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When Your Family Doesn't Support Your Dance Career
Noelani Pantastico in Jean-Christophe Maillot's Roméo et Juliette. Photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB
When she was 11, Noelani Pantastico's family moved to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, five minutes from the famed Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. Although she had no prior training, the school offered her a scholarship based on her potential.
Yet Pantastico often had to fight her way to the studio: Her mother needed help at home, and felt it wasn't fair to the other five children to let Pantastico train six days a week. She was routinely late for class because she was waiting for other parents or a teacher to pick her up, or for her mother to give in and drive.
But the CPYB teachers saw her incredible promise and helped any way they could. “Darla Hoover was my mentor—she became the ballet mom I didn't have," recalls Pantastico, now a principal with Pacific Northwest Ballet. “To this day, I don't have a close relationship to my family. My family are the people I work and dance with every day."
A lack of family support—whether financial, emotional or both—can be a major hurdle for young students and professional dancers alike. Dance is often viewed as a hobby, and well-meaning parents frequently encourage college while discouraging dance.
Parents may desire a more stable or lucrative profession. Or they simply fear the heartache of seeing their child struggle for a career they don't fully understand. But dancers who keep pushing for an artist's life, despite familial strains, find the payoff is worth the struggle.
Callie Manning in Dances at a Gathering. Photo by Leigh-Ann Esty, courtesy MCB
The problem often comes down to money, since dance training does not come cheap. Tuition, summer intensives, pointe/ballet/jazz/tap shoes, tights and leotards can add up to over $100,000 by the time a dancer becomes professional.
“I did feel a sense of guilt; the pointe shoe expense was much more than my family had," recalls Miami City Ballet principal soloist Callie Manning. “I made shoes last longer than I should have just so I wouldn't have to ask for another pair." Like Pantastico, Manning was on scholarship at CPYB, where scholarship students had weekly chores (such as cleaning floors or bathrooms).
Bernard Brown. Photo by Benjamin Brooks, courtesy Brown
Many students whose families can't finance their training learn to be self-sufficient, stretching their resources to cover what their scholarships don't. Lula Washington Dance Theatre dancer Bernard Brown was a scholarship student at Idyllwild Arts Academy and at Purchase College, where he worked in the campus mail room. His work allowed him to buy his own shoes and dance clothes. He unscrewed taps from tap shoes so he could take character class, and washed tights by hand every other day.
“I realize now that my work outside the studio set me up with real life skills," he says, “but at the time I just tried to blend in. I didn't want everyone to know I was a foster kid from South Central L.A."
Some dancers simply struggle to defend the viability of a professional dance career. It can be short-lived. It rarely pays well. It is insanely competitive for women. And many people don't respect men dancing professionally.
When Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's Jeffery Duffy told his estranged father he was training seriously in dance, his father responded, “Ain't no money in that; it's just for girls."
Jeffry Duffy. Photo by Todd Rosenberg, courtesy Hubbard Street
Instead of letting the discouragement stop him, Duffy says, “it enabled me to work hard, to say to him, 'No, I'm doing this and I'm going to be really great at it!' " (Fortunately, Duffy's mother and brother were willing to sacrifice whatever was needed to help him get there.)
Dancers can sometimes find the support they're missing at home by bonding with their teachers. For Angeli Mamon—the first female dancer offered a PNB contract after being discovered in the company's DanceChance outreach program—two of her teachers at the PNB School were willing to do what it took to help her succeed, like helping her audition for summer programs and offering career advice.
“It wasn't until I was hired into the PNB corps that my mom realized this could be a career," says Mamon. “But she still wants me to go to college."
Angeli Mamon in Le Corsaire. Photo by Lindsay Thomas, courtesy PNB
All too often, parental doubts can be too strong for dancers to overcome. Lauren Cohen, a ballet professor at University of Houston, saw her family's support wane the closer she got to a professional ballet career. “My parents didn't understand what I was doing because they weren't there and didn't ask questions," says Cohen, who lived and trained at The Washington School of Ballet from ages 13 to 17. “They appreciated dance and loved to see me, but never viewed it as a career, just an extracurricular activity on steroids."
Hounded by injuries and teenage uncertainties, Cohen let her parents redirect her toward SATs and college applications. She has long since regretted not pursuing a full-time dance career. Five years after giving up dance, Cohen's husband encouraged her to re-embrace it, and she's since performed with modern dance companies.
“If you've invested a lot of time in dance and you love it, just try it!" says Cohen. “Don't worry about failing. That will never lead to growth."
The key is to focus on the ultimate goal, not financial uncertainties or parental deterrents. Now one of PNB's star dancers, Pantastico feels that her childhood hardships made her stronger and more in charge of her own life. “If you seek out the people willing to help you, are open and generous with your heart," she says, “the hardships will not get you down!"
