From the Ground Up
November 1, 2009

As Margaret Tracey drove home one night during her last season with New York City Ballet, she contemplated a teaching career. Passing the George Washington Bridge, she recalled one of her favorite teachers, Stanley Williams, and had an epiphany. “If I choose to teach,” she said to herself, “I must find the same kind of devotion and passion that Stanley had. Unless you look at your teaching as a calling, don’t do it.”

Little did she know that seven years later she would be heading the largest professional ballet school in North America. Associate Director of Boston Ballet School since 2007, Tracey has not only found her calling, she has expanded it, taking Boston’s already impressive program to a whole new level.

The Pueblo, Colorado, native took the typical path to NYCB, studying at the School of American Ballet before joining the company and quickly rising to principal dancer. Known for her speed, classical style and porcelain-doll features, she was a favorite in ballets such as The Sleeping Beauty and Afternoon of a Faun, and The New York Times’ Anna Kisselgoff called her “one of the company’s most charming ballerinas.”

Jenifer Ringer, a NYCB principal and close friend of Tracey’s, remembers being awestruck of her as a young SAB student. “She could do anything,” she says. “I looked up to her tremendously.” Yet, she says, Tracey never let success go to her head and was incredibly generous. She befriended Ringer through their church and took her under her wing when Ringer became a company member by saving her a spot in the dressing room, helping her with her makeup and giving pointers in rehearsals. She was also willing to laugh at herself. “Sometimes she would walk across the back of the stage wearing her tiara just to make everybody crack up,” says Ringer.

Tracey had been encouraged to teach while still a dancer. “I always loved to work with children, and I made that very clear to people,” she says. During time off from the company she covered classes at SAB and guest taught at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet in Carlisle, PA. “Sometimes people who are naturally gifted have a hard time instructing other dancers,” says Ringer, whom Tracey often helped with roles. “But Margaret was always extremely thoughtful, both technically and emotionally, about her dancing.”

When Tracey retired in 2002, she took time off to be with her family and have a second child (she and husband Russell Kaiser have Avery, 11, and Paige, 6). She missed the ballet world but still wasn’t sure she was meant to be a teacher. She joined the staff of Ballet Academy East in NYC to see how teaching would suit her, and she started growing more comfortable in the role. “I just started to fall in love with it,” she says. “The more teaching I did, the more I enjoyed it, the more challenged I felt by it. I found that passion that I remember Stanley Williams had every day of his life as a teacher.”

In 2005, Mikko Nissinen, Boston Ballet’s artistic director and a longtime admirer of Tracey’s dancing, invited her to teach at the school’s summer program. Tracey felt a major connection with both Nissinen and Boston Ballet School, and she returned the following year. When the school’s associate directorship opened up, Nissinen instantly thought of her as someone who possessed all the qualities he desired. “She’s somebody I can send out into the community, she’s very good in the studio and she can build teams and work with people,” he says.

Tracey’s grounded, nurturing qualities lent themselves beautifully to her new role. “I love figuring out how to bring out the best in people, discovering and encouraging my colleagues’ strengths and watching them flourish,” she says. “That natural curiosity has proven to be an asset in my position.” Though she lacked previous business experience, she was eager to learn. “I’ve had a lot of on-the-job training,” she says, laughing.

Taking on her new position in 2007 was no small feat. The Boston Ballet School is huge, encompassing four locations, 1,400 students, an acclaimed summer program and numerous divisions. The school’s highly organized pyramid structure accommodates students of all skill and commitment levels, beginning with the Children’s Program for ages 2–7. The Classical Ballet Program initiates formal ballet training at age 8, with levels divided into Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced divisions. Serious students may audition for the more intense Pre-Professional Program at age 13 if they wish to pursue a dance career. And several programs are offered to adult students as well, including a two-week summer intensive.

Boston Ballet School broadly extends itself through community outreach and multiple locations. Three suburban satellite studios supplement the downtown hub. The newest, in Marblehead, Massachusetts, shares its facility with the local YMCA to maximize options for the whole family. The school’s award-winning Adaptive Dance Program, in partnership with Children’s Hospital, Boston, is for children with Down’s syndrome. The Taking Steps and Citydance programs target Boston’s underserved, inner-city youth. Citydance offers introductory dance classes to third-graders in public schools, drawing many—especially boys—into the Classical Ballet Program, while Taking Steps gives girls ages 11–14 a positive after-school outlet. “We’re presenting ballet in an educational forum that makes it accessible to so many,” says Tracey.

Not intimidated by the school’s size, Tracey contemplated where to start. “I thought, let’s look at where formal training begins,” she says, “at level one.” She spent her first year as director developing a cohesive syllabus for the first three levels of the Classical Ballet Program’s elementary division.

She, along with the head of the Classical Ballet Program and the satellite school principals, started from scratch, adding their collective experience and professionalism to the table.

“Margaret is unique in that she’s very focused on building from the ground up,” says Jessica Kreyer, a teacher in the elementary division. “Other directors might focus on the advanced levels, but here the students get a strong understanding right from the beginning.”

When Nissinen took over the company in 2001, he and former school director Rachel Moore began adjusting the Vaganova syllabus formerly in place. “We pulled away from one specific school to create more adaptable dancers,” says Moore, now executive director of American Ballet Theatre. “Mikko is taking the company in a more neoclassical direction, so he needs versatility.”

Tracey couldn’t agree more. Boston Ballet’s diverse repertoire, which ranges from Petipa to Kylián, enormously influenced her curriculum. “I have to look at a bigger perspective,” she says. “Our emphasis is on building strength through simple, pure classical technique to create versatile, well-rounded dancers.”

