“Let’s build our houses together, gentlemen. Shall we?” Tammi Shamblin asks 20 fifth-grade boys at the top of ballet class, during the final week of Ballet Tech’s summer program in New York City. “Is your body square, dragon tails down? Are your eyes looking out your vacation windows? Where do you want to go today?” Every boy stands at attention, ready to begin a series of pliés facing the barre. As they lift their heels and stretch their knees, Shamblin offers corrections like a modern-day Mary Poppins, brightly singing out images like “Sip your slurpee legs up!” and “Squish marshmallows under your heels!” to the rhythm of the accompanist.
For the next 90 minutes, her goal is twofold: She will train dancers as she develops young men. For its year-round program, Ballet Tech auditions NYC school children, selecting the most naturally talented youngsters—many of whom would not otherwise be exposed to ballet. The school currently enrolls 180 students in grades 4 through 10, and nearly half are boys. Elementary- and middle-schoolers take their academic courses in classrooms located at the Ballet Tech School, downtown on Broadway. (Another 400-plus youngsters are bussed in from their schools for a free, six-week introductory program each semester.) To allow for their different learning styles and energies, boys don’t take dance classes with girls until sixth grade.
Shamblin’s role is not just to teach steps but to instill a love for an artform that most of her students didn’t know existed. “They aren’t here out of an intrinsic desire to dance. They’re all picked for their bodies and potential,” she says. “I’m hoping to develop a love of dancing.” She also understands what ballet can teach them about life: self-esteem, discipline, learning from mistakes, working in a group and pursuing goals. To that end, she uses terms such as “dancers” or “gentlemen”—never “boys”—to establish mutual respect and a formal tone. And she knows the value of specificity and surprise. “I use a coda with a fast beat when I want them to hold a tendu, so they aren’t bored,” she says.
She sticks by her few rules religiously: no leaving (which means no water or bathroom breaks during class); no talking (unless called upon); and always do your best. That last rule, she says, is the number-one reason most kids are dismissed from class. “When I have to send a kid out, I always ask, ‘Do you know why?’” says Shamblin. “It’s important for them to understand the cause-and-effect relationship of their conduct.”
Eliot Feld—Ballet Tech’s founder and artistic director—was immediately impressed with Shamblin, who started out as a substitute teacher in fall 2004. At his request, a permanent position was created for her. “Beyond the task of introducing young boys to the vocabulary and grammar of classic dance, there’s the issue of concentrating their intellect, imagination and physical appetites,” says Feld. “Tammi accomplishes this with a magic of her own invention.”
Those magical inventions include a series of interactive “learning stations,” aimed at understanding ballet technique on an anatomical level. This gives her a chance to break up the flow of class and the strictures of ballet barre to go over the details of a given movement or body position. Today, Shamblin calls out, “Study Group! Gather around Marquis,” and the boys flock around the named boy to deconstruct rond de jambe.
“What do you love about rond de jambe? What are we practicing here?” Shamblin asks. The students’ observations are astute: “Straight legs.” “Turnout.” “Straight back.” Still, she demands closer scrutiny: “Some of you seem to have ordered a small pizza,” she says, regarding the semicircular outline of the boys’ ronds de jambe. “How can we fix the size of that circle?”
Often it is in Study Group that Shamblin first introduces students to palpating their own bodies to locate and understand muscles, tendons and joints—taking advantage of their interest in anatomy and biomechanics. After she has worked with a class for at least nine months, and students have become used to manipulating their own bodies, she will offer another interactive break and an early introduction to partnering: Operation Station. “You’re the ballet doctor now,” she jokes, as she lies down on the floor, asking them to point out what she’s doing right and wrong in a particular posture. After a couple of students tap her lower ribs to get her to drop them and another points at her belly button (to get what they’ve learned to call a “TNT stomach”—a bundle of dynamite sticks), they all find their place in the room and resume adagio with a deeper respect for the core strength involved. It is a testament to Shamblin’s well-honed teaching style that the boys focus on Study Group and Operation Station with a maturity beyond their years.
Shamblin herself exhibited an unusually focused demeanor as a child. After begging her mother for ballet lessons to no avail, she eventually found a phone book, chose a nearby studio and insisted on being taken there. (She was 8.) She trained with Kathy Milo and Kirk Derby at the Roseville School of Dance in California before graduating from the University of Utah, where she majored in ballet with an emphasis on both pedagogy and performing. Though she danced professionally for Sacramento Ballet and Capitol Ballet Company prior to moving to New York City (where she performed with Frank Ohman and Deborah Lohse’s ad hoc Ballet), her first love was teaching. Capitol Ballet Company’s Stuart Carroll remains the master teacher she still thinks of when she is leading a class. “I loved the expectations of excellence at CBC,” she says.
It’s apparent she is instilling that same excellence—with a good dose of fun—in these young gentlemen as class nears its end. She somehow finds time before révérence to fit in a traveling skipping competition, a round of freeze dance and a question about how best to count a polonaise. Like Poppins, there’s no end to the tricks in her imaginary carpet bag. DT
Candice Thompson danced with the Milwaukee Ballet Company and is a writing fellow at Columbia University.
Former American Ballet Theatre dancer Eliot Feld founded Ballet Tech School in 1978, partnering with the New York City Department of Education to offer tuition-free dance classes (both beginner and pre-professional) and standardized academic education to NYC kids. For its introductory ballet program, held after school for third- through fifth-graders, more than half of the 562 students are boys. The full-time program, with 10 faculty members and an average class size of 22 students, boasts a male enrollment of 44 percent.
Photographed by Kyle Froman