Site Network

Boston Ballet School and Walnut Hill Are Merging Their High School Pre-Professional Programs

Boston Ballet School students tour Walnut Hill School for the Arts. Photo by Igor Burlak, courtesy of Boston Ballet

Over the years, one thing kept Boston Ballet School director Margaret Tracey up at night. While she feels enormous pride in the training the school's pre-professional division provides, she worried about how her students are doing outside of dance: namely, in academics and residential life. "My sleepless nights happen when I think about a young student who's living on their own and struggling with something, or whose online school program is overwhelming them," says Tracey. "Those sit outside our core competencies as a ballet school, and, yet, I can't ignore that it's a huge part of their daily experience."

Though Boston Ballet School has provided housing and academic options to its pre-professional students, they haven't proved sustainable. That will soon change. Next fall, BBS will join forces with the dance program at Walnut Hill School for the Arts, a boarding high school in nearby Natick, Massachusetts. The partnership, called Boston Ballet School's Pre-Professional Division at Walnut Hill, seems like a win-win for both organizations: It offers BBS dancers college-preparatory academics and an on-site residential facility, and gives Walnut Hill an affiliation with a major ballet company.


A teacher watches as four female students in gray leotards \u00e9chapp\u00e9 on pointe.

Boston Ballet School students taking class at the school's downtown campus.

Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy Boston Ballet

Merging the two programs hasn't been easy, says Tracey. But when BBS reached out to Walnut Hill a little over a year ago, they found that the two schools' goals were quite complementary. "They were looking to expand their dance training," says Tracey. "So the timing was right in that we had a need and they had a need."

Starting next fall, high school students in BBS's pre-professional division will relocate to Walnut Hill's campus full-time, with their dance classes occurring on site and out-of-town dancers living in supervised dormitories. Although BBS initially felt the campus, about 30 minutes from Boston, might be too far away, they were encouraged by Walnut Hill's similar partnership with the New England Conservatory for its music majors. Tracey was additionally reassured after visiting the Paris Opéra Ballet School, located in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, while the company was on tour last spring. "We thought, ah, okay—this is how it could work," she says. "Knowing there were other successful models like this really helped shape the vision."

Antonio Vivo and Margaret Tracey, wearing jackets, pose standing next to each other outside a school building.

Walnut Hill's head of school Antonio Viva and Boston Ballet School director Margaret Tracey on Walnut Hill's campus.

Igor Burlak, Courtesy Boston Ballet

Much of that vision includes developing the whole student, beyond ballet. Dancers will devote part of their day to college-preparatory academics, in addition to classes in their dance major. Walnut Hill's Arts 360 program allows students to take classes in different art forms, and they will have other important requirements such as music theory. "Most pre-professional programs focus on the immediate step ahead, which is getting into a company." says Nicola Conraths, Walnut Hill's director of artistic studies. "But the idea here is to develop dancers who can look at the arts across a lifespan."

Three female Boston Ballet students pose in arabesque onstage, wearing long white tutus.

Boston Ballet School students perform August Bournonville's Konservatoriet.

Liza Voll, Courtesy Boston Ballet

There are other advantages, too. "Students can collaborate with other arts majors on different projects," says Conraths. And because Walnut Hill has several theaters on campus, BBS can offer more performance opportunities to dancers (who will still be able to audition for the company's Nutcracker).

This new partnership comes as Walnut Hill's current leadership is changing; Michael Owen, who has directed the school's dance program for 20 years, is retiring, although he will be involved on the school's development side and with its community dance division. Tracey will become the school's new director of dance and move to the campus full-time, along with Peter Stark, BBS's head of men's training. "We are planning on expanding our men's program to 20 to 30 students, with an entire curriculum for them," says Conraths.

"Most of our pre-professional division students are from out of town, so they're really looking for this type of program," says Tracey. "To have someone who can manage their community life and shape their academic aspirations is such a relief, and something these young dancers deserve."

Teaching Tips
A 2019 Dancewave training. Photo by Effy Grey, courtesy Dancewave

By now, most dance educators hopefully understand that they have a responsibility to address racism in the studio. But knowing that you need to be actively cultivating racial equity isn't the same thing as knowing how to do so.

Of course, there's no easy answer, and no perfect approach. As social justice advocate David King emphasized at a recent interactive webinar, "Cultivating Racial Equity in the Classroom," this work is never-ending. The event, hosted by Dancewave (which just launched a new racial-equity curriculum) was a good starting point, though, and offered some helpful takeaways for dance educators committed to racial justice.

Keep reading... Show less
Higher Ed
The author, Robyn Watson. Photo courtesy Watson

Recently, I posted a thread of tweets elucidating the lack of respect for tap dance in college dance programs, and arguing that it should be a requirement for dance majors.

According to onstageblog.com, out of the 30 top-ranked college dance programs in the U.S., tap dance is offered at 19 of them, but only one school requires majors to take more than a beginner course—Oklahoma City University. Many prestigious dance programs, like the ones at NYU Tisch School of the Arts and SUNY Purchase, don't offer a single course in tap dance.

Keep reading... Show less
Teaching Tips
Getty Images

After months of lockdowns and virtual learning, many studios across the country are opening their doors and returning to in-person classes. Teachers and students alike have likely been chomping at the bit in anticipation of the return of dance-class normalcy that doesn't require a reliable internet connection or converting your living room into a dance space.

But along with the back-to-school excitement, dancers might be feeling rusty from being away from the studio for so long. A loss of flexibility, strength and stamina is to be expected, not to mention emotional fatigue from all of the uncertainty and reacclimating to social activities.

So as much as everyone wants to get back to normal—teachers and studio owners included—erring on the side of caution with your dancers' training will be the most beneficial approach in the long run.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.