Dance Teachers Trending

How Edward Ellison Is Molding Ballet's Future

"The Vaganova style is so pure and logical. It's designed to show your deficiencies, not to disguise them. You're forced to be honest with yourself," says Ellison. Photos by Jim Lafferty

Edward Ellison shapes his students like clay. If a leg needs more turnout, he rotates it and drops the hip into place. If a torso is off-kilter, he pokes and lifts until everything's aligned. During combinations, he watches with intense focus, and when someone pulls off a difficult step or sequence, he radiates pride. His dedication to both his pupils and the Vaganova technique he teaches is evident in his every word and gesture.

Ellison has long been known as a master teacher, but since he launched his own school in 2005, his reputation for excellence has only grown. Ellison Ballet is small by design—during the year, there are usually between 30 and 40 students, while the summer intensives draw 175 to 200—but the school's output rivals that of larger, more famous academies. Ellison only accepts the best of the best, dancers who show potential that he's confident he can shape into something spectacular. That attitude pays dividends; his students dominate at major ballet competitions, and his graduates perform with top-tier companies around the world.

"We expect a lot from our students," Ellison says. "I believe they can achieve something extraordinary, but to achieve the extraordinary takes extraordinary work. How much you want that end result will show in what you do every day." Given his complete commitment to his students, he could just as easily be speaking about himself.


An Unconventional Start

Before Ellison did his first tendu, he was a champion break-dancer. When he was 18, a fellow street dancer convinced him to take a summer intensive at a studio in San Diego, to try other dance styles.

"Ballet fascinated me," he says. "I would look at what the advanced boys were doing, and it was very exciting. And yet, in the beginning class, we weren't trying to do those jumps and turns. We were standing at the barre while the teacher corrected our stance. As an athlete and a break-dancer, I'd never experienced anything like it."

Interest piqued, he signed on for year-round training. In addition to his beginner classes, he was invited to study with Marius Zirra, a Romanian who'd trained in St. Petersburg, Russia, and defected to the U.S. Ellison spent the next two years immersing himself in ballet, and when Zirra left the school, he searched for a teacher who would be equally knowledgeable and passionate about ballet. He briefly landed at Houston Ballet Academy, and after only five months was offered a company apprenticeship, which he turned down in favor of further training.

At San Francisco Ballet School, Ellison found his next mentor: former Bolshoi Ballet dancer Larisa Sklyanskaya. "She tore us to shreds," Ellison says, laughing. "She emphasized the use of parts of the body that other teachers weren't even talking about. The improvements we made in two years with her were remarkable." At 22, Ellison joined San Francisco Ballet, where he remained for 10 years.

A Surprise Passion

"I honestly never dreamed of being a teacher," Ellison says. And yet, the first time he was asked to lead a class, he was excited to discover a natural rapport with the students. He had a chance to hone his pedagogy during his final year with SFB. While on injury leave, he asked Sklyanskaya if he could observe her classes. Soon, he'd accumulated stacks of notebooks. "I wrote down every combination, every correction, every metaphor," he says. "When Sklyanskaya saw how serious I was, she started asking me to give corrections and create combinations."

Ellison leads a session of his summer intensive at Manhattan Movement and Arts Center.

When he left the company, Ellison took a teaching job at SFBS. But it wasn't long before he felt like he needed a change of scenery. He moved to New York City in 1997 and spent a few years teaching open classes, including at Steps on Broadway and Peridance. He also led company classes at American Ballet Theatre, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, and he offered private lessons. Still, he wanted to do more.

An Impossible Dream

Ellison clearly recalls the December 2004 day when the seed that would become Ellison Ballet was planted. "I was in the hallway at Steps," he says, "and I mentioned to a friend that I was frustrated. If I wanted to really instill my knowledge, I needed to see my students for more hours, every single day. My friend told me, 'Start a school.'"

As with each turning point in his life, Ellison jumped in straightaway, but not everyone around him was supportive. "The more people I spoke to, the more I learned why I was going to fail!" he says. "I didn't have money or backers. How could I hope to compete with the major schools in the city? People also said, 'You're moving too fast. Wait a year.' But I felt momentum. I had to try."

In 2005, his first summer intensive attracted 22 students. Ten girls signed on for his first full year of classes, held at New Dance Group in Manhattan. Ellison wasn't at all disappointed by the small turnout. "I wanted to have a selective school," he explains. "I wasn't going to accept someone just because they could pay the tuition." The operation was bare-bones, but the dancers were hungry. Some had even left prestigious academies to study with Ellison.

The biggest roadblock in those early years was studio space. In 2008, Ellison learned that New Dance Group was closing its doors. He was given one month to relocate. "For the next year and a half, we jumped from studio to studio," he says. "Some days we'd start at 11 am, and other days at 3 pm." He was working around the clock and barely earning a salary, but he was convinced that the school would land on its feet. In the meantime, the talent kept showing up.

