In Training: Leaving the Nest

July 31, 2014

How do students know they’re ready for full-time training?



Mallory Mehaffey and students of the Houston Ballet Academy in Stanton Welch’s
Studies. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet.


By the time Ahna Lipchik started high school, she was already dreaming of attending a year-round boarding program. But something inside told her she wasn’t ready to leave home just yet. “I knew I was getting really good training, and I wanted to experience what normal high school life was like,” she says. “Also, I think I was scared.”

Leaving home can give you an early taste of professional life—in ballet, it’s often a necessary stepping-stone to a career. But dancers need to be emotionally mature enough to handle living away from home. For Lipchik, that time came two years later when she entered the University of North Carolina School of the Arts as a high school junior. “I just had the feeling that I was ready to see how far I could go,” she says. “I wanted to explore more about who I am as an artist, and to have these discoveries, I felt like I needed to leave what I was used to.”

So how do you know if you’re ready?


Stress Management

At many schools, the application process for year-round study—which usually includes recommendations from teachers—is very extensive in order to assess your readiness. When Houston Ballet II member Mallory Mehaffey auditioned for Houston Ballet Academy at 16, she felt certain about accepting their offer to stay for the year, even though it was hard to leave her family and friends. “I needed to live in the city and center my lifestyle around this new opportunity,” she says. “It’s taught me to be independent at a young age.”

That said, leaving home while simultaneously entering a competitive environment isn’t easy. “I didn’t realize that it would be as emotionally stressful as it was,” says Lipchik. “I put a lot of pressure on myself.” In addition to juggling busy dance and academic schedules, she felt a strong responsibility to represent the school well. Fortunately, she adds, “there was always a person there to help.”

Healthy methods of managing stress are key. “Ask yourself how you handle pressure and competition,” says Dr. Nadine Kaslow, a psychologist at Emory University who works with dancers. With family far away, you need to avoid bottling up emotions and suffering silently.  “If you tend to get anxious or depressed easily, you need to be aware of that.” If these concerns trouble you, consider talking with a therapist before leaving home.

Also consider your relationship with food. “The competitive atmosphere could make any existing eating issues worse,” says Kaslow. For those struggling with an eating disorder, it’s better to delay leaving home and to seek help first.

Normalizing your life at the school is also essential. Find out what social activities exist outside of dance. “Students and parents don’t always think to ask about what they’ll be doing in their downtime so that they’ve got something outside of dancing to release those pressure valves,” says Houston Ballet Academy director Shelly Power. At some schools, these are inherent in the daily schedule, but at others, activities like going to movies or to religious services are something students need to plan on their own.

Leaving Family Behind

Moving away from home can be a source of conflict for families. Some parents are right on the mark when they think their child isn’t ready; others just don’t like the idea of them going away. Kaslow recommends having a family meeting, possibly with the student’s dance teacher present. “If the student is independent, responsible and makes good decisions,” says Susan Jaffe, dean of the School of Dance at UNCSA, “it’s a good bet he or she will do well.”

Homesickness is inevitable, so dancers need ways to get support from family and friends. At HBA, many out-of-town students schedule a daily, 15-minute Skype session with their parents. This gives them a routine connection with home and the benefit of an outside, logical opinion on problems that arise, says Power. Mehaffey, whose family only lives 45 minutes away, has also invited fellow students home with her for holidays.


Summer programs can serve as a guide to know how you’ll respond to a boarding program. Feeling homesick at the beginning is normal—as long as you get over it eventually, you’ll likely be fine at a year-round program. “But if you’re homesick the whole summer, you’re not ready yet,” says Kaslow. “That doesn’t mean you won’t be a year from now.”

Life On Your Own

For most students, the newest challenge is learning how to take care of themselves without a parent nearby. Dancers may be doing laundry for the first time or resisting the urge to order pizza every night. The rules may be different than what they’re used to—for instance, cleaning their room daily or abiding by an earlier curfew. But Kaslow notes that a boarding program is no place to go to escape problems at home, to rebel or to learn how to follow rules for the first time.

Academics can pose another challenge. Although some programs offer them as part of the curriculum, others encourage students to take online classes outside of their dance training. “It’s self-learning, so it’s quite different from what many students are used to,” Power says. She recommends that prospective students ask themselves how prepared they are to study on their own, and to try taking a practice online course at home with their parents to see what it’s like.

“Whether you’re in a dorm or not,” says Power, “those kids who understand the scope of what they are going to be asked to do on a daily basis—from dance, to academics, to transportation, to practical household issues—are so much more successful.”



Financial Matters

While figuring out whether you’re ready, make sure to factor in the financial aspect. Year-round programs can be pricey—roughly the cost of college tuition—but financial aid and scholarships may be available (see our 2014 Scholarship Guide on page 52). Like college, in-state tuition may be lower than out-of-state. When budgeting, be sure to calculate cost of living (dorm fees, groceries, laundry, etc.), spending money, travel expenses during holidays, even the cost of extra pointe shoes, since you may go through them more quickly.