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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
Galina Alexandrova delivers a rare take on classical ballet training in the Bay Area.
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.
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.”
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.”
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
Dana Foglia models her work ethic in a three-month mentorship program for aspiring professionals.
She has shimmied in stilettos with Rihanna, choreographed for J. Lo, danced with Janet Jackson and toured the world with Beyoncé. Yet as someone who has shared arena stages with dazzling pop divas, Dana Foglia is an anomaly. Within this seductive environment of instant fame and worldwide recognition, Foglia emphasizes the discipline, persistence and patience that underlie artistry. Sought after as a teacher and choreographer, the free-spirited former bunhead prefers the intimacy of a small theater and the everyday work of refining steps in a dance studio to the rush of performing in an elaborate spectacle to a sea of adoring fans.
“My favorite place to be is in the studio with people who are striving to be their best,” she says, “with no reward at the end other than the work and the art.”
The road to Beyoncé began with a street jazz class taught by Rhapsody James.
As a child, Foglia studied in a Long Island, New York, competition studio for a few years but soon found her true home in intensive ballet training with Valia Seiskaya. After high school Foglia was part of The Ailey School’s fellowship program, which expanded her ballet repertory to include African, jazz, tap, Graham and Horton. But when she stepped into Rhapsody James’ street jazz class at Broadway Dance Center, she entered an entirely new dance realm.
“I was just out of Ailey and still in a bun and a leotard, and I had split-sole jazz sneakers I thought were super-cool,” Foglia says with a laugh. “The first time I took Rhapsody’s class, I fell in love with the movement. I was so excited to be dancing to a popular song. It was a totally different atmosphere and her energy was contagious. I could pick up the choreography, but my style was completely wrong. But she noticed and took a liking to me, and we became friends.” James brought Foglia to L.A. for the first time, thus parting the curtains to the commercial scene.
Hooked, Foglia started auditioning in L.A. and landed a tour with Rihanna. “It was my first experience dancing on a tour and my first experience dancing in heels,” she says. After that, Foglia toured with Janet Jackson and then booked the ultimate commercial dance gig—The Beyoncé Experience worldwide tour. For a year and a half, she toured the world with Queen Bey, dancing 96 shows on 5 continents as part of a group of 10 dancers.
Dancing in a pop extravaganza to sold-out crowds was an extraordinary experience, but as the tour wound down, Foglia sought a new challenge. “I wasn’t feeling like I was using all my training, moving my body the way I had worked so hard to learn how to do,” she says. She walked away from a successful performing career and returned home to New York City, where she started teaching street jazz, contemporary and “heels” (dancing in stilettos) at Broadway Dance Center.
Teaching became the antidote for touring burnout.
It was a surprise to discover that she loved to choreograph. “I got so stressed out at first,” she says. “I hated to choreograph combinations for class. I felt I was piecing people’s moves together; it didn’t feel authentic. I didn’t know who I was yet as a creator.” Experimenting with different music helped her find her own voice. “I had been teaching to R&B, pop songs. Then I started to use electronic-based music and I fell in love with it,” she says. “I felt like I could move because of that music.”
Her first students became (and remain) dancers in the company she founded in 2010, Dana Foglia Dance. She draws upon a pool of 18 dancers. If Foglia started as a reluctant choreographer, the experience of creating and producing her first show made her a convert.
“It was so exciting to see it come to life,” she says of Vatic, which premiered in 2012 at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center in New York City. “I always will be a mover, but now my whole heart is on the other side creatively.” A futuristic dance show in which audience members wear wireless headsets to hear the music, Vatic has been performed in New York, L.A. and, this fall, in London. Foglia’s new company quickly earned accolades, including at the 2012 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, designed to recognize and spotlight up-and-coming choreographers.
Foglia’s alluring and athletic style draws from ballet, modern, contemporary, African and commercial hip hop. “It’s definitely a fusion,” says Jose “Boy Boi” Tena, who has danced with the company for five years (and is currently touring with Ariana Grande).
“It’s groovy, there’s a lot of funk and it’s rhythmic. But there’s also a lot of breath in it, and it’s pretty to watch. She has a style that’s getting better as it evolves, a signature that’s continually refined.”
