A Strong Beginning

November 28, 2001

Ashley Murphy vividly remembers the first time she saw contemporary ballet: She was sitting in the audience at a Regional Dance America festival with fellow students from Carol Anglin Dance Center in Shreveport, Louisiana, watching the young dancers twist, spin and roll over their toes in a way she’d never seen before. “At our studio, we did mostly classical pointe work,” says Murphy. “When I saw them, I was like, ‘Are you serious? You’re dancing to James Brown on pointe? That’s what I want to do.’” Now, years later, Murphy lives in NYC and dances with Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Dancing Through Barriers ensemble. She looks back on that moment as a pivotal point in her professional development.

Murphy’s hometown school is one of many that are part of RDA, a national association of ballet schools dedicated to developing high-quality training across five regions of the U.S.: the Pacific, Southwest, Mid-States, Northeast and Southeast. Within these regions, RDA member schools stand for a commitment to high standards of preprofessional dance training. For students, the RDA experience hinges on attending annual festivals held in each respective region, hosted by a different member school each year. We spoke with four professional dancers about how their different RDA experiences helped lead to their current professional careers.

When direction changed at her hometown studio in South Carolina, New York City Ballet soloist Sara Mearns, now 21, commuted more than an hour to study with Patricia McBride at The School of North Carolina Dance Theatre, an RDA member school, in her early teens. There, studying the Balanchine technique with McBride prepared her for consecutive summers at School of American Ballet. “Everything about [the way McBride taught] was Balanchine, because she was one of his dancers, and that prepped me for coming up here,” says Mearns, who joined the NYCB corps in 2004 and became a soloist in 2006.

American Ballet Theatre corps member Sarah Lane, who studied at RDA member school Classical Ballet Memphis from ages 7 to 11, was too young to attend RDA festivals during her time there; however, she remembers the feeling of respect that she and her younger peers had for the older dancers that attended RDA festivals, which were considered rites of passage. “The older girls would go to SERBA [Southeastern Regional Ballet Association] and bring a couple pieces to show,” says Lane. “I always thought it was such a dream to go and travel and perform.”

Each regional festival involves three or four classes per day taught by a roster of guest instructors; in addition to ballet and pointe, classes in jazz, character and modern are usually offered. This is the first experience dancing in a large class setting for many dancers, including Murphy, who attended RDA festivals annually from age 11 until graduating high school. “There were 10 people in my ballet class at home, compared to the 150 dancers on

the floor [at the festival]. It helped me get over my shyness, because instead of always standing in the back and hiding, you have to put yourself out there so people can see you and you can get more experience,” she says. “I did notice that by the end of my years going there, I was toward the front of the class or the teacher would ask me to demonstrate something. I think I came a long way.”

Even for students accustomed to a larger class size, studying with new classmates provides a change of pace. “It’s a different energy when you have different people in your class,” says Ballet Hispanico’s Rodney Hamilton, who attended regional festivals with St. Louis–area Alexandra Ballet throughout high school, including RDA’s first national festival in 1997 (see sidebar). “You actually get a chance to look at your peers, admire them and watch them move. It was very interesting to see how training varied from studio to studio, teacher to teacher, city to city, and what they expected of their students.”

While it’s valuable to consistently study with one teacher who can monitor your growth throughout your training, festival classes expose dancers to new perspectives and teaching techniques. They also allow participants to learn under the watchful eyes of renowned teachers. “Normally at our school, we worked with the same teachers and we knew the routines,” says Hamilton. “[At festivals,] we had three days with different teachers and techniques.”

The ability to adapt to the styles of a range of teachers in RDA festival classes helps when it’s time to audition for summer programs and professional companies. “I learned how important it is to respectfully take a new teacher’s corrections, even if it’s something totally different than what your teacher taught you,” says Murphy. “It challenged your brain. The teachers were from so many backgrounds, and for every background you had to learn a new way of doing things. It helped me pick up choreography a lot faster, because I pay more attention to details.”

Each day of classes at RDA festivals is concluded with an evening of performances. During the year prior to each annual regional festival, member schools prepare several pieces to be viewed by an RDA adjudicator. Companies named to perform at the gala performance are considered honor companies, and attaining and maintaining this status is an important goal for many groups. “When I first went, I was one of the youngest, so all the other older dancers had worked so hard at keeping our status,” says Murphy. Being a part of the final night’s gala program was a distinction that all dancers valued, says Hamilton. “Gala night was where the best pieces were picked to perform. That was the big deal—you always wanted to get on the gala night program,” he says. 

Summer study programs and ballet competitions are known to give dancers the chance to watch their peers from other parts of the country, but not every young dancer has the opportunity, logistically or financially, to attend them. RDA festivals provide participants a similar opportunity to dance among others their age in a serious atmosphere for several days, without having to formally compete against each other, says Lane: “I think that RDA festivals are a great classical showcase and opportunity for dancers to perform and to see where they stand in respect to others.”

Hamilton agrees: “At home, you’re performing for your parents and your family. [At an RDA festival], you’re performing for a bunch of dancers in the same field as you, the same age as you, trying to strive for the same thing as you.” And while a three-day regional festival isn’t equal to several weeks of training at a summer program,

it can offer additional opportunities. During one festival class with John Magnus, Murphy was offered a scholarship to study in the Joffrey’s summer program.

Outside of RDA festivals, providing regular performance opportunities for dancers is also a priority for member schools. Mearns, for example, toured to Syracuse, NY, to perform The Nutcracker with NCDT during her time there, and according to RDA’s recent poll of members, more than 1.5 million people a year attend RDA member performances in more than 481 counties across the country.

Regional Dance America’s first national festival was held in Houston in 1997. This year, the second national festival will take place April 24-28 in Pittsburgh. RDA member schools will perform five concerts and more than 40 master classes (in ballet, modern, jazz, character, kinesiology, nutrition and health) will be offered over the course of the five-day festival, which some 2,000 dancers and teachers are expected to attend. For more: www.regional-dance-america.org