Dance Teachers Trending

Mariaelena Ruiz Leads a New Professional Training Program at Cary Ballet Conservatory

Students of the Cary Ballet Professional Training Program. Photos by Brooke Meyer

On a Wednesday afternoon in December, the Cary Ballet Conservatory's students are onstage for a run-through of their Youth America Grand Prix solos and ensemble dances. Newly appointed director Mariaelena Ruiz sits in the audience, announcing the name, age and hometown for each competitor on the microphone, mimicking the tone and setting of the real competition. The fifth positions and use of épaulement are as impressive as the multiple pirouettes and grand fouettés. There is also a surprising maturity on display, evident in how the students maintain their stage presence and stay musical even with a stumble here or hiccup there, without any feedback or encouragement from Ruiz. This is clearly a practice performance that they are prepared for, a luxury and an experience pre-professional students rarely get. Any notes will be given at the end, just as in a professional company.

It is hard to believe the Professional Training Program is only a year and a half in the making, a result of Ruiz's arrival at CBC. Having made a name for herself at The Rock School in Philadelphia as the go-to coach if you want to win competitions and land a spot in a ballet company, she was hired to bring her magic formula for developing versatile, stunning dancers to this close-knit community in Cary, North Carolina. Now, with Ruiz confidently at the helm and a gorgeous six-studio facility, CBC is on track to become the next big regional training destination for serious students, on par with Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, as well as taking its place as a point of pride for the local community.

But the job of building a program from the ground up has called for more than exceptional coaching skills.

“Setting up development and marketing, being involved in the whole business side of an organization, takes a massive amount of time outside the studio," says Ruiz. “We are competing for talent with big programs that have endowments, like Houston and Boston, and it takes money to support talent." Ruiz now finds herself working 12-hour days, managing a full load of teaching with all the new tasks of upper management. Her ambition remains the one constant in her new setting. A force unto itself, it has propelled her and her students this far.

Ruiz began her ballet career young, training in her native Caracas, Venezuela, under former Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo prima ballerina Nina Novak. When Ruiz was 8 years old, her mother went in to the studio to pay the monthly tuition and was surprised to hear that Ruiz had not shown up for her classes in weeks. “I had actually been there every single day. I had just fooled everyone and made my way into the level above," Ruiz explains with a grin. “I was always the youngest and tallest, and nothing was ever easy. My father preached about hard work, and so I don't believe in victims or laziness, and I am always on the lookout for the underdog."

ADC International Ballet Competition named Ruiz outstanding teacher in 2016.

Ruiz was just that when she went to IBC Jackson at 15 for “experience" and ended up winning third place. The awards piled up from there, and she went on to study on full scholarship at the School of American Ballet and dance with several companies, including Cleveland San Jose Ballet and the Suzanne Farrell Ballet. She rose from faculty member to ballet mistress over her 15 years at The Rock School, where she trained notable dancers such as Beckanne Sisk and Michaela DePrince. During Ruiz's final years there, she was featured in the documentary First Position. She counts world-renowned ballet mistress Olga Kostritzky among her many mentors, a list that also includes Suzanne Farrell and her colleagues from Rock. There have been times during the past 18 months when Ruiz has had to reach out for support: “Every time I have had doubts about what I am doing, Olga has said, 'You are on the right track; don't give up.'"

Like all superheroes, the quality that has made Ruiz so successful—namely her relentless drive—can also, at times, be her kryptonite. The last two years have brought myriad changes for Ruiz both personally and professionally, from her recent marriage, to moving with her husband (a wildlife scientist who can often be found in the wings fixing set pieces during The Nutcracker), to taking on a leadership role with more responsibility than ever before. “We got married in May of 2015, sold our houses and moved to Cary in June," says Ruiz. “This is an investment for both of us, and I feel responsible for us and the students. I am not holding anything back—everything that I know works, all my contacts, have been laid out on the table."

Emily McAllister and Nik Zisk in a CBC production of The Nutcracker.

For Heather Iler, CBC's ballet program director, Ruiz has been a motivating friend and colleague. Iler credits Ruiz with helping her more fully realize her own goals by bringing the necessary exposure, integrity and strong artistic eye to the school. “Prior to her arrival, Mariaelena and I spoke for hours at a time about our visions for the future and the challenges ahead. I knew from our first conversation that she would always have the best interest of the dancers in mind in every decision she made," says Iler. “When dancers work with her, there is no doubt that she holds herself accountable to the same principles that she expects from them. This honesty and truth resonates with students and contributes to not only the technical and artistic growth of each dancer but to their character development as people."

Yet as Ruiz and the faculty work furiously to bring up the quality of training for all CBC students, she is finding that patience is also required. “My biggest learning experience is that I have to give it time to grow, even when I know what works and I want that to work now," Ruiz says in a reflective moment, ever on the mission to improve herself and her charges.

PTP students Ella Wassil and Cooper Everson.