Her career came full circle when Beyoncé hired her to choreograph for two world tours, the “Haunted” music video, and several award-show appearances. “For her to see me on a different level, and for me, too, to see her on a different level, that’s been super-super-cool for me,” says Foglia, noting that their dynamic has changed over the years.
“We’re both older and evolved as artists. She loves something that is outside of the box. I think that’s where I come in.” The challenge for Foglia is not being able to use her full creative voice on the artistic project. “It’s definitely different from me creating with my company, where there’s nobody telling me, “‘You have to structure it like this,’ or ‘I wanted something like this,’” she says. “When I work for Beyoncé, it’s her thing, not my thing. But I still feel lucky to be a part of that creative side.”
“To see growth, that’s what fulfills me.”
A familiar restlessness led to the next turning point in Foglia’s career. In 2013, she moved back to L.A. Though New York is home, she says, “L.A. has been way more accepting of the work that I do.” After touring with the convention NUVO and teaching on both coasts, she began to crave a deeper experience with students. “After teaching open class after open class, it started to feel less fulfilling,” she says. “I felt I had more to share than I could in an hour and a half.”
She found what she was looking for with The Mentorship Program, a three-month intensive she created for groups of dancers to study with Foglia and her company members. Four days a week, for four hours a day, participants take a range of classes including ballet and yoga, do mock auditions with agencies and learn the DFD company rep.
To get the word out, Foglia posted audition requirements on her YouTube channel and promoted it on her Facebook page (where she has more than 43,000 “likes”). Applications soon poured in from around the world. The application required a video of the dancer explaining why they want to attend. Personality is just as important as technical ability. “I try to heavily base my decisions off their energy in the video: what they have to say and whether it feels real and honest to me,” she says.
The first session took place last year in L.A. with 25 dancers (she limits the numbers to keep the experience focused and personal). With a common goal—to make a living dancing—the participants shared a similar mind-set and maturity, but they came from different training backgrounds and were at different levels technically.
“Dana’s style of movement requires a lot from you,” says Christin Olesen, who traveled from Copenhagen for the program. “You have to have a lot of discipline and so much persistence. And you have to be mature to handle her teaching. She’s not about quick fixes. She gives dancers her best tools, but she doesn’t have a magic wand. It’s up to us if we want to be better dancers.” Foglia has now completed three mentorship programs in L.A., as well as a streamlined version in London. The program’s emphasis on constant, continual work parallels Foglia’s personal work ethic and prescription for success. “You have to work hard to get what you want,” she says. “If you’re a good person and a hard worker, eventually with patience, things will happen for you.” DT
Caitlin Sims is a former Dance Teacher editor, now based in San Francisco.
From top: photos by Joe Toreno; by Matthew Murphy (2); photo by Juliana Ucer, courtesy of Foglia; by Joe Toreno
Jenifer Ringer’s fresh start on the West Coast
When Jenifer Ringer retired from New York City Ballet in 2014, to New York audiences it felt like the departure of an old friend. She had brilliant technique and a raven-haired beauty, but it was the warm radiance and joy that infused her dancing that made ballet-goers feel she’d be as kind and generous, witty and smart offstage as on. Ringer spent more than two decades in the public eye, and her path to principal dancer was not without detours—struggles with weight and self-esteem caused her to lose her NYCB soloist contract for a year—but even those challenges seemed to make her a more interesting, thoughtful performer.
In 2010, The New York Times critic Alastair Macaulay said she looked like she’d eaten “one sugarplum too many” in a Nutcracker review, and the outrage on her behalf was immediate and very vocal. Ever gracious, Ringer appeared on “Today” and “Oprah” to defend herself, by then secure enough not to be rattled by “one person’s opinion.” Ringer, who now had fans nationwide, wrote an honest, revealing memoir called Dancing Through It: My Journey in the Ballet, which chronicled the vicissitudes of her life and career. And now she has created an unexpected post-retirement life on the West Coast, where she is part of the new genesis of dance that is currently underway in Los Angeles.
