How Firm a Foundation: Training a Young Dancer for Life

Knoxville Ballet School Student Demonstration
Knoxville Ballet School Lecture Demonstration February 2012, Knoxville Museum of Art; photo courtesy of Xavier Battle

Unrelenting questions, lobbed one after another by a well-intentioned ballet school dad, my back inches from an icy cooler packed with pricey frozen concoctions in one of Knoxville’s fancy new grocery stores. Did I think there was something special in his young daughter Celia? Did she possess a gift for classical ballet? And what about the summer program for young dancers at American Ballet Theatre, still in its infancy at that moment?

The questions were intelligent and purposeful, put to me in earnest by someone still wrapping his head around what ballet training might entail for his child. His wife had already answered them, an erstwhile ballerina herself; now he was merely getting backup from one more trusted source, proof positive that the planets in the squirrelly ballet universe might possibly align for his daughter.

I was emphatically unprepared for the inquisition, almost done with my errand, aimed for the door; moments earlier I had recognized his familiar face and waved hello. We stood there and chatted for a long while. Yes, I said, I believe Celia is special. And I believe the workshop at ABT is worth your consideration if you can make it work logistically. That’s the distilled version of what I told him, anyway.

Knoxville Ballet School ABT Primary Level C
Celia Adlin, Primary Level C Improvisation Exercise, Knoxville Ballet School

It was true: in my opinion Celia possessed what the former director of the prestigious Prix de Lausanne—a renowned international ballet competition—once referred to as “that elusive thing called talent.” She was maybe seven at the time, possibly on the cusp of eight. Possibly. But the idea of sending her (and some of her other talented young colleagues at my fledgling ballet school) to the epicenter of the ballet world for training with stellar faculty was admittedly so alluring. That opportunity certainly did not exist for me at the tender age of seven or eight, nor was I prepared for such a monumental undertaking. But the ABT curriculum in place for only a short time at my small school was already proving its worth in the development of the young children who were learning it.

Making a case to this smart and invested dad was a walk in the park: his daughter was growing up in a ballet family and he was already committed to giving her whatever tools she needed, even if the entirety of that had not quite come into crystalline focus. But explaining the importance of superior training to uninitiated parents—why tuition can seem so costly, why there are school uniforms, why a child should undertake ballet exams, to say nothing of the necessity of travel to far-off destinations for summer training (and perhaps ultimately full-time residential school) and all it entails—is difficult at best, hopeless at worst. (And in truth, that level of commitment is not appropriate for everybody.)

Knoxville Ballet School ABT Level 1B
Level 1A Class at Knoxville Ballet School

Educating parents of young dancers to be intelligent consumers of classical ballet training is a piece of the small private ballet school experience so often missing, I think. You can’t drop the ball: moms and dads need answers to questions, they need to hear them often, and by way of multiple platforms—a shotgun approach, if you will. With any luck, some of your answers will hit the bull’s eye and “stick.” And with each incoming crop of little ballerina wannabes every fall semester, you must start explaining and answering questions from the beginning, painstakingly, and with patience. For me, that moment in the fall always demonstrated so poignantly just how far we—my ballet school community and I—had traveled together over the last calendar year.

Very few dancers from small ballet schools in the hinterlands make it to the professional stage—hardly any of them, as a matter of fact. There are statistics floating around to support this truth, but the bigger point is this: classical ballet training for young children must be worth more than the possibility of enjoying professional life as a dancer. It must be worth more.

Knoxville Ballet School ABT Level 1 J. Ryan Carroll
Level 1 Class at Knoxville Ballet School with Guest Instructor J. Ryan Carroll

So what exactly is the payoff for your child, after you’ve thrown years of your own life and buckets of resources at her so she can pursue something quite possibly beyond her reach? There are enough answers to that single question to fill volumes. But I would say simply, to prepare her for the rest of her life, however that looks. The sum total of her experiences in the classroom and on the stage will follow her wherever she goes, and serve her in ways unimagined when you were writing her ballet school tuition checks or sending her off to residential school or buying her hundredth pair of new pointe shoes. The day she is met with some seemingly insurmountable life challenge as an adult it will have been a difficult message imparted to her once upon a time when she stood at the ballet barre, or in a packed audition class, or in a girls’ locker room, hot tears of frustration possibly welling up in her eyes, to finally help see her through it.

ABT Young Dancer Student Workshop
Celia in Class at American Ballet Theatre, August 2012

As for Celia, her ballet journey continues. Unbelievably she’ll be a ninth grader this fall. Her parents have figured out a way to obtain superior training for her in the absence of our beautiful ballet school in Knoxville where she had her first few years of formal ballet training, and from which she did indeed travel to NYC to study at ABT with two of her young classmates in the summer of 2012. It’s not easy: she must commute to Atlanta for classes and private coaching from Ashleyanne Hensley, another ABT/NTC teacher who has taken up the mantle where I left it and continued nurturing along a special girl who is now looking for all the world like a young woman. This summer she is studying ballet away from home at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts; the planets appear to be in alignment as they should be.