The 635 students of CBC, the administration, faculty and parents have all had to work through a big adjustment phase as well. For the 25 dancers enrolled in the full-time Professional Training Program, the change has meant adjusting to a demanding 7:30 am to 5:30 pm workday, with academics in the morning followed by technique classes, conditioning and rehearsals, where versatility between classical and contemporary is honed. Other students have had to let go of an à la carte style of picking and choosing classes in favor of the Studio Program, a three- to four-hour-a-day bridge program that takes place after school hours.

Along the way, Ruiz and her faculty have gotten rid of the perks of seniority in the student company in favor of a merit-based system of casting and have been diligent in bringing in a steady stream of contemporary choreographers and guest teachers to expose the dancers to the biggest artistic range possible. “Mariaelena is demanding, and this can initially be intimidating," explains Iler. “But the level of care and love she has for the students and faculty is deep and true."

Emily Hall is an ADC/IBC 2016 gold medalist.

While she has met a little bit of resistance along the way, Ruiz has also been heartened by the support of the community in this difficult endeavor. “I try to balance being truthful with being supportive and empathetic," says Ruiz, “and once students and parents see how committed I am, that I am on their side, that I can't get results without them or their trust, then everyone is more willing to try this new approach."

The results of this new approach are already evident with students from the first graduating year of the PTP joining professional companies (Dayton Ballet, Carolina Ballet and The Washington Ballet), sponsorships from both Capezio and Gaynor Minden, a strong showing at the 2016 YAGP and a 2016 outstanding teacher award for Ruiz from ADC International Ballet Competition.

Beyond all the accolades, the evidence of her method could also be seen onstage during a children's show of The Nutcracker, where the cast lit up the stage with exquisite glissades, smooth partnering, quiet pointe shoes, sophisticated musicality and sparkling personalities. The sold-out audience was full of families, with babies and toddlers standing on laps in awe, being exposed not only to the enchantment of the show, but also a brief class demonstration and behind-the-scenes look at the show.

“My feeling is that dance is a life skill. You have to put in the hours and pass to get to the next level, and along the way you must learn the etiquette and discipline," says Ruiz. “I think it is useful whether a student goes on to become a professional or the next CEO of Apple. You will know you have had good training when you know how to behave in a theater and are an educated supporter of the arts."

Candice Thompson danced with the Milwaukee Ballet and writes from Atlanta.

Dance Teachers Trending
"Music is magical," says Black. "It just transforms kids." Photo courtesy of Black

After 31 years of teaching, Kim Black has mastered how to reach young dancers. Between a studio and private school, she teaches 34 classes per week in Burlington, North Carolina: That's 238 kids from ages 2 to 6 years old. "You have to make them fall in love with dance," says Black. The music, she says, cues this engagement.

Keep reading...
Site Network

2019's movies featured some truly fantastic dancing, thanks to the hard work of many talented choreographers. But you won't see any of those brilliant artists recognized at the Academy Awards. And we're (still) not OK with that.

So we're taking matters into our own jazz hands.

On February 7—just before the Oscars ceremony—we'll present a Dance Spirit award for the best movie choreography of 2019. With your help, we've narrowed the field to seven choreographers, artists whose moves electrified some of the most critically-acclaimed films of the year.

Keep reading...
Dance Teachers Trending
Kathryn Alter (left). Photo by Alexis Ziemski

In every class Kathryn Alter teaches, two things are immediately evident: how thoughtfully she chooses her words, and how much glee she gets from dancing the movement and style of modern choreographer José Limón. At the 2019 Limón summer workshop at Kent State University, Alter demonstrated a turning triplet with her arms fully outstretched, a smile stretching easily across her face. "It should be as if…" She paused to think of the perfect analogy that would help the dancers find the necessary circularity of the movement. "As if you live in a doughnut!" she finished, grinning broadly. The dancers gathered around her laughed—her smile and love for something as foundational as a triplet was contagious.

Keep reading...
Dance Teacher Tips
Melanie George (right). Photo by Grace Corapi, courtesy of George

Teachers from coast to coast are pushing students to move outside the constraints of popular music. There is a consensus that the earlier you introduce varied musical forms, the more adept and adaptable a dancer's musicality will be.

New York–based jazz scholar and teacher Melanie George notices that many students' relationships to music can be reductive: They may think exclusively about lyrics or accents. But jazz, for example, is about swinging: an embodied comprehension of instrumentation that only comes with musical acuity. "Students are ready for this specificity, even if we aren't giving it to them," she says. When her students understand that there is a technique to listening, it becomes less about going forward, and more about going deeper into the sound and into their bodies.

Keep reading...
Site Network
Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in a scene from An American in Paris. Courtesy Fathom Events.

If you loved Christopher Wheeldon's An American in Paris on Broadway, you can now see the 1951 Oscar-winning movie it's based on in all its Technicolor glory. Fathom Events will present MGM's An American in Paris, starring Gene Kelly and French ballerina Leslie Caron, and with music by George and Ira Gershwin, in select theaters nationwide January 19 and 22.

