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Remembering Una Kai, Ballet Mistress for NYCB, Kansas City Ballet and More

Courtesy KCB

Una Kai, a former New York City Ballet dancer and ballet mistress for Kansas City Ballet, the Royal Danish Ballet and others, passed away on December 10 in Savannah, Georgia at the age of 92.

Kai danced with the New York City Ballet from 1948 to 1960. George Balanchine personally invited her to become the ballet master for the company, where she served from 1956 to 1971.

Kai also was ballet master of Joffrey Ballet in New York City from 1960 to 1963. In 1973, she became the artistic director of New Zealand Ballet (now The Royal New Zealand Ballet), and in 1975 moved on to become ballet mistress of the Royal Danish Ballet.

A young Kai poses in black tights, pointe shoes, leotard and long gloves, in fifth position releve. Her hair is very long, and she is tucking it behind her shoulders

Kai in Bolender's 1943 Mother Goose Suite. Photo by Walter E. Owen, courtesy KCB

In 1981, Todd Bolender brought Kai to Kansas City Ballet as the ballet mistress. I was studying in Beverly Hills at the Lichine Ballet Academy with Tatiana Riabouchinska when Bolender invited me to join the company.

A dancer's final training occurs when one joins a company. Mine was at the Kansas City Ballet. Bolender was half of that final training, always observing with a keen eye the use of our feet and turnout.

Una Kai was the other half, watching from the waist up. Arms and port de bras were so important to her. Time and time again, whether for a waltz or a brisé volé, she would say to the dancers "You have to bend, you have to bend."

"During company class, she always spoke of thinking about today's class the night before and selecting the right notebook of combinations from either her Danish heritage or combinations from early School of American Ballet faculty: Pierre Vladimiroff, Anatole Oboukhoff, Felia Doubrovska and others," says James Jordan, a fellow Kansas City Ballet dancer. "She always referred to 'blowing the dust off of them' as she sought inspiration on her shelves at home."

A black and white shot of Kai and Bolender, appearing to be in their sixties or seventies, looking intently past the camera, presumably at a class or rehearsal

Kai with Todd Bolender. Photo courtesy KCB

Her notebooks were meticulous when staging Balanchine ballets from Serenade to Apollo, Concerto Barocco to Allegro Brillante, and many more. (This was before videos, and her notes were all we had to rely on.) I remember once when she was setting the "Monsters" scene in Firebird. I had done it there years before and was questioning the way we ran. She insisted I was wrong. She then burst out laughing and said, "Oh, you're right, my notes are upside down!" We all laughed and continued on, but even upside down, her notes were invaluable.

I was lucky to not only work under her as a dancer, but also as a rehearsal assistant at Kansas City Ballet. She was generous, kind and had a wonderful sense of humor. Bolender would at times have some tense rehearsals, while Una would be more relaxed—sometimes too relaxed. When dancers and I would discuss, sometimes argue, over what we remembered, she would eventually put her foot down. "You can talk about it until you're blue in the face," she'd say. "Just do it and I'll teach it to you later."

Kai always had amazing stories both in the studio and out. She often hosted the dancers at her home for holidays. She generously shared her Danish family antique dining room tables, royal blue Persian carpets, Danish linens and the family sterling flatware and china, trusting all of us to not ruin them. We were all very young dancers, and some of us had not grown up around such quality, including me. We drank and shared fun stories—some appropriate and some not so—but we always felt at home.

She continued to work with Kansas City Ballet until her retirement in 1994. In 2008, she wrote the book Balanchine the Teacher: Fundamentals That Shaped the First Generation of New York City Ballet Dancers, along with Barbara Walzak.

Kai was the glue that held so many companies and choreographers together, and helped to build the foundation of ballet in America. How does one say goodbye to her? I will say the same thing she told me when I left the Kansas City Ballet: "I am going to miss you around here. Thank you for all you have done, my dear."

Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.

Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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