Galina Alexandrova delivers a rare take on classical ballet training in the Bay Area.

“You get to know [the students] and their needs, and you just keep moving them forward,” says
Alexandrova.

Twenty-six years after she left Moscow, City Ballet School director Galina Alexandrova still gets a dreamy lilt in her voice when remembering the Bolshoi Theatre. “In my career, I don’t think there was anything better than that,” she says quietly. “Being in that environment with those incredible artists and such history, it was wonderful.” After a successful performing career in Moscow and the Bay Area, Alexandrova has developed a San Francisco ballet school whose rigorous, exclusively Vaganova training draws heavily from her Russian roots. She’s an anomaly as well as a success story: In a city that races maniacally toward the new and splashy, Alexandrova has achieved notable success by quietly teaching students the lessons of her Russian past.

The daughter of two professional dancers, Alexandrova started at the prestigious Bolshoi Ballet Academy (formally known as the Moscow State Academy of Choreography) at age 9, and upon graduating joined the Bolshoi Ballet. In the next seven years she progressed steadily from corps de ballet parts to demi-soloist roles. Her life took an abrupt turn when on a 1987 tour to San Francisco she met stagehand Ken Patsel at a cast party.

Alexandrova left the Bolshoi and moved to the Bay Area to marry Patsel. “Basically I fell in love, so I didn’t think too much,” she says with a laugh. “If it hadn’t been for my husband, I wouldn’t ever have left that theater.” She joined San Francisco Ballet as a corps de ballet member in 1989 and took on soloist and principal roles. “She was beautifully trained and so different from most of the company,” says former dancer Kristin Long. “It was great to see a dancer straight from Russia: such an amazing understanding of musicality and port de bras.”

Alexandrova left San Francisco Ballet when pregnant with her second child, continuing to dance with local companies. When her daughter Katia turned 6, Alexandrova enrolled her at City Ballet School. And when CBS owner Damara Bennett moved to Oregon Ballet Theatre, Alexandrova decided to purchase the school, partly so that her daughter could continue training. Although she had no teaching experience, she could rely on her mother Svetlana Afanasieva, a graduate of the Bolshoi Ballet Academy’s teacher training course who had followed Alexandrova to San Francisco and had become one of the Bay Area’s most respected ballet teachers.

Joffrey Ballet’s Jeraldine Mendoza was mentored by Alexandrova.

Starting slowly, Alexandrova taught classes with her mother’s guidance. But the following year, her mother died suddenly and Alexandrova had to teach everything without a mentor. “It was tough,” she says. “After you’ve danced for 20 years, it’s difficult to remember how you started. So I needed to study. I read lots of books and, thank God, YouTube came. I watched ballet classes and interviews with teachers. It was an incredible source of information.” This desire to learn and grow as a teacher has continued, even as her reputation has become established. “She is constantly working to improve her skills,’ says Nikolai Kabaniaev, a former Kirov (now Mariinsky) Ballet dancer who runs the school’s boys’ program. “To teach the next generation, you constantly have to learn, yourself, and Galina is not afraid to ask questions.”

In designing the CBS program, Alexandrova draws upon elements of her training at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy. “Sometimes I watch Galina’s class, and it’s like being in Russia,” says Kabaniaev. “It’s honest, true training, with no shortcuts. I’ve never seen anything like this in this country.”

Nikolai Kabaniaev directs the men’s program.

At the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, the most promising children are selected at a young age from a huge pool of applicants and spend nearly a decade immersed in ballet training. This type of program doesn’t exist in the U.S., but Alexandrova echoes the dedication to each student. “I choose selectively. I want to raise them, to invest in them,” she says. The business side of the school is managed by Patsel (“By this point, he probably knows more about ballet than I do!” she jokes.) so Alexandrova can focus entirely on students’ dancing.

Bolshoi Ballet Academy teachers stay with students for several years, a structure that emphasizes knowing each dancer over specializing in a specific age or level. Alexandrova maintains this at CBS; she has taught her current crop of 13-year-olds since they were 9. “You get to know them and their needs and you just keep moving them forward,” she says. “It’s more interesting because you can see the results.” Classes are intentionally kept small enough that each student gets attention.