She was planning her retirement when a call came from Benjamin Millepied, a former NYCB colleague who had started L.A. Dance Project (and would later take over Paris Opéra Ballet). Millepied was working with the Colburn School in downtown Los Angeles to develop a pre-professional ballet program. “When Benjamin called me, initially I thought he was crazy, because I couldn’t imagine living in Los Angeles,” says Ringer, a longtime New Yorker with South Carolina roots. Yet after she and her husband, dancer James Fayette, visited the school, primarily known for its world-class music training, and met with president Sel Kardan, they were intrigued.
Kardan gave them carte blanche in designing a brand-new program: “Sel said he’d rather see our dream program and have to be realistic and cut back, than start small,” says Ringer. The opportunity was both a fresh start and a fascinating proposition—to create a ballet program relatively free of financial concerns, thanks to a sizable endowment, and the facilities of a respected institution in a city without any tradition of high-profile pre-professional training.
Charged with creating a new model of ballet training, Ringer and Fayette considered what they could have benefited from as students, consulted with choreographer friends as to what they were looking for in dancers and drew inspiration from Millepied’s own training in Lyon, France. The Colburn Dance Academy, which opened last fall, is remarkable for its intimate size (currently 12 dancers), its focus exclusively on advanced students and a forward-thinking curriculum designed to create well-rounded, confident dancers who also have impeccable technique. It is also uniquely reflective of Ringer as a performing artist—focused, individual, artistic, thoughtful and both open-minded and classical.
The Dance Academy
Ringer and Fayette structured the Colburn Dance Academy as a rigorous ballet program. Students start with two ballet classes a day: technique, followed by variations, repertory, pointe or a men’s class. Unique in the curriculum is the third class of the day, which rotates among different genres of dance (contemporary, modern, street dance, “untapped” tap without tap shoes), music, drama, strength training, ballet history, nutrition and docent-guided visits to the adjacent Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. “One thing that James and I came away from our own professional experience with is that ballet dancers today are often exclusively focused on ballet, and we didn’t want that,” says Ringer. “In order to be rich artists and to contribute to the dance world, you need more than just ballet. We wanted a program where we could open up the students to many artistic genres.”
Twelve students, ages 14 to 19, were selected for the inaugural class, from California and around the country. The academy could expand to 15, but Ringer prefers to keep it small. She fosters a warm, collegial environment in which dancers are encouraged to have a voice, something she struggled with as a young dancer. “Dancers are taught to be silent,” she says. “They come into the studio silently, look in the mirror and are told by the teacher what’s wrong. It can be debilitating. We try to have open communication, and we’re able to do that because we have so few students. Even as professionals, many dancers don’t feel they can approach their directors to have a conversation as two adults. That needs to change.”
The value in this approach was reinforced by choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, who participated in a Skype chat with students after they had studied his work. Wheeldon told the students he could find plenty of technicians who can do 32 perfect fouettés, but finds it harder to find dancers with something interesting to contribute. Ringer, whose nuanced performances embodied Wheeldon’s ideal, agrees. “Choreographers today are looking for individuals, for people who let their spirit come out in dance,” she says.
Transitioning to Educator
Ringer led the ballet program at New York State Summer School of the Arts from 2008 to 2013, a formative experience in her career transition. “Before NYSSSA, I wasn’t sure I wanted to teach after I stopped dancing,” she says. “But learning the personalities of the individual students and getting involved in their training for just those four short weeks was so rewarding. I cared so much for these students. It underlined for me that I was ready to be more outwardly focused in the world of dance, rather than as self-focused as a ballerina often has to be. Now at the Dance Academy, I get to have the students year-round and we can be so patient with the details as we polish them up. It has been a great experience so far.”
Colburn Dance Academy student Anna Barnes, 17, was starstruck the first time she was in the studio with Ringer, but says Ringer was so kind that it quickly abated. “She always has a smile on her face,” says Barnes. “I love taking her class. She’ll come up with these insanely hard yet great combinations that make us work but are still fun. When she demonstrates, you can see exactly what you need to do. I learn so much from her.”
