At age 14, Luca Masala left the School of La Scala in Milan to train at the School of American Ballet in the Big Apple. A native of Sardinia, Masala recalls the culture shock of moving away from the comforts of home while also adjusting to a new school and country.
Now, he is able to harness his own personal experience as a young student as he leads the Princess Grace Academy in Monte Carlo, Monaco, as its artistic director. In his role, he teaches and advises 44 students representing 18 different nationalities.
“I know what it is like for them because I did it myself as a young kid,” says Masala, via Zoom from his office in Monaco. “I think it’s a big statement in your life saying, ‘OK, this is what I want to do’ and to be willing to sacrifice something for the love of this artform.”
While it may seem overwhelming for a young dancer, there are many things a teacher can do to help their student embark on this next chapter and get the most out of the experience.
Preparation Is Key
Larissa Saveliev, founder and artistic director of the Youth America Grand Prix, one of the leading ballet competitions which awards scholarships to schools around the world, says teachers should help their students do extensive research before deciding to train internationally. “Do your research online but also speak with the students and parents of the school you are interested in attending; ask them what they like and don’t like about the school,” advises Saveliev.
One important point Masala emphasizes is to not rely on social media alone to get to know a place. “With social media, [students] watch three videos and think they know everything about a school,” says Masala. “The best thing a teacher can do when their student gets [an offer] from a school is to contact the institution’s director to collect information about what the school is about and the director’s expectations. With that knowledge, the teacher can help their student become better prepared.”
Dance teachers can also help their students get mentally ready for the demands of leaving home to train abroad. “For young students, mental preparedness is really important because they have to be prepared to live on their own, learn the language, and just train somewhere else that’s far from home,” says Christine Stone Martin, general manager for the Philadelphia Ballet. “They need to learn to cook for themselves and do other essentials that they take for granted when they are living at home with parents. So teachers can help them with that mental toughness. You can be really good at your art, but when you travel away from your family, you are on your own and have to be prepared for that.”
Saveliev also adds that if a student has never traveled abroad, she advises against attending a program for a full year, regardless of their age. “Everyone is different, but I would suggest your first trip abroad should never be to study for the full year,” says Saveliev. “Age can be very relative; maybe you are 13 years old and move away for a year, but you have been exposed to a lot of things already and have traveled for summer programs before. But if you are 15 and have never been anywhere, then you might have a harder time, despite your age. I would say it’s not the age, but the mileage.”
Whether competing or studying abroad, students should be open to and respectful of other cultures, and also remember to represent their own nation well. “The [student] should understand that when they come to another country, they have the responsibility to represent their home country well,” says Masala. “So teachers should give their students a sense of responsibility and understanding of why it’s important. Then when the student returns back home, they’ll bring with them the knowledge and education they gained from the country they came from.”
Taking Care of the Details
If a student has decided to train or compete abroad, there are travel documents that need to be arranged. One important detail that is often overlooked is the validity of one’s passport. Many countries require that a passport be valid at least six months beyond the dates of your trip, and sometimes longer.
“We commonly see [students] that have a passport that is going to lapse in the very near future or has already lapsed,” says Andrew Zeltner, a partner with Klasko Immigration Law Partners, LLP, who helps the Philadelphia Ballet with dancer visas.
If a dancer is visiting a country for a competition, most countries will have short-term visitor visas that can be used for traveling. Travel.state.gov is a good resource for learning about specific country requirements regarding visas, passport validity and more.
Zeltner stresses the importance of giving oneself enough time to apply for a visa, especially for any international dance students who want to come to the U.S. Many U.S. embassies abroad are still staffed at 25 to 30 percent of normal staffing, which adds further delays to the process.
For international dancers who want to study in the U.S., a school has to be certified by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program to bring a student on a vocational visa. SEVP-certification allows a school to issue Form I-20, “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status.” Form I-20 provides such information as an explanation of the program the student will be entering, the program length, if the student will receive a stipend, and where the student will be living. The student can then use this form to apply for a vocational visa.
“If a professional ballet school is SEVP-certified, there is typically someone on the staff who can help file the vocational visa application electronically,” says Stone Martin. Alternatively, if a student in the U.S. is going abroad, a teacher can help their student by reaching out to the host school to see what resources they can provide for filing a visa.
“The school may already have checklists and information on what you need,” says Sarah Holler, an associate with Klasko Immigration Law Partners. “Especially if the school is a more established organization that [hosts international students] year to year, they may already have information on what the visa process is. From there, you can contact the nearest consulate of the country you are wanting to travel to.”
Princess Grace Academy typically provides the incoming student with information on how to obtain a visa and the necessary documents. The student can then contact the French embassy. Once the student receives a visa, Princess Grace Academy organizes the process in Monaco with the Sûreté Publique (the Monaco Police Force).
Once You’re There
When the student is settled and has commenced their training program, Saveliev reminds teachers to stay in touch with the student, especially during what she calls the “crying months.”
“The end of October and November is usually when students start to put their nose down,” says Saveliev. “The initial excitement has passed; the weather is getting colder; and they are getting into the new routine, so they start to get homesick.”
But Saveliev tells students to always keep their goal in mind. “Each journey is different, but the satisfaction you receive when you reach your destination will be tremendous,” says Saveliev.
Masala also has an important reminder for school directors and teachers to look out for their students, especially those who are away from home: “Create an open dialogue,” he says. “Be listening and attentive to your students, and let them know it is OK for them to approach you if they are having issues.”