Leg work

In a crowded studio on Wayne State University’s campus, 50 ridiculously flexible kids watch an instructor show a young dancer just how much higher her leg extension could be. The toned pre-teen scrunches her face in pain as her teacher guides her leg from the front to the back in a half-circle — a grand rond de jambe — at an 80-degree angle. After the instructor is through making his point, she massages her hip sockets and is ready to try it all over again. Almost an hour later, at the end of the class, the dancers exit the studio. Some are visibly sore and exhausted, while others have no expression at all, like drones. Up close, they all look much younger than when they were performing.

For the young pre-professional, dance isn't so much a hobby as it is an all-consuming lifestyle. Serious young dancers take class almost every day, often at prestigious arts schools during the fall, and audition for summer intensives hosted by world-renowned ballet companies in the summer, in hopes of attaining fame.

For the past eight years, the United States’ premier ballet company, American Ballet Theatre, has played host to a summer intensive in Detroit. In conjunction with the Michigan Opera Theatre and Wayne State University, the monthlong program trains 183 dancers, ages 12 to 21, from 39 states, as well as Brazil and France. Running 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. five days a week (with occasional Saturday lectures), the intensive is designed to give students a well-rounded experience focused on classical ballet technique.

Summer intensives aren’t new to the ballet world, but a more recent development is the variety of classes offered as part of the program. Now, in addition to the painstaking classes in technique, pointe, partnering and choreography, many companies are offering classes in nutrition, body conditioning and physical therapy. These courses would not have been offered 20 years ago, says Alaine Haubert, artistic director of ABT Detroit’s summer program since its inception in 1997.

Today, nutrition and healthy eating are encouraged for ballet dancers. Haubert, who was a principal dancer with the Joffrey Ballet and ABT and the former ballet mistress at ABT in New York, says: “When I was their age, we were discouraged from eating.” This more healthful attitude toward food and body maintenance has largely been embraced by the ballet community. Wellness programs have been instituted in the country’s leading companies, including ABT, the New York City Ballet and the San Francisco Ballet. Some intensive programs and schools specifically look for potential nutritional problems in students before accepting them into the programs. Haubert says she usually doesn’t accept anyone into the program if there is the possibility a student has an eating disorder.

“You have to be smart about your body. That’s where the nutrition classes come in. The image of the toothpick-skinny, high-fashion-model look of a dancer — we discourage that, especially with these kids. They’re here to have a good time, to learn and to grow.”

But ABT students Emily Koteles, 21, and Franco Nieto, 18, confirm that eating disorders are still prevalent among dancers. Nieto, a sandy-haired young man with piercing blue eyes, says: “They say in dance magazines that it’s not going on anymore. But if you look around, it’s still there.” Koteles thinks that eating disorders in ballet could be even more prevalent than before, due to the media’s pervasive emphasis on thinness.

The pressures that face young dancers are not limited to body image. Ballet classes are designed to minimize the potential for injury, but dancers have to pay attention to their hips and especially their feet. Male dancers often have trouble with their ankles and other joints, from landing jumps incorrectly. The field is also extremely competitive. Students find themselves not only competing against their peers, but themselves. Nieto sometimes finds it hard to keep going. He explains that there is a lot of pressure to perform well. “Like today. It was a really bad class, and you just beat yourself up for it. You just go home and — I don’t know — some days I just want to quit, it is so demanding.”

Haubert knows that the pressures of self-control take their toll on young dancers. “I think that some of them are very self-competitive and that’s a good thing,” she says. “What we try to train them to do in this program is to compete in a healthy way and be competitive in a positive way.”

Nieto and Koteles both hope to be professional dancers some day and they understand the pressures involved. “For me, I want to be a professional dancer and I will push and push and push until I get to where I can one day be in a company,” says Nieto. You can see the drive behind their eyes; they get excited just talking about it.

Haubert believes that some of the students with dreams of a professional career are not always being realistic about what it entails. “There are very few positions in this country for a professional career,” Haubert says, “and these dancers — although they have been very well-trained and are strong physically and very quick mentally — some of them won’t make the choice to be in a ballet company.” The teachers at the ABT summer intensive try to show their students the demanding realities of a life in dance. “I think the reality check that happens here is really valuable. Because this program is so rigorous they make the decision halfway through that, ‘Oh, this is what the reality of this lifestyle is.’ This occupation that seemed, as a child, so magical and easy and wonderful, is really, really hard work.”

That’s when these young people must decide whether they have a real shot at getting into a company as an adult. “I think there is a false assumption that a young teenager emerging from a studio situation is in a position to be considered for American Ballet Theatre, and that isn’t the case,” Haubert says. “Very few people join ABT from school and I highly recommend to these kids that they get outside experience — stage experience. ABT is looking for professionals.” Summer intensives certainly help the aspiring dancer on the road to a professional career, but an elite company like ABT wants more. Instructors nurture the teens in the program, but once they get into the professional world, the bar is raised. Haubert says many principal dancers from smaller companies often audition to be in the corps de ballet at ABT.

Still, it seems most of these students are undaunted by negativity. To become a professional dancer, you need talent, but perhaps even more importantly, the determination to succeed.

The students of the intensive will have the chance to get more stage experience by dancing selections from ABT repertoire classics such as Giselle, Coppelia, Don Quixote, Les Sylphides and Le Corsaire, as well as new choreography by the instructors.


Performances are 1 and 4 p.m. on Friday, July 22, at Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway, Detroit; 313-961-3500. Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for students and children under 15.

Melanie Seasons is a ballet dancer and Metro Times intern. Send comments to [email protected]

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