“I see myself in them—how hard they work and their dreams,” says Ringer. “The perfectionism that creeps in with ballet can be so difficult. We’ve been trying to manage that, to get them to strive for excellence, but realize that not only is it not going to be perfect, but that real artistry comes when it’s not perfect.”
Ringer and Fayette are still fine-tuning. Originally they had coordinated early-release programs with two local high schools so dancers could be at Colburn for a 12:30 pm start (studios are shared with Colburn’s Trudl Zipper Dance Institute, which starts at 4 pm). But since most of the students now do their academic coursework through online high schools, Colburn’s fall classes will begin at 10 am, making online school a necessity. “That, I’m not thrilled about,” Ringer says. “James and I both value academics highly. It took us a long time, but we both have college degrees. Unfortunately, it’s how the ballet world is going right now. You have to do this intensive training in your teenage years because of how early companies want to take dancers.”
Loving Los Angeles
Moving from a dance capital to a city formerly known as a dance wasteland, from polar vortex to beach days in January, and from subway to car culture has been an adjustment, but Ringer and Fayette are embracing Los Angeles, having bought a home and their first car. “As long as our family is together, happy and settled, I can go and do my job well,” says Ringer, who has two young children. Getting around town can still be a challenge, however. “The freeways terrify me,” she says. “I’ve lived here a year and have yet to drive on a freeway. I take back roads. If something’s far away, I tell people I’ll be an hour and a half, turn on my radio and sing and drive slowly.”
Ringer and Fayette arrived in Los Angeles at what seems a pivotal time for dance. “L.A. is on the edge; dance is starting to bubble up and blossom,” says Ringer. “There’s a great deal of interest and support. It feels like there’s a turning point in Los Angeles for dance in general and ballet in particular.” Fayette, who also works as the managing director of L.A. Dance Project, has found a refreshing enthusiasm for collaboration and experimentation. “Right now, I think experimentation happens more easily out here in Los Angeles,” he says. “We couldn’t pull off L.A. Dance Project or the Colburn School in New York City—it’s more rigid and people would be insisting on following the old models. But out here people are like, ‘Let’s give it a try; that sounds exciting.’”
As Los Angeles becomes a dance destination, Colburn students have benefited when dance luminaries (and friends of Ringer and Fayette) stop in to guest-teach (a recent roster included past and current NYCB dancers Wendy Whelan, Jared Angle, Justin Peck, Jonathan Stafford and Ailey’s Hope Boykin). Bringing in successful artists is another way that Ringer encourages her students to master technique, then think beyond it. “We’re trying to empower them as dancers, but also as people,” she says. “We want to give them the tools to be successful wherever they go.” DT
A SoCal native, Caitlin Sims is a freelance writer in California’s other great dance hub, San Francisco.
Photo (top) by Rose Eichenbaum; photos (3) by Paul Kolnik, courtesy of New York City Ballet
When hypertalented ballet competitors achieve acclaim at a very young age, what is left for them to master? A great deal, according to their coaches.
Aran Bell bounces into the 2011 documentary First Position on a pogo stick, then shows off his BB gun. When the film cuts to Bell, then 11, doing à la seconde turns in ballet class, the illusion of ordinary childhood is shattered. Teacher Denys Ganio cajoles, bellows, swats and almost lifts Aran by the ears to a higher relevé, matching the hypertalented young boy’s commitment with his own focus. As the film tracks the progress of six young ballet superstars, a common thread throughout their stories is their teachers’ dedication. One message is clear—nurturing a ballet prodigy requires much more than teaching technique.
While achieving life goals so early sounds ideal, the reality is that launching a professional career while still a teen can be challenging. Being one of many dancers in a large professional company or school is vastly different from the personal attention and accolades many prodigies are used to, and progress through the ranks is often slower. For teachers, working with students who have mastered the moves but are still very young is a delicate balancing act.
For many successful young competitors, when the trophies are shelved and tutus packed away, getting back to the daily grind is a letdown. “Sometimes it’s difficult for teachers to get them back to class,” says Youth America Grand Prix director Larissa Saveliev, “because emotionally it’s hard for them to understand why you have to go back to tendu after dancing Don Q onstage.”