She also wanted more effective communication among faculty members to ensure consistent training. Previously, each school location had been teaching slightly differently. To her delight, she found the teachers very open to the idea. “Our goal,” she says, “is to work together as a team so that we’re not teaching in isolation.”

One way she does this is with an annual teacher-training seminar for faculty members before the start of each school year. They also have monthly meetings, which sometimes include student demonstrations and updates from the outreach and public relations departments.
“She’s really pulled the teachers together,” says Nissinen.

Tracey, in turn, reflects upon her 50 staff members with profound graciousness. “We have some absolutely incredible teachers here that I learn from on a daily basis. We’re building a really exciting team.”

Tracey teaches 10 to 11 classes per week, in levels ranging from Elementary I to pre-professional and even company classes. The rest of her time consists of meetings and the day-to-day running of the school, often working in tandem with Administrative Director Michele Carreiro. Tracey finds the nuts and bolts of managing a nonprofit organization fascinating. “It’s been terribly interesting,” she says, adding, “and then I’m really relieved when I get to walk back into the studio and focus on how to teach a tendu!”

As a teacher, she uses a detail-oriented, hands-on approach, to develop trust among her students to ensure a secure environment. “She knows what she wants from her students and goes about it very elegantly,” says Nissinen. “She’s simply very effective.”

Tracey sets high disciplinary standards, especially when it comes to dress code and arriving to class on time. Yet she knows when to lighten up. “I love to use humor when I teach,” she says. “We take ourselves so seriously as dancers because we have to, but for a moment we need to step back and say, ‘This is ballet.’”

A baseball lover, Tracey takes advantage of Boston’s avid Red Sox fans, using baseball analogies and imagery to stir enthusiasm from her students. “Particularly with something athletic,” she says, “like comparing the reaction of a ball player jumpingand catching the ball to closing into fifth really quickly before you sissone into the air. I always make my male students very happy when I bring up baseball in ballet class!”

For the first two years of her directorship, Tracey commuted back and forth from NYC, spending three days a week in Boston while her husband was still working as ballet master for NYCB. “Three days I’d have my director hat on and four days I’d have my mommy hat on,” she says, mentioning that she took care of her administrative duties from home while her kids were in school. Her family permanently relocated to Boston this past August, with Kaiser joining Boston Ballet’s staff as assistant artistic director. “Now it’s more of a daily balance of coming home, cooking dinner, spending time with my family,” she says. “It’s a constant juggling act.”

Kreyer credits Tracey’s ability to relate to children and families. “Because she’s a mom, she understands what kids are going through beyond what they do in the studio. She knows they have homework or softball practice,” Kreyer says.

As for the future, Tracey hopes to continue developing the pre-professional division so that it not only feeds Boston Ballet but major companies worldwide. And she wants the school to gain a reputation for providing excellent training for recreational dancers as well. “I saw potential here, and I continue to see potential here,” she says confidently. “I’m excited to see what we’re able to do.” DT

Amy Brandt is a dancer with the Suzanne Farrell Ballet and advice columnist for Pointe magazine.

A Citydance Success Story

Isaac Akiba, 20, had no idea how much his life would change the day Boston Ballet dancers visited his third-grade class. Inspired by the Citydance program, Akiba trained at the school on full scholarship, advancing into the Pre-Professional and Trainee Programs and Boston Ballet II. Now the newest member of the company’s corps de ballet, Akiba symbolizes the ultimate realization of community outreach programs: He is the first Citydance student to ever advance into Boston Ballet. “I’m very lucky,” he says. “I don’t know what I’d be doing right now if they hadn’t come to my school.”

Citydance, established in 1991, is an outreach program offered to Boston Public School third-graders. Boston Ballet professionals present an hour-long interactive program at each school. Interested students with natural ability (over half of which are boys) are then selected to participate in a 10-week Introduction to Ballet course at the downtown studios. Students’ transportation, classes, shoes and clothing are provided. Afterward, interested students may enroll in a Beginner Ballet class and are then integrated into the Elementary I level, with most receiving scholarships.

“He’s a tremendous success story and a wonderful future talent of Boston Ballet,” Tracey says proudly. But Akiba doesn’t feel he deserves special recognition. “I had a full scholarship, and people watching over me, evaluating my progress. Just because I’m from Citydance doesn’t mean it was harder for me—if anything, it was easier.” —AB

Community Collaboration

Boston Ballet School’s newest branch is creating a lot of buzz. Located in the north shore suburb of Marblehead, the studios share their halls with the state-of-the-art Lynch/van Otterloo YMCA. The partnership developed in 2005 when Boston Ballet patrons Brenda and Henri Termeer, who felt the North Shore would benefit from its own branch, saw tremendous opportunity in the proposed new facility for the 10,000-member Y. Their generous donation helped design and build the dance studios into the second floor. Since both organizations value community and education, the collaboration seemed natural.

The biggest advantage is that the studio is now a family destination. “In the suburbs, parents spend all their time in the car,” says Margaret Tracey. Here they can make better use of their time while their child is in class. The YMCA offers a gym, swimming pools, exercise classes, physical therapy, wireless internet access and a coffee shop. “We’re trying to make it customer friendly, and it looks like it’s doing very well,” says Boston Ballet Artistic Director Mikko Nissinen. “I’d be very surprised if we don’t duplicate this model.”

Since the branch’s opening last February, enrollment has exceeded expectations. And in January former San Francisco Ballet star Evelyn Cisneros will become the new principal of the Marblehead studios. “Her reputation as a premier American ballerina is undeniable,” says Tracey. “The qualities she brings to the classroom reflect the technical strength, warmth and generosity she exemplified on the stage. We are so very fortunate that she will be joining our team to build and lead our new Marblehead location.” —AB

Photo by Rachel Papo

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