Sarah Haarmann stands out without trying to. There is a precision and lack of affectation in her dancing that is very Merce Cunningham. Her movement quality is sharp and clear; her stage presence utterly focused. It's no wonder she caught Mark Morris' eye. Even though she still considers herself "very much the new girl" at Mark Morris Dance Group (she became a full-time member in August 2017), in a recent performance of Layla and Majnun, Haarmann seemed completely in her element.
Company: Mark Morris Dance Group
Hometown: Macungie, Pennsylvania
Training: Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Performing Arts and Marymount Manhattan College
In 2012, freelance contemporary dancer Adrianne Chu made a major career change: She decided to try out for A Chorus Line. "Even though I didn't get the job, I felt like I was meant to do this," says Chu. So she started going to at least one musical theater audition every weekday, treating each as a learning experience. After several years of building up her resumé, Chu's practice paid off: She booked a starring role as Wendy in the first national tour of Finding Neverland.
Approaching auditions as learning opportunities, especially when you're trying to break into a different style or are new to the profession, can sharpen your skills while helping you avoid burnout. It also builds confidence for the auditions that matter most.
For many dancers, a "warmup" consists of sitting on the floor stretching their legs in various positions. But this strategy only reduces your muscles' ability to work properly—it negatively affects your strength, endurance, balance and speed for up to an hour.
Save your flexibility training for the end of the day. Instead, follow a warmup that will actually help prevent injury and improve your body's performance.
According to the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science, a smart warmup has four parts: "a gentle pulse-raising section, a joint mobilization section, a muscle lengthening section and a strength/balance building section."
It's easy to feel whiplashed thinking about everything Emma Portner has achieved in such a short amount of time. Last fall, the 23-year-old was the youngest woman ever to choreograph a West End production (it was based on Meat Loaf's greatest hits). This was, of course, after she already choreographed and starred in Justin Bieber's viral hit "Life is Worth Living," and before she charmed major media outlets when she secretly married actress Ellen Page. Now, she's L.A. Dance Project's first-ever artist in residence, and she's working on a commission for Toronto's Fall for Dance North Festival.
We caught up with her for our "Spotlight" series:
Last month, the International Association of Blacks in Dance's third annual ballet audition for women of color was expanded to include a separate audition for men.
The brainchild of Joan Myers Brown (founder of both Philadanco and IABD), the women's audition was created to specifically address the lack of black females in ballet. However, the success and attention that audition drew made the men feel left out, so IABD decided to give the men equal time this year.
Pina Bausch's unique form of German Tanztheater is known for raising questions. Amid water and soil, barstools and balloons, the late choreographer's work contains a distinct tinge of mystery and confrontation. Today, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch's dancers use questions as fuel for creativity. The company's most recent project introduced a new group of performers to the stage: local high school ninth-graders from the Gesamtschule Barmen in Wuppertal, Germany, in an original work-in-progress performance called Veränderung (Change).
Before she became the 20th century's most revered ballet pedagogue, Agrippina Vaganova was a frustrated ballerina. "I was not progressing and that was a terrible thing to realize," she wrote in a rough draft of her memoirs.
She retired from the Imperial Ballet stage in 1916, and for the next 30-plus years, devoted herself to creating a "science of ballet." Her new, dynamic teaching method produced stars like Rudolf Nureyev, Alla Osipenko, and Galina Ulanova and later Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. And her approach continues to influence how we think about ballet training to this day.
But is the ballet class due for an update? Demands and aesthetics have changed. So should the way dancers train change too?
I love being transgender. It's an important part of the story of why I choreograph. Although I loved dance from a very young age, I grew up never seeing a single person like me in dance. So how could I imagine a future for myself there?
The enormous barriers I had to overcome weren't internal: I didn't struggle with feelings of dysphoria, and I wasn't locked down by shame.
The dance community is heartbroken to learn that 14-year-olds Jaime Guttenberg and Cara Loughran were among the 17 people killed during the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.
Guttenberg was a talented competition dancer at Dance Theatre in Coconut Creek, FL, according to a report from Sun Sentinel. Dance Theatre owner Michelle McGrath Gerlick shared the below message on her Facebook page, encouraging dancers across the country to wear orange ribbons this weekend in honor of Guttenberg, whose favorite color was orange.
A statement released yesterday by New York City Ballet and School of American Ballet reported that an independent investigation was unable to corroborate allegations of harassment and abuse against former ballet master in chief Peter Martins, according to The New York Times. This marks the end of a two-month inquiry jointly launched by the two organizations in December following an anonymous letter detailing instances of harassment and violence.
The statement also included new policies for both the company and school to create safer, more respectful environments for the dancers, including hiring an independent vendor to handle employee complaints anonymously. These changes are being made despite the independent investigation, handled by outside counsel Barbara Hoey, purportedly finding no evidence of abuse.