Perhaps most significantly, Alexandrova’s curriculum is based on the Vaganova method, known for its detailed, logical pedagogy and emphasis on integrating both upper and lower body. “All the teachers in the school are invested in teaching the Vaganova method, so the students are given a clear progression through the school,” says Long, who started teaching at the school after retiring from San Francisco Ballet. “The Vaganova training is such a strong foundation for a dancer.”

City Ballet School pre-professional students in their spring showcase

This same foundation has enabled some success stories, notably Jeraldine Mendoza, currently with Joffrey Ballet of Chicago. The school has grown under Alexandrova’s directorship, in part because of a move to a bigger space shortly after she took over, which allowed more classes and levels. Alexandrova hopes to expand even further soon and would like to create a junior company to dance more full-length works. “This is a unique place,” says Kabaniaev, “a jewel in San Francisco. I tell parents, ‘If you want true Vaganova training, you can either send your kids to City Ballet School, or you can go to Russia.’” DT

Caitlin Sims is a former Dance Teacher editor, now based in San Francisco.

Photos (from top) by Drew Kelly; by Cheryl Mann, courtesy of Joffrey Ballet; ARRO Shotz Photography (2), courtesy of City Ballet School

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Valentina Bagala and Rafael Savino held their studio's very first registration at a Subway. "We didn't even have an office," says Bagala, who heads the artistic side of Ascendance Studio in Doral, Florida. "This lady called us over the phone, and we said, 'OK, we can take your registration. Would you mind meeting us at the Subway that's downstairs from our studio?'"

Now, five years later, Ascendance is thriving, with a growing competitive team, a 5,000-square-foot space and 300 students—one of whom is the same dancer who was registered in that Subway. Today, registration mostly happens online, as do many of Ascendance's processes—attendance, billing, e-mail marketing campaigns—thanks to Savino, who heads the studio's marketing, finances and administration. To what do Bagala and Savino credit their impressive growth? Digital advertising. Despite working in an industry where many still rely on old-school methods of operation—manual registration, tuition paid in person by cash or check, fliers handed out in parking lots—they took the plunge to modernize their advertising strategy and found it a game changer for their studio.

Slow, but consistent

Bagala and Savino admit Ascendance got off to a rocky start. They rented space from a fitness studio for three months. "We didn't get the best schedule," says Bagala, who could only rent the space by the hour when it wasn't being used. Still, she managed to amass 25 students. Eventually, she found a small, 550-square-foot space of her own in a shopping center. "I remember for our first classes, we would have people who were supposed to show up but didn't," says Savino. "If we had one student in class, we had to teach to that student. That happened multiple times."

When two more spaces became available in the same shopping center, the couple grabbed them, despite the inconvenience of the units not being connected. "You had to step outside," says Bagala. "It wasn't very comfortable."

"The fliers weren't working."

With more space came more responsibility—to increase enrollment. They had been passing out fliers at nearby schools, but that approach, Savino says, "became unscalable. That's when I started looking at digital advertising." He didn't have much money to spend on it—his budget was $5/day—but he began looking into advertising on Google. He also enrolled in a local digital marketing course at nearby Miami-Dade College. "That gave me strategy," he says.

His most successful venture has been with Google's AdWords. With this advertising strategy, business owners create a search ad. (Search ads appear above Google search results when people look for local services the business offers.) The Ascendance search ad, for example, includes the studio website and phone number, plus: "Dance classes for kids. All ages and styles. Try a free class today." Then, you choose keywords—the words or phrases potential customers might type into their browser—and set a daily budget for how much you'd like to "bid" on each keyword. You're charged only if users click your link. During his first AdWords campaign, Savino often bid less than $1 on keywords like "ballet classes," "hip-hop classes," "jazz" and "dance studio."

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Experimenting, wisely

Savino ran his initial AdWords campaign for about a month in 2013, starting in mid-September—prime back-to-school time. Each week, he wound up getting 10-plus interested customers. He offered each a free trial class. Of that weekly number, more than 80 percent enrolled in classes. By the time the campaign was over, Ascendance had 45 new students. And it all cost him less than $150. Though he risked spending more than his daily allotted $5, he knew it would pay off in increased enrollment.

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