When the Pressure is Off…can the pressures of ballet training interfere with a dancer’s growth?

Pre-professional ballet training is brutal. And for those dancers who have their sights set on a contract with a major ballet company, the pressure can be enormous and the competition fierce. Most dancers who are lucky enough to secure such a contract have, for the most part, followed a similar route: starting to train at a high quality school at a very young age (usually before the age of 9), followed by full time training in a prestigious pre-professional training program, perhaps doing well in international competitions, and beginning the audition process by the late teens or very early twenties. There are certainly dancers who have not followed this path and have had very successful careers, and for them the pressures can be even greater. These dancers have additional obstacles to overcome: a late start, poor early training, or any other of a multitude of factors, all of which make their road to a professional career even more difficult.
I would like to share the story of a former student of mine. She was a dancer who set out to become a professional ballet dancer without having the benefits of following the “traditional” path to a career. Watching her study, train, navigate the ballet world and make life-changing decisions shed some light on this process of pre-professional ballet training; a process that has consumed much of my professional life as I try to guide, help, nurture and support my students.
“Maria” (I would like to protect my student’s privacy) began dancing as a child at an excellent neighborhood ballet studio. This was a “one studio” school. The studio owner had danced with a world class company and she worked together with a handful of excellent teachers, providing quality training in a “recreational” setting. It is the kind of school where a young dancer can take three to five classes a week and learn to dance. It is not, however, the type of school where there is the time or the resources to provide the kind of training that will guide a dancer into a career. Maria danced, quite happily, at this studio for a number of years, but at the age of 17 she made a life changing decision: She was going to be a professional ballet dancer. It was clear that this school, as beautiful as it was, was not going to be enough. So she started adding open classes with some of the excellent teachers available in New York City and her growth was apparent. I would see her in these classes and her focus, her work ethic, her ferocious drive were inspiring. And I thought to myself: “If anyone can do this…”.
But high school was coming to an end and her parents were not supportive of this dream…REALLY NOT SUPPORTIVE. She was expected to go to college and on this point, at this time, there would be no compromising. She enrolled in an excellent liberal arts college, majored in Ballet, and continued supplementing her classes at school with the open classes in New York. And she realized that this was not going to enough. Here comes the next life changing decision: She was going to leave college. After much family discussion this is the compromise that was agreed upon: She would leave college at the end of the first semester, audition for pre-professional ballet programs, and if she could get accepted to one (not so easy at the age of 19) she would train in this program full-time, for one year. At the end of the year she would start auditioning, and if she could secure a job dancing she would sign the contract and not return to college. But, if after a while, if she could not secure a performing contract, she would return to college. And so Maria started auditioning for programs.
She was accepted to a prestigious program for the following school year. She continued her drop-in classes until the following September when the program started, and then she threw herself into this full-time training. And she was pressured…really pressured to succeed. Her career path, her entire life (as far as she could see) was going to be determined by the progress that she could make in one year in this program. She continued to take occasional open classes and I would see her there. I would see her work, study, correct, examine and worry. The work ethic was there, the ferocity was there, but the joy seemed to be fading and was being replaced by desperation. I went to see her in Nutcracker that Christmas. She was lovely, and the improvement was remarkable…but the joy was gone. She was feeling the pressure; the pressure of the clock. She had one school year to train full time, reach a professional level and secure a contract. Clearly, a near impossible challenge…but if anyone can do this…
Well she couldn’t do it. And so when the next September rolled around she re-enrolled in college; this time in an academic program. She resumed her open classes when ever she had time, and I ran into her before class one day. I hadn’t seen her for several months. She told me that she realized something while in the full time program. She realized that as much as she liked performing, what she loved was the study of ballet. And coming to that realization allowed her to return to college with excitement and anticipation, knowing that her passion for the ballet studio (rather than the stage) would always be there for her. And so we went into the studio to take class together. We took our spots at the barre. The pianist started to play and what I saw shocked me: She was absolutely stunning. In just a few months, training daily in open classes, she became a beautiful, polished, nuanced ARTIST. The pressure was off, the clock was no longer chasing her, the parental disapproval was gone. What I saw across the room was a dancer who now had the time and the space to train and to blossom. The teacher (a dear friend and colleague) saw me looking at her, caught my eye, and smiled knowingly. When the class was over I remarked to her how beautifully she was dancing. She said, with no false modesty: “I just love taking class”. I later commented to the teacher that I was stunned by Maria’s progress in such a short time. The teacher’s response: “Maria is going to be a ballet dancer in a company, she is just on an unusual path..and she just doesn’t know it yet.”
When the student finds the joy in the process, a dancer is born.

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