A Philosophy That Works

Ellison Ballet has been based at Manhattan Movement and Arts Center since 2011. Dancers ages 12 to 19 are split into junior girls, senior girls and a boys' class. They're in the studio from 10:30 to 4:30 daily, studying ballet technique, pointe, pas de deux, variations and contemporary. Many also have private coaching with Ellison. (Academics are completed online.)

Ellison's approach is steeped in the Vaganova method his mentors shared with him. "The Vaganova style is so pure and logical," he says. "It's designed to show your deficiencies, not to disguise them. You're forced to be honest with yourself." He believes hands-on corrections are essential, and he has students and parents sign a document acknowledging that Ellison Ballet is a hands-on school. "When you have a teacher manipulating your body," he explains, "you're able to feel muscles engage that you didn't feel before. Teaching only through verbiage and demonstration is simply not as effective." He tends to repeat class material for several days, giving students a chance to dig in without having to memorize new combinations, and he doesn't hesitate to stop mid-phrase to point out errors. He's exacting, and it's clear everyone in the room relishes the challenge.

Ellison with full-time student Keaton Gillespie

His students often medal at competitions, but he's quick to stress that winning isn't the goal: "Competing is an invaluable learning experience. You're taking choreography that was created on principal dancers. It's difficult technically, stylistically and artistically. You have to learn the character and the context of the ballet. The preparation can be very intense, and the growth you see—it's beautiful."

Graduates of the program leave with far more than stellar technique and rich artistry. "Mr. Ellison's energy is captivating, and it forces you to match him," says Melissa Chapski, who studied at Ellison Ballet from 2013 to 2015, and now performs with Dutch National Ballet. She still returns to train with Ellison each summer. "When I first joined, I never got away with standing in the back. He had me working on something every second. If I saw someone working more than me, I wasn't doing enough."

"He instills so much discipline," says Adrian Blake Mitchell, who trained at Ellison Ballet from 2012 to 2014 and is currently with the Mikhailovsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. "In a company, there's no one who is invested in you the same way your teacher is when you're a student. No one can succeed for you."

Ellison elaborates: "One of the hallmarks of an Ellison Ballet graduate is their preparedness. It's not about what our dancers are going to get out of being in a company. It's about what they're going to give. That means developing an awareness of how you're taking in information. It's not letting yourself receive the same correction multiple times. It's being willing to go the extra mile."

In the end, that's Ellison's vision: dancers whose technical skill and artistic expression are exceeded only by their sense of responsibility. "My students may go on to make quite a contribution to this art," he says, "but only if they see ballet as something of great value. That's why I give them everything I can."

The Conversation
Dance News
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The inimitable Carol Channing, best known for her role as the titular Hello, Dolly!, passed away today at 97.

Though she became a three-time Tony winner, Channing was born in Seattle, far from the Great White Way, in 1921. After growing up in San Francisco, she attended the famed Bennington College, studying dance and drama. She later told the university, "What Bennington allows you to do is develop the thing you're going to do anyway, over everybody's dead body." For Channing, that meant decades of fiery, comical performances, bursting with energy.

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Many a studio owner might agree that the idea of maternity leave is laughable. "So many people say, 'I was back after two weeks—we had a competition,'" says Meagan Ziebarth, a former owner who sold her studio two years ago. "If that works for you, and you feel great, wonderful. But I feel passionately that having a baby is one of the most transformational life events, and you don't need to put that kind of pressure on yourself and accept that that's the norm."

So how can you take the maternity leave you want and make sure your studio doesn't run itself into the ground? We asked three who did it for their best advice—including what they wish they'd done differently.

Be OK With Crazy

Suzana Stankovic and Natalia.

Suzana Stankovic
Wild Heart Performing Arts Studio
Astoria, New York
Enrollment: 500 (drop-in)
2 years in business

Suzana Stankovic signed the lease on her New York studio a mere 10 days before she gave birth to her first child. The space she'd been renting hourly for private and group lessons unexpectedly became available for a lease takeover, and, despite the timing, it felt like the right decision. "I said, 'This is happening for a reason,'" she says.

For the first two months after her baby was born, Stankovic recovered (she'd had a C-section). She held a soft opening in mid-November (2 1/2 months postdelivery) for existing students and officially opened her studio—with a drop-in class format—to the public the following January (4 months postdelivery).

  • Figure out your childcare. "It's the most important thing. You've got to figure that out, whether that means visiting daycare centers and finding one you're comfortable with or involving your entire family," she says. Stankovic's parents are retired and live near her, luckily, so they became her nannies. "That's the major reason I was able to do this," she says.
  • Expect to feel different after giving birth. "When I had my baby, and it came time to leave her and go to work, it was very, very difficult," says Stankovic. "I wasn't prepared for that. I was texting my mother constantly: 'Is she OK? Did she have her milk? Is she colicky?' It was hard to be fully present, initially. Be prepared for the effects of sleep deprivation and not eating well and the postpartum blues."
  • Have a support system in place. That's how Stankovic got through the roughest times, postbirth. "Have a friend or your husband or partner," she says. "And know that the very difficult times are temporary. They do abate. And if they don't, there are resources. There's help out there."
  • Be OK with crazy. "I would plan my lesson and do my combos in the shower," she says. "On my way to the studio, I'd finish up my grand allégro in my head. I'd send e-mails in the middle of changing her diaper—I'd write two sentences, change the diaper, write two more, then hit send." The result of so much multitasking? "I realized, 'Wow, I can do so much more than I thought I could,'" says Stankovic. "I'm ready for anything."
Editor's List: The Goods
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Here at Dance Media, we think everyone's list of New Year's resolutions should include reading more 💁♀️. And aside from reading Dance Teacher magazine (which should, of course, be a resolution in and of itself), we recommend some seriously wonderful dancer memoirs.

