Playing Catch-Up

Addressing the needs of late-starters

Arantxa Ochoa at The School of Pennsylvania Ballet

Jenna Savella, a second soloist with The National Ballet of Canada, didn’t get serious about ballet until she was 15. When she auditioned for Canada’s National Ballet School, she was placed two levels lower than most of her peers. “I didn’t have a fundamental understanding of technique. I was playing catch-up the whole time,” she says. Savella admits that even now, she struggles to gain strength. “That challenge will never stop.”

When a student starts dancing in their teens or later, it’s difficult for her body to physically adapt to dance. Megan Richardson, certified athletic trainer at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries in New York, says a crucial time in dancers’ training is between ages 7 and 12, when muscle and joint tissue is pliable enough to be stretched and shaped. It becomes more difficult for a student who begins dancing past that age to change their physique. “When you’re working with kids who are young and growing, you can mold their bodies and get the most out of their anatomy,” she says. “Some late-starters have a gorgeous line if they’re naturally inclined, but others will have to work extra hard to achieve the aesthetic.”

Tackling Technique

Assigning a class level to a late-starter may depend on their previous experience, since many become interested in dance through similar physical activities, like gymnastics. Regardless, students should be in a level appropriate for their ability, not their age. This may mean grouping a teenager with 10- and 11-year-olds, which was the case when a 13-year-old recently enrolled at The School of Pennsylvania Ballet. Principal teacher Arantxa Ochoa asked the student to take classes with two different levels so she receives basic training but still feels challenged among dancers who aren’t significantly younger than her. In the more advanced class, Ochoa alters the combinations to suit her level. For example, instead of a diagonal of piqué turns, she’ll suggest a series of simple piqué passés from the corner. “I simplify things for her,” she says. “We want to challenge her without letting her develop bad habits.”

Eastern Connecticut Ballet’s Gloria Govrin

When teaching late-starters, Eastern Connecticut Ballet artistic director Gloria Govrin works very hands-on to help them form the muscle memory of correct shapes and coordination, concentrating on their alignment, legs and feet. During class, she’s constantly kneeling on the floor, shaping dancers’ feet with her hands and poking them in the stomach as a reminder to pull up. “You have to stay on top of them,” she says. “They’ll shake their head ‘yes,’ but physically they can’t feel it. You have to go over and do it for them so their bodies can respond.” Once they understand a shape or concept, it may help to repeat the step with their eyes closed, so they can begin to sense what that position feels like without the mirror.

Play to Their Strengths

It’s easy for late-starters to feel embarrassed, so taking a positive approach and offering encouragement will help them excel. “You don’t want to deflate them and make them feel like a failure before they even get started,” says Texas Ballet Theater School Ft. Worth principal Kathryn Warakomsky, a former Houston Ballet principal who began dancing at 14. A beginner may not actually know what their strengths are, so if their musicality is beautifully phrased, they’re a gifted turner or they have a commanding stage presence, let them know. “Technique is important, but it’s not the end all to making a good dancer,” says Warakomsky, “especially if they have other qualities that shine through.”

Govrin adds that these new students are often some of the most driven, committed and focused. Sure they’re behind, but they will progress much faster than a young child. “Intellectually, they can process corrections better, and they’re more focused,” says Govrin. “With somebody a little older, you can get them to understand that they have to crawl before they can walk.”

Savella agrees that the pressure she had put on herself to catch up lessened when she finally acknowledged that it wouldn’t happen overnight. “Understanding the basics of technique doesn’t take a day or even a year,” she says. “And I feel like that’s something I’m still learning, even today.” DT

 

 

Julie Diana is a principal dancer with the Pennsylvania Ballet. She has a BA in English from the University of Pennsylvania.

Photos from top: by Matthew Murphy; by Vanessa Murgio, courtesy of Eastern Connecticut Ballet

News
Getty Images

Despite worldwide theater closures, the Universal Ballet Competition is keeping The Nutcracker tradition alive in 2020 with an online international competition. The event culminates in a streamed, full-length video of The Virtual Nutcracker consisting of winning entries on December 19. The competition is calling on studios, as well as dancers of all ages and levels, to submit videos by November 29 to be considered.

"Nutcracker is a tradition that is ingrained in our hearts," says UBC co-founder Lissette Salgado-Lucas, a former dancer with Royal Winnipeg Ballet and Joffrey Ballet. "We danced it for so long as professionals, we can't wait to pass it along to dancers through this competition."

Keep reading... Show less
Robbie Sweeny, courtesy Funsch

Christy Funsch's teaching career has taken her from New York City to the Bay Area to Portugal, with a stint in a punk band in between. But this fall—fresh off a Fulbright in Portugal at the Instituto Politécnico de Lisboa, School of Dance (ESD), teaching and researching empathetic embodiment through somatic dance training—Funsch's teaching has taken her to an entirely new location: Zoom. A visiting professor at Slippery Rock University for the 2020–21 academic year, Funsch is adapting her eclectic, boundary-pushing approach to her virtual classes.

Originally from central New York State, Funsch spent 20 years performing in the Bay Area, where she also started her own company, Funsch Dance Experience. "My choreographic work from that time is in the dance-theater experiential, fantasy realm of performance," she says. "I also started blending genres and a lot of urban styles found their way into my choreography."

Keep reading... Show less
News
Courtesy Meg Brooker

As the presidential election approaches, it's a particularly meaningful time to remember that we are celebrating the centennial of the 19th Amendment, when women earned the right to vote after a decades-long battle.

Movement was more than a metaphor for the fight for women's suffrage—dancers played a real role, most notably Florence Fleming Noyes, who performed her riveting solo Dance of Freedom in 1914 to embody the struggle for women's rights.

This fall, Middle Tennessee State University director of dance Meg Brooker is reconstructing Dance of Freedom on 11 of her students. A Noyes Rhythm teacher and an Isadora Duncan scholar, Brooker is passionate about bringing historic dance practices into a contemporary context.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.