North Carolina School of the Arts Celia Adlin
At North Carolina School of the Arts, Summer 2016; photo courtesy of Jill Adlin

Last summer when I was in Knoxville visiting friends and families I sat down with Celia and her mom over a late dinner. We talked for hours, and not just about ballet: Celia has wide-ranging interests, one of them writing. Working as I do now as a professional writer I had the chance to weigh in on the satisfaction that comes from being paid to write, but also its realities, how difficult it is to find work or be published. In some ways it sounded so strangely aligned with some of the challenges of working as a professional dancer. For her part, Celia is excited about embracing her freshman year experiences in the fall at a school much larger than the one she has known ‘til now; ballet is but one piece of her life, albeit a big one, “beloved,” as her mom says.

Celia’s deportment and aplomb impressed me deeply; it’s abundantly clear classical ballet has left its indelible thumbprint on her. This young dancer has had a beautiful foundation indeed; the world is hers for the taking.

A note about the following video: young Celia competed in the Atlanta leg of the Youth America Grand Prix this past winter, her first time to participate in a classical ballet competition. This is rehearsal footage of the Aurora variation she danced from Sleeping Beauty Act III. A rogue snowstorm had just hit the city and threatened to cancel the competition; Celia was sleep-deprived, dancing on vapors, but determined, wearing one of her mom’s revived tutus from ballet days gone by. Her mom graciously granted permission to post the video.

Note: the photos in this post belong to Knoxville Ballet School, Xavier Battle, and Jill Adlin; don’t steal ’em—it ain’t nice.

Settling into Your Gifts

The more she dances, the more she wants to dance.

Celia YAGP I A

In the intervening decades since I was a young dancer the ballet competition has emerged as part and parcel of the classical ballet landscape. It is not the stuff of controversial choreography and revealing costumes on little people and trophies handed out willy-nilly, but a serious contest to vie for the attention of movers and shakers in the ballet world, maybe earn a free ride to a stellar ballet school or a spot in a coveted ballet company. The usefulness of ballet competitions is still debated in ballet circles, but by and large—if you wish one day to dance professionally—at some point in your training years you’ll find yourself there, dancing a two-minute variation you chose from a sanctioned list weeks or months before, showcasing what you’ve got in front of a panel of esteemed judges.

The judges have a difficult job. They observe many young dancers over the course of a weekend (or longer), most of them already highly accomplished, and some dancing the same variations back to back on the stage. They are looking for “this elusive thing called talent,” as the former director of a competition once said. It is one thing to be a big fish in the small pond whence you came, quite another to take class in a roomful of big fish, to say nothing of competing with them in performance.

The benefits of competition reach beyond finishing well, or “placing”: competitors have the opportunity to dance in master classes given by members of the panel (sometimes many classes depending on the competition, and even one-on-one coaching with notable dance mentors). They chalk up a little more stage experience. And they receive a written evaluation, a mandate to improve technique where it needs it, but there is also praise where it is deserved (we hope).

Those of us who’ve spent time in the ballet trenches teaching youngsters to dance especially like that last bit: any seasoned ballet teacher knows you can tell a student to pull up the supporting knee or stop lifting the chin or to fully stretch the knee in arabesque, ’til you’re blue in the face, maybe for an entire semester. And then a judge says it, et voilà! The problem is fixed. We roll our eyes and go on, glad that somebody finally drilled the message effectively through a young person’s thick skull.

I still have a proprietary interest in my former students, even in the absence of my small school in Tennessee, and even though I’ve left the teaching world for the time being. The percentage of kids in a ballet school like the one I founded who go on to enjoy a professional life as a classical ballet dancer is minuscule. Some teachers hang on the hope that one (or more) of their students will enjoy professional success. I did not. There are plenty of worthy reasons to learn ballet that have nothing to do with life on the stage. But one of my former students appears to have set her sights on it, and I could not be more thrilled she has found quality instruction that promises to help get her there.

She attended her first big competition a couple of weeks ago in Atlanta, and as fate would have it, plowed through a number of obstacles to arrive at her two minutes on the stage. Not least of all was the weather, a rogue Southern snowstorm that first threatened and finally succeeded in calling off an afternoon of competition while event organizers hustled to reconfigure schedules at the last minute so every competitor could participate.

There was that: the storm and the cancellations. Then there were two back-to-back nights of sleep deprivation. And when this young dancer’s number was finally, finally called, officials announced they could not find her music, news that was delivered unceremoniously to her backstage and which left her beyond distraught.

In the end the problems were resolved and she danced beautifully in spite of nerves and everything else, and emerged with honorable scores from the judges, along with honest evaluations echoing things she’s heard before. She was pleased with the outcome, and in the end more determined than ever to keep moving down the road that ultimately leads to the stage.

The more she dances, the more she wants to dance, her mom told me when we were doing the competition postmortem through a series of emails. The ballet competition is a contrived stage experience, not a true reflection of ballet performance in the “real” ballet world. But this one was indeed a true learning experience for this girl. I am not sure I’d have emerged from a weekend like that so undaunted and fiercely resolute about dancing at the tender age of fourteen.

But that is what it takes: self-possession and self-assuredness early on, for a career that happens early in life and ends sooner than most. There is also the so-called “elusive talent,” and this girl has it in spades: I recognized it the day she came to me at age six.

A parent once told me she was enjoying watching her young daughter “settle into her gifts.” That is a beautiful way to describe allowing a child to figure it out. Sometimes you have to nudge them a little. There will be difficult days and decisions ahead, but I know one young dancer who seems to have settled into her gifts quite comfortably. The rest will be up to her.

Celia YAGP II A

Photos courtesy of Jill Adlin and used by permission; don’t steal ’em—it ain’t nice.