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Here Are 3 Colleges Where Dancers Can Learn From Balanchine Stars

Photo by Peter Mueller, courtesy of UNCSA

Fleet footwork, nuanced musicality, daring extremes—all are hallmarks of George Balanchine's legendary choreography on display in the repertory of New York City Ballet and other companies that perform his works. Hyperfocused ballet students can hone their Balanchine technique at the School of American Ballet in NYC, but what about the college dancer who'd like exposure to his neoclassical style?


Through special agreement with The George Balanchine Trust, colleges can request permission to have some of "Mr. B's" most beloved works set on their students by Trust-approved stagers, who offer unique insight into the challenging repertory. "Dancing Balanchine in the classroom serves as a significant training tool to understand and practice his style and technique," says Ellen Sorrin, director of the Trust. Balanchine's works remain popular at the collegiate level, as both choreographic masterpieces and didactic tools for the next generation. They help develop a dancer's athleticism and speed—without sacrificing clarity—and cultivate the strong Balanchine line.

Three college dance programs recently restaged Balanchine works, and each experience afforded students unique exposure to the legendary choreographer.

Serenade: Syncopated musicality

University of North Carolina School of the Arts • Winston-Salem, North Carolina

Last winter, UNCSA ballet major Jacqueline Hodek performed as the Dark Angel in Serenade (1935), Balanchine's first American masterpiece. Former NYCB soloist Zippora Karz staged the ballet. "On the first day of rehearsal, Ms. Karz watched some of our morning technique class and selected the principals," says Hodek. "I was called along with five other girls to audition for the principal roles. She taught us the Russian Girl, the Waltz Girl's first entrance and the Russian Girl's second entrance. After she watched us, she knew who each principal would be."

Growing up, Hodek trained in Vaganova technique but fell in love with the Balanchine style at the Indianapolis School of Ballet. "All of his works are so in-depth and very detail-oriented," she says. Though she and her classmates had to learn Serenade in just over a week, the process helped Hodek learn "not only to listen to the music but to be the music." She came to appreciate how Balanchine's choreography embodies the music. "There might be a change of direction, or an adagio might turn into an allegro," she says. "Take the third movement of Serenade, for example—it starts slow, and then it picks up and only escalates from there."

When Hodek graduates, she hopes to dance professionally with a company steeped in Balanchine tradition, such as Miami City Ballet, Ballet West or Dutch National Ballet. "It was a huge honor to perform his works," she says. "Serenade helped me with my articulation, musicality, punctuation, confidence and artistry."

Walpurgisnacht Ballet: Precision and footwork

Indiana University • Bloomington, Indiana

Former NYCB principal dancer Kyra Nichols now teaches ballet at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music, where she draws from what Balanchine instilled in her. "He really taught me so much about presenting myself," she says.

In spring 2019, Nichols will set Walpurgisnacht Ballet (1975) on her students. A decade after retiring from NYCB, she says she still makes discoveries in Balanchine's repertory. With Walpurgisnacht Ballet, she was fascinated to learn the corps de ballet choreography, having danced mostly lead roles during her performance career. "What they were doing behind me was just as incredible," she says. For Nichols, the essence of Balanchine comes down to the footwork. "You have to be on the balls of your feet so you can change directions: fast then slow; start and stop. It's all about quickness and precision." That's what makes dancers with Balanchine experience highly sought-after at auditions, she says: "The ability to do that style is what many directors want."

Stars and Stripes: Stamina and history

Florida State University • Tallahassee, Florida

Before graduating last year with her MA in dance, Meagan Helman had the chance to take class from Suzanne Farrell, a celebrated Balanchine muse who is now a part-time faculty member at FSU and a répétiteur of The George Balanchine Trust. "The way she teaches class in the Balanchine style lends itself to greater awareness and familiarity with technique," says Helman. "It's this sort of coaching that a lot of students don't get to experience."

Farrell set an excerpt from Stars and Stripes during Helman's time at FSU. Having trained under teachers who came through SAB, Helman knew what to expect—at least to some extent. "I was used to working from broader positions for pirouettes, for example," she says, "but Balanchine demands a lot of energy. Even a short piece like the Second Campaign from Stars and Stripes is a four-minute whirlwind."

The opportunity to learn from a living legend like Farrell wasn't lost on Helman. "It was a unique experience, to learn from a Balanchine teacher who danced with Balanchine himself," she says. "They're in limited supply at this point."

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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