What to do when your dancer wants to go to boarding school
NYCB principal Tiler Peck left California at 11 to dance in New York City.
One beauty of summer programs is they give students a chance to try something different. Tappers might trade in their shoes for a modern workshop, and jazz dancers could refine their technique with ballet. But sometimes, branching out leads to falling in love. What if a student returns this month and announces that she wants to study elsewhere?
Though it may hurt to learn that one of your stars wants to go to boarding school, it’s essential to help her through this transition. She’ll need your guidance on how to prepare, mentally and physically, to make the most of her new experience. And once she’s gone, you must recover from the loss and keep business thriving.
Is It the Right Decision?
It’s important to voice your opinion, even if you don’t agree with the dancer’s choice. “It’s a big decision, so I’m honest because I want them to know what they’re getting into,” says Ashley Canterna Hardy of Edna Lee Dance Studio in Maryland. Make sure they’re certain about moving by encouraging them to research the school; its year-round program may differ from the summer intensive in schedule, class offerings and even faculty. “Some kids come here wanting serious training and are shocked and realize it’s not for them,” says Martin Fredmann, artistic and executive director of the Kirov Academy of Ballet of Washington, DC. Students may focus on one technique and find that they miss mixed training or realize that sacrificing a normal teenage lifestyle may not be for them.
Those who are serious enough to leave home probably want to dance professionally someday, so they should consider the school’s alumni, and whether the program feeds into a company. Canterna Hardy sits down with the student and parents to explain that they should expect a competitive atmosphere. “Everyone at these ballet schools is fighting for the same goal—to become a professional dancer,” she says.
Moving away from family, friends and teachers can be rough, especially for younger students. They should take location, distance from home, housing and academics into account; homesickness may become their biggest challenge. New York City Ballet principal Tiler Peck, who left California at 11, says that building relationships with friends is important. “I lived in the dorms where everyone’s away from home,” she says of her time at the School of American Ballet. “My friends became like family.”
Julie Jarnot, co-artistic director of Artistic Fusion Dance Academy in Colorado, puts dancers in contact with a trusted person in the same school or city, so there is always someone nearby in case of an emergency.
Preparing for Independence
Once you prepare your students mentally, it’s time to get their bodies in peak physical condition. For the ballet-bound, Canterna Hardy suggests taking technique class five to six days per week to continue building on principles learned that summer and to develop stamina and endurance. Jarnot sends students to Pilates to maximize strength and flexibility. She also talks about nutrition and sleep. Instilling healthy habits and responsible decision-making skills will help them succeed in the long run.
Still, students won’t understand the true intensity of the program until they arrive. “Some kids who are 16 and 17 years old enter school and realize they haven’t had the foundation or the right equipment—there’s a lot of catching up to do,” says Fredmann.
Find out if there are transitional training programs available to new students. For instance, when dancers arrive at Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, they are screened to identify strengths and weaknesses and given catered exercises. “Most of the time they need to take a step backward,” says Interlochen’s director of dance, Cameron Basden. “They can do some steps really well, but they don’t know how to put things together.” She acknowledges that competition dancers succeed because of their work ethic and enthusiasm. As great performers, they tend to channel that energy into their studies.
Fostering a Lasting Connection
It can be difficult to say good-bye to a dancer you’ve invested in. “Once you get the news,” says Jarnot, “it stings a little bit. But if they want to pursue a career in ballet, and you know that’s what they should be doing, it’s easy to let go.”
To manage the loss of a leading dancer, Jarnot turns her attention to younger students. It reminds her of the studio’s purpose: to support and encourage kids. As the dancers age, they will continue to feed the studio. “You have to build from the bottom. As much as that star will be missed, there’s always someone to fill those shoes,” she says.
Stay in touch and encourage your dancer to return often. Canterna Hardy still choreographs for her student at The Rock School and taught a master class there through the connection. Peck says that choreographing at her mom’s studio, the Bakersfield Dance Company, lets her take a ballet vacation and revisit her jazz roots.
The key to maintaining your students’ business is to nurture your connection. They’ll bring outside experience, inspire the little ones and even lead you to new business opportunities. It’s a win-win for everyone. DT
Julie Diana is a principal dancer with Pennsylvania Ballet. She has a BA in English from the University of Pennsylvania.
Photo: NYCB principal Tiler Peck left California at 11 to dance in New York City; by Paul Kolnik, courtesy of New York City Ballet