Kathleen Breen Combes knew at 14 that she wanted more serious training. A student at Fort Lauderdale Ballet Classique, Combes had gone to summer programs since she was 10. “I was always the one who wanted to stay for two more weeks,” says Combes, now a principal at Boston Ballet. “So it was easy to make the decision that I wanted an intense environment year-round.”
Tall and powerfully built, Combes felt that the Harid Conservatory could help her prepare for professional life. “Usually in your school, you’re the best one,” she notes ruefully, “and then all of a sudden, you have people around you who’re just as talented, just as focused.”
Dancers have to be made of tough stuff. Many decide to pursue a professional career in their teens, and make the choice to leave home to attend prestigious conservatories and ballet academies at a relatively young age. What are some pitfalls to watch out for and what are graceful ways to navigate the transition?
Is Year-Round Right For You?
How can a dancer tell whether she can handle a conservatory-style program? “I tell parents not to let their children go too soon,” says Yvonne Mounsey, director of Southern California’s Westside School of Ballet. Mounsey has seen scores of students make the jump to places like the School of American Ballet. “If they go too young, they either get injured or discouraged,” she says. “They’ve got to be ready—psychologically and physically— to handle being there for the year. When you go to SAB, there are going to be 30 dancers at the barre that are all tip-top.”
Attending a summer intensive, or two or three, can help students prepare. Gordon Wright, director of Harid, suggests that students check out a program thoroughly first. And he cautions that programs are not interchangeable. An intensive at Pacific Northwest Ballet School does not prepare you for a year-round session someplace else. “When you come to Harid it may be different from what you expect,” Wright explains. A summer—or two—at a program gives a student a chance to get to know the campus, the teachers, the expectations and the culture of a place. It’s a smart way to find out ahead whether it’s a good fit.
Predictably, feeling underprepared technically can be a problem. At Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, school director Marcia Dale Weary says she often tells new students that they should start in an intermediate level to work on the basics. Students who danced leads in their old schools often hesitate, she admits. However, it can build true confidence in your technique.
“The ones who do it have more of a chance at becoming professionals,” she says. “It’s up to the individual, how strong they are mentally and emotionally. Often if dancers come to us a little older, they get discouraged because they see younger ones who seem more advanced. But if they stay focused, I tell them they can get ahead of those children, because mentally they’re older and can understand what I’m explaining at a different level.”
“You can only go forward if you keep working,” Weary says. Combes agrees wholeheartedly, and says that to this day, the work ethic she formed as a student at Harid serves her as a professional in Boston Ballet. “There’s so much to be learned from watching those around you. You can learn from every dancer in the room. It’s helpful to see what other dancers do well and try to emulate it—and it’s far more productive than feeling competitive or threatened.”
“The scary part,” says Miami City Ballet’s Sara Esty, “is when your parents get on the plane and that’s it. You’re there until Christmas.” Esty, who had attended Miami City Ballet’s summer program for three years, entered the company school with her twin sister Leigh-Ann right after graduating high school. She found there are a host of issues and feelings that take adjustment. “It was definitely tough,” Esty says, frankly. “I remember walking into class the first day and watching all the girls around me and thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, these girls are no joke.’ ”
At schools like Harid and SAB, many dancers also find that they have to be more organized in order to get schoolwork done in the midst of rehearsals and classes. Courtney Lavine—a Virginia native who completed her junior and senior years at New York’s Professional Children’s School while she trained at SAB—says not only was it lonely being away from her mom, but the hectic back-and-forth between school and ballet classes was a whole new experience. Now an apprentice with American Ballet Theatre, she remembers that keeping priorities straight was a big part of it. “You have to mature very quickly,” she says. “New York City is…New York. You have to stay focused on your goals—some people get distracted easily.”
Self-discipline makes the difference, although in schools like SAB, the staff also tries to head off academic or emotional struggles. “Every student who comes into the residence hall has a staff member who is their adviser,” says Kelly Novitski, director of Student Life at SAB’s residence halls. “They can speak with that person about their roommates and how things are going in general. Also the advisers get report cards from the school. We try to keep a keen eye out.”
“It’s gonna be scary putting yourself into completely new surroundings, even though you’re doing what you love,” Esty says. “But if you’re following your heart, that will carry you through the tough times. You have to keep working hard and put your blinders on. Don’t worry about anybody else; just worry about you.”
Mary Ellen Hunt writes about dance and the arts for San Francisco Chronicle.