Ballet schools are back in session and dancers are preparing to be back in class with all of its exhilaration, magic, and, of course, struggle.
Today, four dancers reveal what they found challenging as ballet students and how they now look at their technique as professionals.
Teresa Reichlen, New York City Ballet
Teresa Reichlen in Swan Lake. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.
As a student, there wasn’t any one step that I particularly struggled with—I could do them all on their own—but I struggled to coordinate and connect them.
Over time, as I got older and moved into the professional realm, I realized there were ideals in ballet, but that they weren’t always worth the sacrifice.
When you’re as student, you’re so focused on being as turned out as possible or having the highest extension possible, but then you get out on stage with no mirror and lights are shining in your face and you realize that you’ll fall over if you’re holding your leg as high as it can possibly go. Or, for me, when I’m in a perfectly turned-out first position, it might be 180 degrees, but I’m turning out from my knees and it isn’t a workable position.
So, you learn to be satisfied and work within stability and consistency; 160 degrees can be better than 180.
Jackie Nash, Atlanta Ballet
Jackie Nash with Moisés Martín in Atlanta Ballet’s Bach to Broadway program. Photo by Kim Kenney, Courtesy Atlanta Ballet.
I’ve always loved the physicality of dance. But, as a student, I was not the most flexible naturally, so flexibility and extension were things I was always working on.
My teacher helped me realize that just because you aren’t born with something doesn’t mean you can’t improve.
When you’re younger, it’s easy to see what you don’t like. You think “my legs aren’t the right shape” or “I wish I had a better plié”. As a professional you still see those things—not as obstacles, but as what makes you unique.
I’ve likewise been fortunate to find mentors and physical therapists who also do not see these things as obstacles and help me find ways to work with them.
Jack Thomas, Pennsylvania Ballet
Jack Thomas in Swan Lake. Photo by Arian Molina Soca, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet.
My greatest struggles were flexibility, partnering, and jumping. Growing up, I watched a lot of ballet videos and focused on repetitions in class.
When I was 14 and trying to do double tours, my teacher told me “do 15 doubles tours to right and 15 to left. Do that for 6 days a week and you’ve done 180 double tours in just a week. Do that for 6 weeks and you’ve done 1,080 double tours.” That made me more confident.
When I was younger, I thought that I couldn’t be a professional without perfect technique. And I held on to that belief for a while. Now I see technique as more of a tool for dancing. Well-honed technique allows me to focus on connecting with the audience and my peers.
I’m from Colorado and we have a large sports community here. I take inspiration from athletes. One thing they say in the sports community is “trust your stuff.” I like that. When I go onstage, I like to think “you’ve done the repetitions, you’ve put in the work” and I let go.
Kayla Rowser, Nashville Ballet
Kayla Rowser in Swan Lake. Photo by Karyn Photography, Courtesy Nashville Ballet.
I struggled with petit allegro once we started adding beats. Petit allegro itself was fine, but beats were a challenge.
I’m naturally a slower mover — I love adagio — and it was hard to maintain my technique while moving quickly. When I was first learning beats, I didn’t realize I wasn’t fully holding my turnout from start to finish.
As a student, you’re always hard on yourself, you’re always getting corrections, you’re in “student mode”. I’m more forgiving now, I’ve come to acknowledge that some things will always be harder than others.
Once you move into the professional realm you also have to focus more on artistry. Technique is a tool and foundation, but you’re a performer. It’s okay to fall over in an attempt to create a character.