What Saveliev notices is missing in some young superstars—a solid technical base—can seem irrelevant to someone with shiny new medals, proud parents and a burgeoning Twitter following. Evelyn Hart, former Canadian ballerina who now acts as a coach and mentor, stresses to students that it’s the constant work that makes the star. “You’re only as good as your last performance,” she says. “To become an established dancer, it’s day in, day out work, until you build up the knowledge of what to bring to the stage.”
Tempering Social-Media Celebrity
The instant fame that comes to competition winners can be a heady distraction. While there have always been baby ballerinas, they’ve never been as widely celebrated as in the years since social media exploded. “Daichi Ikarashi may be the most talented boy we’ve seen in our 15-year history,” says Saveliev. “After he won in Japan, he got thousands of YouTube views. He’s only 12.” And there can be a dark side to celebrity for the very young, says Hart. “Suddenly they feel they have to be perfect. When you have that kind of pressure, the learning stops. Young dancers need a safe space to experiment. Even though they’ve accomplished so much, there’s still much more to learn.”
Once dancers have achieved a certain level of success and recognition, the pressure to maintain it can be intense. The challenge for teachers is to remind them that they are still kids, says Stephanie Wolf Spassoff, co-director of The Rock School for Dance Education. “You have to protect them, sometimes from themselves. Sometimes they’ll take on too much. Then they’re not dancing because they love it, but because they’ve gotten themselves onto a merry-go-round they don’t know how to slow down.” Spassoff has worked with students to free up their schedule, reminding them they don’t have to take on every performance opportunity or attend every competition.
It’s All About the Individual
Ironically, early success can even lead to early plateaus. Westlake School for the Performing Arts’ Viktor Kabaniaev, who says he’s seen dancers (and parents) whose heads have swelled after competition victories, suggests that natural talents can end up with less training. “When you look at professional dancers, some are very talented, others are less naturally talented but are knowledgable, skilled and have great training. They are dancing in the same companies and in some cases, the less talented are principals. Why? Because the raw talent didn’t get as much training.”
Many competitions offer scholarships to professional schools, which can be an exciting stepping stone toward a company contract. While some students are ready to jump from individualized training to the more formal setting of a big institution, others still need more attention in a smaller setting to fill out their training.
Equally as challenging is the question of when to make the leap from student to professional. Spassoff has worked with several ballet prodigies, including Isaac Hernández of Dutch National Ballet (Best Male Dancer, YAGP Junior Division at age 12; Youth Grand Prix, at 13) and his younger brother Esteban of San Francisco Ballet (YAGP Junior Division Silver Medal at age 12; Gold Medal at 13). “Isaac was offered wonderful jobs at 16, and he stayed at the school another year,” she says. “Later he told me, ‘If I had it to do again, I’d have stayed one more year.’ I don’t know that Esteban would have said the same thing. Each one has their own road.”
Teachers can make recommendations based on a student’s maturity and skill, but ultimately these decisions are made by the students and their parents or guardians. “Teachers need to be able to stand back and give them the freedom they need, but still be able to guide and advise, and hope they are able to make the right decisions,” says Hart.
Creating Stage Time
Meanwhile, continuing to develop performance skills is essential for these dancers. Slawomir Wozniak started a pre-professional performing group in part so his student Gisele Bethea could get stage experience. Bethea (YAGP Youth Grand Prix winner at age 13), who was offered a contract with American Ballet Theatre’s Studio Company at age 15, has chosen to continue to train with her teacher at Master Ballet Academy in Arizona. “Performing the lead in an hour-and-a-half show is different than an eight-minute competition piece,” Wozniak says. Spassoff, too, created additional performing opportunities for Isaac Hernández in his last year at The Rock School, particularly so he could develop partnering skills.
