Charlotte Ballet Academy: World-Class Training in the Queen City

Sponsored by Charlotte Ballet
January 12, 2024

Charlotte Ballet
 trainee Caleb Olenick grew up in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, where his training options were limited. In comparison, Charlotte, North Carolina, where he currently lives and dances, is a big city—in fact, it’s one of the fastest growing cities in the country—and home to world-class ballet training. Charlotte Ballet and its Academy have cultivated programs that are as welcoming as they are challenging. “Charlotte has a really healthy environment,” says Olenick. “None of that ballet prima donna drama. And the training is just really solid.”

Olenick got his first taste of Charlotte Ballet through its summer intensive, a five-week program for students ages 11–22 that emphasizes individualized instruction. Kati Hanlon Mayo, associate director for the Academy’s Upper School, says program size is key. “Sometimes students in these huge intensives are either rotated so heavily that they don’t get enough training, or there’s not enough studio space for as many kids as they have.” In contrast, she says, Charlotte Ballet’s summer intensive keeps its class sizes to around 25 dancers across four levels. “By the end of the summer, I should know every student’s name,” says Mayo.

Kati Hanlon Mayo, associate director for Charlotte Ballet Academy’s Upper School. Photo by Richard Israel, courtesy Charlotte Ballet.

Summer intensive students train six days a week in diverse styles. The first half of each day focuses on building strong classical foundations with technique, pointe, and variations. In the afternoons, the curriculum branches out into everything from West African dance to jazz, musical theater, and repertoire led by artistic director Alejandro Cerrudo. Training in diverse styles is like exercising an intellectual muscle, says Mayo. “When people are younger and they start to learn a new language, it’s easier for them. So the earlier that we expose these students to different styles and different types of movement, the easier it is for them to feel confident in it.”

Trainee Maile Fitzgerald’s experience backs up Mayo’s insights. Fitzgerald, who attended Charlotte Ballet’s summer intensive for two consecutive years, says that her musical theater classes with Mavis Scully were transformative. “Throughout the five weeks, I was able to learn how to loosen up,” Fitzgerald says. “Making the extreme switch from ballet to musical theater, with just a 15-minute break in between, is really important for us to learn how to do.”

Switching between dance styles they had never previously encountered helped both Fitzgerald and Olenick earn traineeships in Charlotte Ballet Academy’s Pre-Professional Program. Indeed, the summer intensive acts as a recruiting ground. In evaluating dancers for year-round training opportunities, Mayo says she looks for a strong work ethic and proficiency in classical technique—and then for something more. “I might pop in and see them in an improvisation or choreography class where they don’t have to be the best right away, but I can see their room for growth and their curiosity about what they’re doing,” she says. That curiosity will go on to serve dancers who rise from the trainee program to Charlotte Ballet II and the main company, which features a roster of homegrown and international dancers.

Kati Hanlon Mayo working with a young dancer. Photo by Laszlo Berdo, courtesy Charlotte Ballet.

While intensive training is crucial to an enriching summer experience, Mayo emphasizes that it shouldn’t be about career advancement alone: It should also be fun. As a parent of a dancer who went through the summer intensive circuit, she says, “The last thing you want to hear is that your child is just sitting in a dorm room all weekend waiting for the next class to start,” she says. “You want them to have outside adventures and meet people and have social events. I want students to come away from the experience not just loving Charlotte Ballet Academy but loving Charlotte.” To that end, summer intensive dancers, who board at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, participate in outings such as sports games and amusement parks for a full, diversified experience.

After a taste of the city through Charlotte Ballet’s summer intensive, Fitzgerald was eager to move to the Queen City year-round. “Charlotte has everything, especially in a summer intensive. You get all the ballet you need and want, and you also get the tourist experience. Even though it’s not as big of a city, it’s just enough where you feel very fulfilled.”

For more information about spending your summer at Charlotte Ballet, including audition details, click here.