As their vacation from school comes to an end, students everywhere ask one another, "What did you do this summer?"
Imagine spending an entire month doing the one thing you love best. Many young people around the country participate in summer programs that emphasize art, sports, and other specialized skills.
Every year, a group of students, 11 years old to young adult, spend four weeks – seven hours a day, five days a week – dancing with the Academy at Colorado Ballet's Summer Intensive Program. What causes these girls and boys to give up their leisure time to dance, dance, dance?
Let's look in on them and see. In a brightly lighted dance studio overlooking downtown Denver's busy Lincoln Street, young dancers prepare for their advanced-level ballet technique class. With legs stretched up on the barre and arms and torsos in all kinds of contortions, the dancers talk quietly among themselves until the instructor walks in.
When Meelis Pakri, ballet master and graduate of the Vaganova Ballet Academy in Russia, enters the room, all conversation stops. After a brief greeting, he demonstrates the first warm-up exercise, signals the pianist to play something slow, and the dancers begin a series of pliés.
Some of the dancers are professional members of the Colorado Ballet, and some are younger students who were accepted into this four-week course of study that includes ballet technique, pointe, and acting.
Sound challenging? It is, but these young dancers talk more about how inspiring and satisfying the whole experience is.
"It's great to see how much you grow," says Elizabeth Martin, who's been dancing for 14 years, even though she's still in her teens. "[Comparing] where you start from and where you end up is definitely rewarding."
"The more you do it, as long as you're not pushed by a parent or someone [else], the more you grow to love it and the more you want to learn," adds 20-something Tiffany Hartsfield. "That passion is what helps you inspire yourself. You see other people do something, and you want to do it as well."
"It's the thrill of dancing; you can't really describe it," says Elizabeth. "I had to make the choice between ballet and jazz or soccer and lacrosse, and I went with dance because I knew that's where my heart is."
Young dancers' passion for ballet shines through during their auditions for the school, says Gil Boggs, the artistic director of the Colorado Ballet.
When asked what he looks for in a prospective student, he says, "Obviously you look for facility – their ability to 'turnout' (Are their feet pointed well?), how they use their arms. And then just natural ability. But you also look for their desire to be a dancer. You can tell how hard they are willing to work in a classroom when you are giving the steps in an audition, how they approach it. You see it in their eyes."
Dancing takes hard work and discipline, and this program demands both from its students. Tiffany points out that ballet dancers understand the necessity of total concentration and the power of self-control. "Discipline is very important. And that's how most classes are. There's no talking," she says. Everybody is alert, ready to work."
"I came from a Russian technique," says Elizabeth. "The second [the instructor] walks in, you're ready to go; you know what you're doing. That structure in the class is needed because if you don't have it, you can't really grow as a ballerina. It pushes me as a dancer.... I can do so much better when the teacher is pushing us where he wants us to be. It's that intensity factor – when you walk into the room, you know you have to work today." Even if you're having a hard day.
But for Mr. Boggs, discipline isn't another word for scolding – yelling at students isn't right, he says. "You want a nurturing approach. Discipline helps you express yourself better – it gives you the freedom to move the way you want to move."
Besides ballet, students can also study different kinds of dance, which may include jazz, hip-hop, ethnic and folk (character class), and modern dance. All of these, says Boggs, help develop a dancer's range and flexibility. "Kids want options as they grow up, and they want to move differently. The more forms of dance you learn, the better."
He tells a story from his own youth. "When I was growing up, I loved classical ballet, and I didn't want to go to the modern dance or jazz classes at all. Eventually I got into American Ballet Theater, and they were doing this piece called 'Opus Jazz,' by Jerome Robbins, and they put me in to learn it. And I could not move that way to save my life. I had been stubborn during my training [while] growing up. So they had to take me out of it, and I missed a great opportunity. So that's where all these forms come into play. The ability to move many different ways is important because no two choreographers are the same."
The students in this program develop friendships and try not to become too competitive. "It's definitely supportive," says Elizabeth. "We all kind of help each other. [Someone will] say 'That was an amazing pirouette, do that again,' and you think, 'Oh, wow! I didn't think anyone saw that.' "
Boggs calls this supportive atmosphere the "esprit de corps" – a spirit of loyalty toward the whole company. He says that no matter how different the individuals may be, under the Colorado Ballet system, they drop their differences to work together.
"I've been to quite a few summer intensives and quite a few schools," says Tiffany. "I used to feel that I had to be at the best school, and I had to have the competition or I wouldn't feel challenged enough.
"But the older I got," she adds, "I realized that I should be competing with myself. So I stopped worrying about other people, and that's when I started to get more out of what I was doing."
The dance world often uses words and terms you may not have heard of before. Here are some, with their pronunciation in parenthesis:
Arabesque [a-ra-BESK] – A position in which the dancer stands on one leg with the other leg extended straight backward.
Barre [bar] – The horizontal bar along the walls of a dance studio that the dancer holds for support. Typically, every ballet class begins with exercises at the barre.
Jeté [zhuh-TAY] – A leap in which the dancer jumps from one foot to the other.
Pas de deux [pah duh DOO] – A partnering in which a man and woman dance together; a duet.
Pirouette [peer-uh-WET] – A complete turn on one leg.
Plié [plee-AY] – A movement in which the knees are bent and the back is held straight.
Pointe[point] – The tip of the toe; only females dance on pointe.
Port de bras [por duh BRAH] – The movements and positions of the arms.
Relevé [rel-eh-VAY] – A movement in which the heels are raised off the floor.
Rond de jambe[rawn duh ZHAHNB] – A circular movement of the leg.
Turnout – A standing position in which the legs are turned out from the hips so that the feet point in opposite directions.
Tutu [too-too] – The skirt worn by a ballerina.
Variation – A solo dance.