Your Training: Not the Teacher's Pet

Despite little encouragement, Melissa Hough found her ballet path.
Published in the February/March 2014 issue.

Melissa Hough rehearsing Liam Scarlett’s "Firebird" with Scarlett. Photo by Erik Berg.

A gifted and expressive dancer, Melissa Hough has been a principal with Boston Ballet and a first soloist with Houston Ballet. She’s also begun to explore choreography, most recently premiering a dark contemporary work, ...the third kind [is] useless., for Houston’s fall 2013 season before jetting to Norway—where she currently performs with Norwegian National Ballet.

But Hough’s road to a professional ballet career took a few turns. She first excelled in jazz and hip hop on the competition circuit; it wasn’t until she was 13 that she decided to take her ballet training to the next level. For the four years that followed, Hough studied both at her home studio, Dance Explosion, and the nearby Kirov Academy of Ballet of Washington, DC. While the additional ballet training gave her technique an edge, few of her Kirov teachers imagined she would end up performing in major ballet companies.

Armed with an indefatigable spirit, Hough proved them wrong. Yet the hurdles that Hough encountered as a ballet student have made her sensitive to others who get little encouragement—or who don’t have typical ballet bodies. —Nancy Wozny

I chose to study at the Kirov because I knew a few of the teachers who also taught at Dance Explosion, and Michele Wiles, who went on to be a principal at ABT—and whom I revered— was studying there. I was told I’d learn to do things the correct way and avoid injuries in the future by establishing a strong technical foundation.

Because I was a versatile dancer, my Kirov teachers trusted me to be able to do everything. They knew I was strong and smart, and they loved my jazz routines. But they didn’t really take me seriously as an aspiring ballerina. Maybe they thought I’d succeed in the dance world in general, but they never thought I’d dance Aurora.

I also didn’t have a perfect ballet body, which factored into not being a favorite. The Kirov teachers made me very aware of how “careful” I needed to be, particularly with costuming.

This all made me determined to prove them wrong.

Although I was upset by my teachers, I wasn’t exactly jealous of their favorites. I tried to use the corrections they were given to my advantage. One year, I figured out who the two favorites in class were, and I deliberately stood in between them at barre so I could hear all of the teacher’s comments. Despite my efforts, sometimes I would hear a snide remark about my being a “jazzerina” or see other dancers making fun of jazz, and I would get offended and annoyed. I knew they were ignorant in what they were saying, but it still made me angry.

Luckily, I was surrounded by so many others who did believe in me. Continuing my jazz training at Dance Explosion helped put things into perspective. Not only did it give me an identity outside of ballet, but since I’d been studying with the same teachers for a long time, I knew the layout of their classes and could notice how much I was improving.

Competing also helped me build confidence. I was onstage a lot, and the solos that I competed with were technically difficult. I could feel that I was stronger onstage after training at the Kirov, which again was reassuring. And because a large component of New York City Dance Alliance competitions are its classes, I got to hear positive feedback directly from those teachers. They knew me and could see my improvement.

Teachers are a little like doctors; sometimes you need a second, or even a third or fourth opinion! Having a teacher or mentor who makes your time as a dancer enjoyable is essential. For me, those teachers were Alla Sizova and Vladimir Djouloukhadze at the Kirov. (Vladimir also taught at Dance Explosion.) At the time, Madame Sizova was in her 60s and could jump higher than all of her students put together. I respected her so much. I always wanted her to be happy with me.

As dancers, we are extremely hard on ourselves. It’s important to get the best training we can, but it is also necessary to have a teacher who believes in us. If you are unable to find that person in one particular institution, continue looking. When you do find that special mentor, she can change your dancing in the best way.


New Trainee Opportunities in Texas

With help from a generous private gift, Ballet Austin has expanded its financial assistance for up to 15 pre-professional dancers in its two-year trainee program. Selected through a national audition tour, students in the newly named Butler Fellowship Program take daily classes in the highest level at the Ballet Austin Academy and have the opportunity to rehearse and perform alongside members of Ballet Austin and its second company.

While many of the traineeship graduates are selected for Ballet Austin II (and 30 percent of Ballet Austin company members were trainees), career planning in general is a prime component of the program. Fellowship students participate in Ballet Austin’s mentoring initiative, meeting frequently with faculty members and directors to discuss career paths and opportunities. Second-year students can enroll in either a teacher-training program at Ballet Austin or work as an intern in its education, marketing, production or administration departments; they can also convert their experiences in the program to 24 college credits—setting them on a path to a degree if desired. For more information, visit —Jenny Dalzell

Technique Tip
“Thinking ‘pull up’ often creates tension in your neck and shoulders. But if you concentrate instead on lifting from the back of your legs, hamstrings and butt, you’ll have more strength in your lower body and you won’t need to pull up from your neck. Strong roots give you the ability to be free on top, so you can move your neck and head and keep your arms fluid.” —April Daly, leading dancer with Joffrey Ballet