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via Dance Magazine

Time for Training

Is there an ideal age for starting ballet?

Not many principal dancers can claim their careers happened by accident—but Kevin D. Bowles of National Ballet of Canada can. At age 14, he volunteered to work backstage at a high school musical but signed up to audition for a part by mistake. “I was too embarrassed to admit it, so I auditioned,” remembers Bowles, a principal character artist with NBC. “Then I landed a major role!” To get him stage-ready, the director put Bowles into ballet class. Immediately, he fell head over heels for dance.

Dance Toddlers

But Bowles had a challenging road ahead. Starting ballet as a teenager is difficult for anyone with professional aspirations; most pros step up to the barre long before they hit puberty. Youngsters have not only the advantage of more malleable bodies, but also the benefit of time. It takes years to develop the strength and flexibility required for ballet, and companies tend to hire teenage apprentices. So what is the ideal age to begin ballet? Is it always preferable to get an early start? Dance Magazine investigates.

An Early Start
Starting ballet as a young child has both physical and mental advantages. Studies suggest that young minds are more adept at learning new languages, and ballet is definitely a language. “Kids certainly retain new information better than adults,” observes Damara Bennett, director of the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre. (The school begins pre-ballet at age 4, and full ballet classes around 6.)

According to Bennett, a main advantage of starting early is that young bodies are ideal for cultivating long lines and strong technique. “If kids don’t have the perfect feet and they start young enough, you have time to make their feet better and more limber,” she says. “But by the time they’re teenagers, there is not as much room for change.”

Jennie Somogyi, a New York City Ballet principal who began training at age 7, agrees. “As far as developing your muscles, the younger the start the better,” she says. “Ballet involves a lot of small muscles in addition to major muscle groups, and it can take years to build them.” Somogyi’s first teacher asked her to stop gymnastics when she got serious about ballet so that her body would develop in the “ballet” way.

The Washington Ballet’s Amanda Cobb ran into this problem when she transitioned from gymnastics at the late age of 12. Despite her great natural facility, she had to relearn how to move her body. During her first summer at the School of American Ballet, she was 14 but placed in a level with younger students. “I had all this flexibility, but I couldn’t do anything,” she recalls. “Their bodies would go in perfect positions. When I looked in the mirror, my body didn’t look like that.”

For the professionally oriented, the ideal starting time is almost a question of math. It takes about 12 years to produce a company-ready dancer, according to Bennett. “When they start at 6, they’re learning, say, 10 different steps, and you have to go so slowly for their bodies to absorb it,” she says. “Well, it’s the same for adults. They have to start at the beginning, too.” If companies hire dancers in their mid- to late teens (Somogyi joined NYCB at 15, after studying at SAB for six years), it only makes sense that training should begin at least a decade prior.

Some schools do it a bit differently. At White Lodge, the lower division of England’s Royal Ballet School, students don’t begin full-time training until the relatively late age of 11. Prior to that, they take a weekly class at one of RBS’s associate schools. By the time they audition for White Lodge, most are still dancing at an elementary level.

But at age 11, the training intensifies, with daily classes and girls going on pointe halfway through their first year. It should be noted, however, that White Lodge students are hand-selected from approximately 1,000 applicants for about 25 spots. “We look mainly for musicality, coordination, flexibility, hyper-mobility, an aesthetic to their lines—and that spark that you can’t teach them,” says assistant director Jay Jolley. “But a child at that age can still change drastically in 12 months.”

Assessing Each Child
There are a number of issues to consider when determining whether a child is ready to begin.  “It depends on their focus,” says Darla Hoover, associate artistic director of both Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet and Ballet Academy East in New York City. Every child is different, and some may be too young to take direction. “You don’t want them so young that they can’t stand still.”Another concern: Kids can acquire bad habits just as easily as they acquire good ones. “Each time a child does something, it should be correct,” says Hoover. “If they use the wrong muscles now, they’ll have to unlearn it later.”

For students who don’t have the maturity for a full ballet class, pre-ballet is a good alternative. Typically, these classes cover the basic ballet positions but focus on creative movement, posture, etiquette, and coordination, making for an easier transition into full ballet classes.

Late Bloomers
Late starters like Cobb and Bowles face a special set of challenges—some of which are psychological. “When I was 16, I was put in with a bunch of 13-year-olds, and they are not kind at that age!” Bowles remembers. “Everyone was laughing at me and saying, ‘Who is the galoot who doesn’t even know what passé is?’ ”

But starting from scratch is what latecomers need. “Sometimes schools put new students with their own age group. That’s a recipe for disaster,” says Hoover. “When they start older, they might excel faster, but they still have to swallow their pride and take class with the 8-year-olds.”

Late-starters also need the patience to let their bodies reshape. “One main issue is flexibility,” says Evan Williams, a physical therapist at Mosaic Physical Therapy in Los Angeles, CA, and a former dancer with Birmingham Royal Ballet. With diligence, teenagers can increase their extension. “As you get older, there is less elastin in the muscles, but that’s when you’re 30 or older,” Williams says. “For teens, there is definitely still building being done.”

Is there a silver lining for latecomers? Bowles thinks so. He believes that starting late, he had the maturity to understand what he was getting into. “A mental strain kicks in around age 25. I’ve seen a lot of dancers get burned out,” he says. “I came in a little more mature, less able to be disillusioned. I could get my mind around this life.”

Kristin Lewis is a dancer and writer in NYC.

– See more at: http://www.dancemagazine.com/issues/july-2010/TeachLearn-Connection#sthash.WMVclmbn.dpuf

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