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When ballet star David Hallberg sought out the medical team at The Australian Ballet to help him recover from his ankle surgeries, one of the things rehabilitation specialist Megan Connelly had him learn was to jump from his hips. By doing so, he learned to put less stress on his lower legs and feet and access the powerhouse group of muscles surrounding the hips, most commonly referred to as the glutes. While many parts of his rehab were particular to him, understanding how to properly engage the glutes is something many professional and pre-professional dancers can stand to gain from.

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When it comes to teaching Pre-K to fifth-graders, behavior issues are inevitable. Whether it's a child who wants to run around the room or a student who just flat-out refuses to follow instructions, knowing how to respond can be challenging. Compound that with the added obstacles of a K–12 school environment—where you may have an unusual dance space to teach in, limited class time or students who are just not interested in dance—and taking care of behavioral problems quickly and compassionately becomes even more essential.

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Whether it's a wardrobe malfunction or a spectacular, opera-house–sized fail, onstage mistakes happen to everybody. See how these four professionals survived their worst mishaps—and what they took away from them.

Sterling Baca

Baca in Ben Stevenson's Cinderella. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, courtesy of Pennsylvania Ballet

"There I was on my very first day at the Metropolitan Opera House: on my hands and knees, center stage," recounts Pennsylvania Ballet principal Sterling Baca. He had joined American Ballet Theatre from the ABT Studio Company two weeks prior and didn't see a crucial casting sheet for the Don Quixote dress-tech rehearsal until minutes before it started.

In a domino-like sequence of unfortunate events, Baca had managed to get only half-dressed, and he missed his entrance and his character's dance with Kitri. Then he remembered too late that he was also supposed to catch Basilio's guitar. He turned around from setting down a tambourine to see the guitar already soaring through the air. He dove for it, but it grazed his fingertips, hit the floor and broke.

Baca had some literal and metaphorical pieces to pick up and apologies to make to the wardrobe and props departments, artistic staff and his fellow dancers. Luckily, everyone understood that he was new and "showed mercy," he says.

The Lesson: Although Baca can laugh about the incident now, he warns that "it only turns into a joke when you don't do it again." His advice? Double- and triple-check every single piece of paper on the call board.

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Photo by Natalie Fiol, courtesy of University of Illinois Dept. of Dance

This academic year marks the 50th anniversary of the dance department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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This idea really struck me. I hadn't thought much about the rights dancers had to a backstage that was warm. Having spent most of my life as a comp kid performing on concrete floors, it never occurred to me that I should protect my body from an environment that might be harmful to it. We just danced wherever we were told to.

Ever since that performance last month, I haven't been able to get the idea of union rights and studio kids out of my head. Every dancer, professional or not, deserves a safe space to perform. I reviewed union benefits for the Screen Actors Guild—American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA) and the Actors' Equity Association (AEA), and determined a list of five rights I believe studio kids should be entitled to. I'm not advocating that they unionize, but, dance teachers, make sure you're taking care of your kiddos!!

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Successful studio owners know that bringing in guest artists is a good idea, whether for a two-hour master class or a weekend spent choreographing recital or competition routines. Your students learn new styles, get exposed to different teaching approaches and have the chance to network with professionals. But it can be a challenge to bring in the guest you want—paying for airfare, lodging, meals, hourly teaching rates, choreography fees—while keeping your bottom line in the black. But there are ways to economize, if you're willing to think outside the box.

1. Go local. Can't afford to bring in Justin Bieber's biggest backup dancer? Ask a college professor or graduate student from your local university dance program. Or if you live within driving distance of a bigger city, take advantage of resources there to save on airfare and accommodations. "We're in Connecticut, so there are many cities close to us—New York City, Boston," says Gabby Sparks of Sparkle & Shine Dance. "I can find people you wouldn't imagine within a 30-minute drive."

2. Take advantage of downtime. Scheduling master classes during off-peak times—when an artist might be home for the holidays, for example, or during the summer, when the convention circuit cools down—could cut you a break in their fee.

3. Take it outside. Hold your master classes off-site to encourage students from other studios to drop in. By opening the class up to the general public and taking away the possible stigma of having to visit your studio's stomping grounds, you'll up your master-class enrollment. "Other kids just don't want to walk through your doors," says Christy Curtis of CC & Co Dance Complex in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Studio Owners who try TutuTix for their Spring 2019 recitals can get a $222 Visa Gift Card. Click here to learn more.

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