Keep reading...
Photo by Rachel Papo

Alicia Graf Mack's journey to become director of The Juilliard School's Dance Division—the youngest person to hold the position, and the first woman of color—was anything but a straight line. Yes, she's danced with prestigious companies: Dance Theatre of Harlem, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Complexions Contemporary Ballet and Alonzo King LINES Ballet. But Mack also has a BA in history from Columbia University and an MA in nonprofit management from Washington University in St. Louis; she pursued both degrees during breaks in her performing career, taken to recover from injuries and autoimmune disease flare-ups.

As an undergrad, she briefly interned at JPMorgan Chase in marketing and philanthropic giving, and she later made arts administration central to her graduate work, assuming that she'd eventually take an administrative role with a dance organization.

Keep reading...
Dance Teachers Trending
Morrissey (left). Photo courtesy of Interlochen Center for the Arts

When Joseph Morrissey first took the helm of the dance division at Interlochen Center for the Arts, a boarding high school in Interlochen, Michigan, he found a fully established pre-professional program with space to grow. And his vision was big, with plans to stage the kind of ambitious repertory he'd experienced during his dance career. But the realities quickly set in. During his first year in 2015, the department was denied by the George Balanchine Trust to license any Balanchine ballets—the dancers were not quite ready.

This early disappointment didn't derail Morrissey. In just four years, he has not only raised Interlochen's training standards, he's staged ambitious full-length ballets and been granted the rights to works by Merce Cunningham, Agnes de Mille and, yes, Balanchine. Guest artists regularly visit, and he's initiated major plans to expand the dance department building. Morrissey is only 37, but it should come as no surprise that he's done so much so fast—his entire life's journey has prepared him to be an artistic leader.

Keep reading...
Dance Teacher Tips
Valerie Amiss with students. Photo by Tracie Van Auken, courtesy of Pennsylvania Ballet

Jared Nelson, artistic director of California Ballet, demonstrates a tight fifth position as he talks to his class about the importance of rotating from the hips. "Having a visual image helped me as a dancer, so I try to demonstrate as much as possible," he says. "But I am also very conscious of word choice. Every dancer is different, and you have to phrase things in a language they will understand."

Teachers should always be aware of how they communicate with their students, including how they choose language for different individuals, classes or situations. Using the right terminology in early stages of training will ensure that students learn the proper names of steps. This foundation is crucial, particularly when so much of the classical vocabulary has been substituted by nicknames and phrases. (Think "lame duck" or "step-up turn" in place of piqué en dehors.) But good use of language also means using imagery and positive reinforcement to ensure the right kind of messaging. What teachers say in the studio could make the difference between dancers who listen—and ones who really hear.

Keep reading...
Site Network
Dance Theatre of Harlem's Derek Brockington and Da'Von Doane in Claudia Schreier's Passage. Photo by Brian Callan, courtesy of DTH

Back to your routine after the holidays, but still looking for something to watch? Then this new PBS documentary titled Dancing on the Shoulders of Giants is for you. The hour-long film tracks the creation of two dance pieces: Claudia Schreier's Passage for Dance Theatre of Harlem, and Sir Richard Alston's Arrived featuring students of Norfolk's Governor's School for the Arts. Both works were co-commissioned by the American Evolution 2019 Commemoration and the Virginia Arts Festival last May, in recognition of the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of Africans to English North America and the history of slavery that followed.

Keep reading...
Getty Images

Q: My tween is begging me to go to a faraway summer intensive, claiming "all my friends are going." How do I know if she's ready?

A: It can feel like a rite of passage for serious dancers to attend an intensive at a major ballet school. They dance all day and often explore the area's surroundings or attend performances on weekends. But living away from home, having a roommate and living the "dorm life" can be a challenge.

Keep reading...
Site Network
Kensington Macmillen in class at CPYB. Photo by Joel Thomas Photography, courtesy of CPYB

Last year, Kensington MacMillen auditioned for summer programs away from home for the first time. A longtime Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet student, MacMillen had spent previous summers at her home studio, but now she was ready to branch out. After auditioning for three programs, her first response was a rejection from Miami City Ballet.

"A bunch of people from here had gotten in, and I didn't," she says. "So then you just kind of panic." She was still waiting to hear from the other programs and worried that she'd have nowhere to go.

Keep reading...
Dancer Health
Physical therapist Meredith Butulis in action. Photo courtesy of Twin Cities Orthopedics

After a long tennis match or a basketball game, elite athletes often head straight to the locker room and hit the exercise bike. On first thought, this might seem to be overtraining, but in fact, they are pedaling as a way to cool down properly.

"All of our blood vessels get dilated and blood goes out to muscles when we are doing cardiovascular work," says Meredith Butulis, a physical therapist specializing in dance medicine. "The blood goes mostly to the leg muscles, and blood pooling there is a real phenomenon. If your blood doesn't get back to the heart and brain, you can pass out."

She goes on to explain there are two ways to recover from an intense workout: actively, using a low-intensity movement to gradually bring the heart rate down, or passively, with no activity at all. The latter requires little explanation—how many times have you seen a dancer do a run-through and follow it up by sitting down on the side of the studio in a static stretch? But for many reasons, including the real possibility of blood pooling that Butulis describes, a passive recovery is not the best choice for dancers.

Keep reading...


Get DanceTeacher in your inbox