Salwa Rizkalla on How Hard Work Can Inspire the Next Generation
December 22, 2022

Salwa Rizkalla’s dance training began at 11 years old in Cairo, Egypt, where she trained in the Vaganova method at the Higher Institute of Ballet. “At the time, Russia and Egypt had a cultural-exchange program in which they sent instructors who were internationally recognized to work with us,” she says. For nine years, Rizkalla attended classical ballet classes in the morning, academic courses in the afternoon, and rehearsals in the evening before going home to her family. The school, which supported every student with scholarships, ran from 9 am to 9 pm, and fed into an associated professional company called Cairo Opera Ballet Company. From the time she was 15, Rizkalla was given performance opportunities with COBC. The program was small, with just 15 dancers, and by the end of her nine years, even fewer dancers had made it to graduation (a mere five). “If you didn’t work hard, you were out,” she says. After finishing school, Rizkalla was hired as a full-time company dancer, and remained there until she was 25 years old, at which point she got married and moved cities.

Rizkalla coaches a student preparing for Youth American Grand Prix. Photo by Skye Shmidt, courtesy Rizkalla.

With the end of her performance career came the beginning of her teaching career. She taught at the Higher Institute of Ballet in Cairo, as well as the school’s branch in Alexandria, Egypt. Seven years later, Rizkalla and her husband made the move to California for his job. Once there, it didn’t take long for her to realize she wasn’t happy with the lack of Vaganova training in the area. So, in March of 1983 she created Southland Ballet Academy in Fountain Valley, California. In the nearly 40 years since then, her school has become a crown jewel in American training, churning out stars like Stuttgart Ballet principal Agnes Su and Houston Ballet soloist Tyler Donatelli. “My philosophy is that every dancer gets the quality training needed to do whatever they want with dance,” says Rizkalla. “Whether they want to dance professionally, dance in college, become a teacher or just do it for fun, they are learning how to dance correctly and protect their bodies.” In class, Rizkalla likes to focus on artistry and technique. “I feel strongly about having correct port de bras and coordination of the arms,” she says.

Rizkalla’s school now has two branches, in Fountain Valley and Irvine, with a professional company tied to it called Festival Ballet Theatre. Each December, Rizkalla’s students put on 13 Nutcracker performances at the Irvine Barclay Theatre. Each production weekend, she brings in professional artists to perform principal roles. “I invite guests because I want my dancers to know that they can’t just be a principal right away,” she says. “More than that, though, I bring in artists to inspire my students—to let them know that dance is not a joke, but if they take it seriously, [what they see] is possible.” This year, Rizkalla is bringing in San Francisco Ballet’s Wona Park, Houston Ballet’s Connor Walsh, Lauren Lovette and more.

Salwa Rizkalla and students in rehearsal for The Nutcracker. Photo by Skye Shmidt, courtesy Rizkalla.

Here, Rizkalla shares the teaching tools and practices that have helped her succeed as an educator for more than 40 years.

Her teaching warm-up: “Personally, I don’t warm up before class. I just demonstrate all the steps for my students. I say, ‘Don’t look at my knees if they aren’t straight,’ but I do the full barre with turnout, and even do small jumps!”

Her go-to teaching attire: “I wear Lululemon pants and Bloch teaching shoes.”

How she fuels her body: “I usually like to eat healthy, but I am not a fanatic about eating at all. I eat a lot of fruit and vegetables because of my Mediterranean diet. In my backyard I have a guava tree, persimmons, avocados, etc. But if I want chocolate, I have it. Don’t deprive yourself of anything.”

Her favorite nondance activities: “I love being outside, walking briskly on the beach, and the smell of the ocean. I also love spending time with my grandchildren. They are so important to me.”

Books that have inspired her: “I enjoy reading the Bible every day.”

Items she never leaves home without: “Water and my phone.”

Her guilty pleasure: “Sushi! If I want to please myself, I have to get some sushi.”Final thoughts for Dance Teacher readers: “I am living the American dream. Come to America and work hard, and you will get the result. I am so blessed to be an American citizen.”

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