Preparing for the Realities of Professional Life
Beyond performance, young stars often need emotional support from teachers. “I spend much of my time psychologically helping my students,” says Hart, who coached Alys Shee of Birmingham Royal Ballet (Junior Silver Medal at USA IBC in Jackson at age 16; Grand Prix at Star of the 21st Century IBC). “A lot of it is helping them deal with their own frustration and how to think about their challenges and disappointments, so they can keep pulling out the best in themselves.” Hart spends time talking with students, helping them gauge when their expectations of themselves are too high or low. “There is so much pressure put on somebody with that kind of talent,” she says. Her antidote to perfectionism and self-doubt is to keep the dancer focused on intricacies of daily work. “I tell them, ‘No one can take away the richness of whatever you do, if you find the intrinsic value in the work.’”
Because being part of a professional company requires much more than good technique, there are life lessons that are valuable to young dancers not yet wise in the ways of the world. “Learning to live on your own, how to deal with the politics and relationships of a ballet company, those have nothing to do with how well you do the steps,” says Hart. “As a teacher, it’s a matter of giving students the tools and understanding to carry them through.” And after they leave her formal training, she remains available as an (unobtrusive) mentor. “It’s important to provide the dancer a safe place she knows she can always come back to,” she says, “to reassess, rework and brush up.”
Kabaniaev approaches this by preparing students, like 13-year-old phenom Jasmine Cruz (World Ballet Competition Gold Medal at age 10; New York City Dance Alliance Mini Outstanding Dancer, age 11), for success without him. “I try to make them independent from a young age,” he says. “To think for themselves and not just wait for what the teacher gives them. When they listen and develop their own mind, they learn to make good choices.”
In the end, teaching a prodigy involves training as individual as the dancer. “You have to have been born with fabulous ingredients to be a ballerina,” says Hart. “Musicality, a beautiful physique, heart and soul and a will of steel, and yet you also need the people and circumstances around you to help you grow. Developing a ballerina is a journey—physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally.”
Aran Bell has continued his own journey, post–First Position. Now 16 and living in New York, he’s currently dancing and training with ABT Studio Company in the hope he might be one of the elite to make it to the place all prodigies (and their teachers) aim for—the brilliance of center stage. DT
Caitlin Sims is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.
“I trust in the tradition of ballet technique. We take this white canvas and build the basics. They must be free in their technique, clear and pure. That is what makes a dancer able to do anything.” —Patrick Armand
Patrick Armand of San Francisco Ballet School weighs in on the challenges of pre-professional ballet training.
As told to Nancy Wozny
I am concerned with what is happening in ballet right now. There’s too much emphasis on technique and not enough on artistry. Yes, technique is improving, but if you do a hundred pirouettes, you still need to start and end properly. Ballet is an artform, not a sport.
In this age of social media, too many students want to be stars before they have done anything. That is a problem. I find this also affects partnering. Good partnering is about being humble; it is not all about you. The man must always be thinking about the girl. You must make the girl look the best that she can be. It’s not about lifting at all, but how you bring her down. She must appear weightless.
We have recently added to our services that support the well-being of the dancer. For instance, a nutritionist comes in two times a month, and she actually teaches them how to cook. They also have access to a physical therapist. And they do not need to wait until they have an injury. They learn to take care of themselves before they need it.
Our dancers need to be as versatile as possible. We must challenge their intellects and develop their ballet brains. We do this a number of ways, from contemporary classes to encouraging our dancers to choreograph through a yearly collaboration with the Crowden Music Center. The exchange program we are doing with Houston Ballet [School] is another example. It’s fantastic. They get to work with other dancers and come together in a week to perform a show. It’s great training for their future, when they’ll have to learn a new choreographer’s work quickly.
As for emotional maturity, each student is different, and I can’t approach each the same way. I can be there as a teacher and a mentor, but at the end of the day they must take responsibility for their careers, and they must do this at a young age. I can help, but it’s really up to them. I don’t want to be overprotective, which will not serve them once they enter a company. Ballet is not Walt Disney World. It’s not about being pink all the time.
Photos (from top): by Richard Battye; by Hideaki Tanioka courtesy of YAGP; by Siggul/Visual Arts Masters, courtesy of YAGP; courtesy of Lem Abdon Photo Design; by Erik Tomasson, courtesy of San Francisco Ballet