In 2010, Alyssa Leger left her home in Lafayette, Louisiana, for Miami City Ballet’s training program. From there, she went to Pacific Northwest Ballet’s professional division and ultimately landed a contract with Boston Ballet in 2012. Though these are the bullet points that most commonly pepper a dancer’s professional resumé, Leger’s journey of course started long before that big move to Miami. Back in Louisiana, the faculty at her home studio, Lafayette Ballet Theatre, were the ones laying the groundwork for her career success.
Young dancers often face challenges when moving far away in pursuit of training, but for their teachers back home, this process can also be hard to navigate. How can you tell when a student has outgrown your program? What can you do to help, and when do you start the discussion? Dance Teacher spoke with a few dance teachers for guidance.
It Starts With Summer Intensives
Leger’s ventures outside Louisiana started the way many students first expand their dance network: summer intensives.
Shannon Heath, co-artistic director of Lafayette Ballet Theatre, usually starts gauging students’ goals around age 10 or 11, when female dancers are gearing up for pointework and the classes become more challenging. If a student seems particularly engaged, Heath makes sure to initiate conversations with them about opportunities that might be available. “A lot of times they don’t even know what’s possibly ahead of them,” says Heath. “Sometimes, we’ll even approach a student, saying ‘You have a beautiful facility for classical ballet, are you interested?’”
From there, the LBT faculty tell students to look through Dance Magazine’s Summer Study Guide, directing them toward programs that might make sense. “You look at the aesthetics of the student and parallel to different programs,” says Heath. She also makes sure to include the parents, especially when deciding what length program is appropriate for each student.
This guidance takes time and research for the teacher, but the investment pays off. “They were very good at directing us,” says Leger, who went to her first intensive around age 14. “They helped us choose the program and which audition to attend, and made everyone feel comfortable for that first summer away.” It’s these experiences that introduce young dancers to the larger industry and can also lead to winter program opportunities for students who are ready to take an even bigger leap.
Build on Excitement That’s Already There
“Not only do you have to have talent, but you also have to have work ethic,” says Pam Turner, director of Richmond Dance Center. Turner taught Broadway dancers Mary Page Nance and Bud Weber at RDC prior to their professional careers. From the get-go, both students shared an underlying enthusiasm for their dance lessons. Turner says this is the most important factor in any career planning: The passion must always come from the students themselves.
Heath agrees. When students at LBT express interest in becoming professionals, the faculty invite them to double up on classes by joining lower division levels on top of their scheduled curriculum. The increased commitment helps dancers understand the work ethic that comes with more rigorous training, says Heath. Turner also modifies training by differentiating specific exercises: “If you’re giving a movement in class, you can say to one student ‘Okay, I want triple turns.’ There are little things you can add to challenge them specifically,” she says.
This structure also helps teachers remain attentive to students who aren’t as interested in professional futures. This is especially important for smaller programs like Turner’s and Heath’s, where there might not be room for hyper-specialized levels and classes. “For me,” says Turner, “the student who is not going to become a professional is just as important as the one that is.”
As things ramp up, it’s also important to continue checking in with the student and parents. “We tell them nothing is mandatory,” says Heath. Intrinsic motivation is key: “When that student is coming to every single class she’s allowed to, you know it’s all coming from her,” adds Heath.
Find Joy in Their Success
It can be hard to say goodbye to your student when they’re moving to a different training program. Heath advises keeping the student’s success at the forefront of your mindset, and focus on the role you play in their support. “Sure I miss them a little bit, but I’m so excited about the opportunities they have, and I feel pride in helping them reach that open door,” she says.
Plus, those goodbyes are rarely forever. Several years after signing her initial contract at Boston Ballet, for example, Leger found herself back in Louisiana recovering from a herniated-disc injury. Though she never returned to Boston Ballet, Leger started school to become a physician’s assistant in Louisiana and danced with Lafayette Ballet Theatre’s regional company for several more years. “The return is so much greater than what we give,” says Heath.