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Time for Training
Is there an ideal age for starting ballet?
Not many principal dancers can claim their careers happened by accident—but Kevin D. Bowles of National Ballet of Canada can. At age 14, he volunteered to work backstage at a high school musical but signed up to audition for a part by mistake. “I was too embarrassed to admit it, so I auditioned,” remembers Bowles, a principal character artist with NBC. “Then I landed a major role!” To get him stage-ready, the director put Bowles into ballet class. Immediately, he fell head over heels for dance.
But Bowles had a challenging road ahead. Starting ballet as a teenager is difficult for anyone with professional aspirations; most pros step up to the barre long before they hit puberty. Youngsters have not only the advantage of more malleable bodies, but also the benefit of time. It takes years to develop the strength and flexibility required for ballet, and companies tend to hire teenage apprentices. So what is the ideal age to begin ballet? Is it always preferable to get an early start? Dance Magazine investigates.
An Early Start
Starting ballet as a young child has both physical and mental advantages. Studies suggest that young minds are more adept at learning new languages, and ballet is definitely a language. “Kids certainly retain new information better than adults,” observes Damara Bennett, director of the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre. (The school begins pre-ballet at age 4, and full ballet classes around 6.)
According to Bennett, a main advantage of starting early is that young bodies are ideal for cultivating long lines and strong technique. “If kids don’t have the perfect feet and they start young enough, you have time to make their feet better and more limber,” she says. “But by the time they’re teenagers, there is not as much room for change.”
Jennie Somogyi, a New York City Ballet principal who began training at age 7, agrees. “As far as developing your muscles, the younger the start the better,” she says. “Ballet involves a lot of small muscles in addition to major muscle groups, and it can take years to build them.” Somogyi’s first teacher asked her to stop gymnastics when she got serious about ballet so that her body would develop in the “ballet” way.
The Washington Ballet’s Amanda Cobb ran into this problem when she transitioned from gymnastics at the late age of 12. Despite her great natural facility, she had to relearn how to move her body. During her first summer at the School of American Ballet, she was 14 but placed in a level with younger students. “I had all this flexibility, but I couldn’t do anything,” she recalls. “Their bodies would go in perfect positions. When I looked in the mirror, my body didn’t look like that.”
For the professionally oriented, the ideal starting time is almost a question of math. It takes about 12 years to produce a company-ready dancer, according to Bennett. “When they start at 6, they’re learning, say, 10 different steps, and you have to go so slowly for their bodies to absorb it,” she says. “Well, it’s the same for adults. They have to start at the beginning, too.” If companies hire dancers in their mid- to late teens (Somogyi joined NYCB at 15, after studying at SAB for six years), it only makes sense that training should begin at least a decade prior.
Some schools do it a bit differently. At White Lodge, the lower division of England’s Royal Ballet School, students don’t begin full-time training until the relatively late age of 11. Prior to that, they take a weekly class at one of RBS’s associate schools. By the time they audition for White Lodge, most are still dancing at an elementary level.
But at age 11, the training intensifies, with daily classes and girls going on pointe halfway through their first year. It should be noted, however, that White Lodge students are hand-selected from approximately 1,000 applicants for about 25 spots. “We look mainly for musicality, coordination, flexibility, hyper-mobility, an aesthetic to their lines—and that spark that you can’t teach them,” says assistant director Jay Jolley. “But a child at that age can still change drastically in 12 months.”
Assessing Each Child
There are a number of issues to consider when determining whether a child is ready to begin. “It depends on their focus,” says Darla Hoover, associate artistic director of both Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet and Ballet Academy East in New York City. Every child is different, and some may be too young to take direction. “You don’t want them so young that they can’t stand still.”Another concern: Kids can acquire bad habits just as easily as they acquire good ones. “Each time a child does something, it should be correct,” says Hoover. “If they use the wrong muscles now, they’ll have to unlearn it later.”
For students who don’t have the maturity for a full ballet class, pre-ballet is a good alternative. Typically, these classes cover the basic ballet positions but focus on creative movement, posture, etiquette, and coordination, making for an easier transition into full ballet classes.
Late starters like Cobb and Bowles face a special set of challenges—some of which are psychological. “When I was 16, I was put in with a bunch of 13-year-olds, and they are not kind at that age!” Bowles remembers. “Everyone was laughing at me and saying, ‘Who is the galoot who doesn’t even know what passé is?’ ”
But starting from scratch is what latecomers need. “Sometimes schools put new students with their own age group. That’s a recipe for disaster,” says Hoover. “When they start older, they might excel faster, but they still have to swallow their pride and take class with the 8-year-olds.”
Late-starters also need the patience to let their bodies reshape. “One main issue is flexibility,” says Evan Williams, a physical therapist at Mosaic Physical Therapy in Los Angeles, CA, and a former dancer with Birmingham Royal Ballet. With diligence, teenagers can increase their extension. “As you get older, there is less elastin in the muscles, but that’s when you’re 30 or older,” Williams says. “For teens, there is definitely still building being done.”
Is there a silver lining for latecomers? Bowles thinks so. He believes that starting late, he had the maturity to understand what he was getting into. “A mental strain kicks in around age 25. I’ve seen a lot of dancers get burned out,” he says. “I came in a little more mature, less able to be disillusioned. I could get my mind around this life.”
Kristin Lewis is a dancer and writer in NYC.
