the Bay Area.

“You get to know [the students] and their needs, and you just keep moving them forward,” says
Alexandrova.

Twenty-six years after she left Moscow, City Ballet School director Galina Alexandrova still gets a dreamy lilt in her voice when remembering the Bolshoi Theatre. “In my career, I don’t think there was anything better than that,” she says quietly. “Being in that environment with those incredible artists and such history, it was wonderful.” After a successful performing career in Moscow and the Bay Area, Alexandrova has developed a San Francisco ballet school whose rigorous, exclusively Vaganova training draws heavily from her Russian roots. She’s an anomaly as well as a success story: In a city that races maniacally toward the new and splashy, Alexandrova has achieved notable success by quietly teaching students the lessons of her Russian past.

The daughter of two professional dancers, Alexandrova started at the prestigious Bolshoi Ballet Academy (formally known as the Moscow State Academy of Choreography) at age 9, and upon graduating joined the Bolshoi Ballet. In the next seven years she progressed steadily from corps de ballet parts to demi-soloist roles. Her life took an abrupt turn when on a 1987 tour to San Francisco she met stagehand Ken Patsel at a cast party.

Alexandrova left the Bolshoi and moved to the Bay Area to marry Patsel. “Basically I fell in love, so I didn’t think too much,” she says with a laugh. “If it hadn’t been for my husband, I wouldn’t ever have left that theater.” She joined San Francisco Ballet as a corps de ballet member in 1989 and took on soloist and principal roles. “She was beautifully trained and so different from most of the company,” says former dancer Kristin Long. “It was great to see a dancer straight from Russia: such an amazing understanding of musicality and port de bras.”

Alexandrova left San Francisco Ballet when pregnant with her second child, continuing to dance with local companies. When her daughter Katia turned 6, Alexandrova enrolled her at City Ballet School. And when CBS owner Damara Bennett moved to Oregon Ballet Theatre, Alexandrova decided to purchase the school, partly so that her daughter could continue training. Although she had no teaching experience, she could rely on her mother Svetlana Afanasieva, a graduate of the Bolshoi Ballet Academy’s teacher training course who had followed Alexandrova to San Francisco and had become one of the Bay Area’s most respected ballet teachers.

Joffrey Ballet’s Jeraldine Mendoza was mentored by Alexandrova.

Starting slowly, Alexandrova taught classes with her mother’s guidance. But the following year, her mother died suddenly and Alexandrova had to teach everything without a mentor. “It was tough,” she says. “After you’ve danced for 20 years, it’s difficult to remember how you started. So I needed to study. I read lots of books and, thank God, YouTube came. I watched ballet classes and interviews with teachers. It was an incredible source of information.” This desire to learn and grow as a teacher has continued, even as her reputation has become established. “She is constantly working to improve her skills,’ says Nikolai Kabaniaev, a former Kirov (now Mariinsky) Ballet dancer who runs the school’s boys’ program. “To teach the next generation, you constantly have to learn, yourself, and Galina is not afraid to ask questions.”

In designing the CBS program, Alexandrova draws upon elements of her training at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy. “Sometimes I watch Galina’s class, and it’s like being in Russia,” says Kabaniaev. “It’s honest, true training, with no shortcuts. I’ve never seen anything like this in this country.”

Nikolai Kabaniaev directs the men’s program.

At the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, the most promising children are selected at a young age from a huge pool of applicants and spend nearly a decade immersed in ballet training. This type of program doesn’t exist in the U.S., but Alexandrova echoes the dedication to each student. “I choose selectively. I want to raise them, to invest in them,” she says. The business side of the school is managed by Patsel (“By this point, he probably knows more about ballet than I do!” she jokes.) so Alexandrova can focus entirely on students’ dancing.

Bolshoi Ballet Academy teachers stay with students for several years, a structure that emphasizes knowing each dancer over specializing in a specific age or level. Alexandrova maintains this at CBS; she has taught her current crop of 13-year-olds since they were 9. “You get to know them and their needs and you just keep moving them forward,” she says. “It’s more interesting because you can see the results.” Classes are intentionally kept small enough that each student gets attention.

Perhaps most significantly, Alexandrova’s curriculum is based on the Vaganova method, known for its detailed, logical pedagogy and emphasis on integrating both upper and lower body. “All the teachers in the school are invested in teaching the Vaganova method, so the students are given a clear progression through the school,” says Long, who started teaching at the school after retiring from San Francisco Ballet. “The Vaganova training is such a strong foundation for a dancer.”

City Ballet School pre-professional students in their spring showcase

This same foundation has enabled some success stories, notably Jeraldine Mendoza, currently with Joffrey Ballet of Chicago. The school has grown under Alexandrova’s directorship, in part because of a move to a bigger space shortly after she took over, which allowed more classes and levels. Alexandrova hopes to expand even further soon and would like to create a junior company to dance more full-length works. “This is a unique place,” says Kabaniaev, “a jewel in San Francisco. I tell parents, ‘If you want true Vaganova training, you can either send your kids to City Ballet School, or you can go to Russia.’” DT

Caitlin Sims is a former Dance Teacher editor, now based in San Francisco.

Photos (from top) by Drew Kelly; by Cheryl Mann, courtesy of Joffrey Ballet; ARRO Shotz Photography (2), courtesy of City Ballet School

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