Break Your Bad Habits: The Knees
By Lauren Kay
Whether landing from a tour jeté or preparing for a lift, a juicy plié with correctly aligned knees is key to a dancer’s safety. But the knee is only as strong as the rest of the leg. “Knee health is really about the thighs, abdomen, and ankles,” says Sherry Zunker, co-artistic director emeritus of River North Chicago Dance Company. “If you’re only concerned about your knees and not the whole line of the leg, you’ll have bad knees.” Pacific Northwest Ballet physical therapist Boyd Bender agrees. Of the knee problems he treats, “40 percent are actually hip issues, 40 percent are ankle issues, and only 20 percent are really from the knees.” He continues, “The knee is not so much a primetime player as a functional link between the ankle and hip.” Dance Magazine spoke to Zunker, Bender, and Pamela Pribisco, ballet teacher at Steps on Broadway in NYC, about addressing habits that lead to knee injuries and using the knee as part of the whole leg.
Habit: Locking the knees Aiming for super-straight legs, some dancers push back into the knees, placing undue pressure on these delicate joints. This feels comfortable for those with natural hyperextension. “If a dancer has hyper-extended knees and you ask them to come out of that position, they feel awkward and not secure,” Bender says.
Break it: Bender suggests working in front of the mirror on a balance board, trying various positions and challenges (eyes closed, alternating legs) to get a baseline of what “straight” is. Pribisco uses another visual benchmark: “Stand sideways to the mirror and check: The shoulders should be over the hips, over the knee, over the ankle in a straight line,” she says. “The knee should never go back behind the ankle.” She adds that strengthening the legs can guard against locked knees; if properly used, the muscles above and below the knee can hold it in correct alignment. “Dancers who lock back usually have overstretched hamstrings,” she explains. “They’ve been pushing back into the joint so much. Instead, they must learn to strengthen and pull up the quad from right above the kneecap.”
For dancers with hyperextended legs, Zunker suggests “working with the idea of energy and length. Instead of tightening the leg and knee, think of length through the hip and up into the torso so that the energy line extends through your body and past it. Someone with hyperextension needs to be imaginative, thinking of shape and energy, not just bones and muscle.”
Habit: Untracked knees During pliés and when landing from jumps, tracking the knees—aligning them with the hip and ankle—is essential. For men, this is especially important when coming down from complex, high-speed jumps. Bender says that difficulty tracking the knees can arise from weakness in the hip muscles that turn out the thigh. Pribisco adds that the problem can result from forced rotation of the ankle. “If you over-rotate the ankle into fake turnout, the ankle is not communicating with the hip’s actual rotation, so the knee in between is left all alone,” she says. “There should instead be a kinetic link between the weight-bearing hip, knee, and ankle.”
Break it: Zunker says finding a balance between your anatomy and aesthetic goals is the first step to properly tracked knees. “You have to be an artist about adjusting your feet so that the line looks great, while also establishing placement that is right for your body,” she says. “If you only have one of these two elements, you’re not doing your job as a dancer. And you won’t be secure, either.” She suggests taking basic technique classes to find your personal balance.
Pribisco recommends the following exercise for improving the alignment of ankle, knee, and hip: “Sit toward the edge of a chair, feet on the ground, thighs parallel to the floor,” she says. “Squeeze a pillow or yoga block between the knees 10 times to awaken your adductor muscles. Then, still sitting and squeezing the block gently, do 10 parallel relevés. Doing this before class will help you work correctly through all parts of the leg.”
Lauren Kay, a dancer and writer in NYC, is a contributing editor at Dance Spirit.
Across the Floor: Talking About Race at MSU
How often does a panel discussion actually stay on topic? At Montclair State University in April, following a year-end performance by a fiercely talented crop of dance majors, it didn’t take long for panelists to veer from the question at hand: “What is African American choreography?”
“You know, that was characteristic of the entire year,” observed moderator and MSU theater professor Neil Baldwin after the event, referring to the springboard effect of the question. Since September, that same query had served as a unifying theme for the MSU dance curriculum, propelling a rich, department-wide dialogue. In dance history classes and Baldwin’s “danceaturgy” seminar, African American contributions to modern dance were the focus of academic inquiry. In the studio, students tackled a range of works by black choreographers—or inspired by African American themes—from Helen Tamiris’ Negro Spirituals (1928–42) to Donald McKayle’s 1951 Games.
The diversity of the rep, in itself, spoke to the difficulty of defining “African American choreography.” “The original question was essentially unanswerable,” added Baldwin in a phone interview. “But it became a stimulus for other conversations and explorations.”
In college dance departments, the topic of “black dance” sometimes gets relegated to a weeklong unit on the dance history syllabus. Lori Katterhenry, chair of the MSU dance department, wanted to change that. In teaching dance history, she admits, she had always felt uncomfortable presenting a neatly packaged lecture on African American concert dance, a subject inextricably linked with America’s history of slavery and racial inequality. “In a way,” she says, “I was answering my own need to go further with this topic, to not pay it lip service or isolate it out of context.”
Katterhenry also hoped to open students’ eyes to the cultural relevance of dance. “We’ve got these very facile bodies, but we’re not always engaging them at a deeper level,” she says. “Could we use repertory to engage students with current and past events? Could we still bring them a broad range of rep, and yet house it under an idea that would make us examine ourselves and society?”
As it turned out, yes. During the panel discussion, professor Elizabeth McPherson, who staged Games, remarked that more than ever, she saw her students finding “cross-currents and connections” between dance, their own lives, and the world around them. “We’ve seen students grow enormously in artistic and emotional capacity,” she added. Recent graduate Tiana Taylor, who performed in Games and Robert Battle’s Arbitrary Intersection, enthused that “this year the dance program has been the strongest since I’ve been here.”
Katterhenry felt that a curriculum centered on race had divisive potential but that the most unsettling questions are the ones worth asking. “It was a liberating year,” she says. “By the end I felt like we had a real, full, three-dimensional picture of ourselves.” —Siobhan Burke
Photo of Damara Bennett by Christian Johnson, courtesy OBT