My take on the world of ballet education.

It has been a while. I know. A lot has happened since I was here. Part of the problem is that I didn’t have a computer for a year. Being poor is not always easy. But this will be discussed later on.

Writing can really be an outlet for so much. It can be healing in so many ways. It is sad our kids these days don’t write anymore. I started writing really young. I would make up stories and even act some of them out with my dolls! Something happened to me which prompted me to come back here. Instead of being upset and angry, I figured, writing would be the best way to cope and if at the same time I could inform people, the better.

What I would like to address today is the world of ballet education.  As parents, we always want to tell our kids to do what they love, pursue their passion, follow their dreams and that if they work hard, they’ll make it. Mostly, it is true. But what no one wants to admit is how damn hard it is going to be to compete with those who are privileged. No one is admitting that no matter how hard you work, in America, the rich always get richer, the poor always struggle and you have to be a strong, 10 times better person to endure what it will take to make it.

If you’re offended by this, read on.  I’m not trying to blame you for being privilege or rich. I just want people to understand they are lucky and cannot ever understand what poor people go through to get where they want to be, if they even do manage to succeed indeed. The American dream is harsh. It’s a beautiful word, Utopian almost but reality is cruel.

My daughter was not the typical little girl who always wanted to become a dancer and who wore pink tutus all the time. She was never really into princesses and ballerinas. She liked horses. She liked books. But, she did like to dance. She started with Jazz. She had fun, going to class once a week. That’s all we could afford but it was enough. A couple of years later, she was told she had to start taking ballet which made completely sense. If she wanted to keep dancing, she needed the foundation. So, we added ballet. She fell in love with ballet. Suddenly, the girl, who you would never have picked to be a ballerina, wanted to be a professional ballerina. She didn’t care for the outfits and the bling, etc. She liked the discipline. She craved the hard work. After being told by a studio owner that she would be too talk to make it in the ballet world, she asked me to switch studio. That’s when we moved to a pre-professional ballet studio (the one before was more of a competition studio, a la dance moms show). There, she started taking more classes, 4 a week. She started doing more pointe. Slowly, I learned all the ballet lingo and what YAGP was, etc ( YAGP by the way stands for Youth American Grand Prix, if you’re curious go watch First Position on Netflix) That’s also when I started realizing that no one really makes it professionally unless they have money or are gifted like Misty Copeland and will be given opportunities because, well, they’re that good.

Another thing I started noticing was how studios only seem to pay attention ( real attention) to kids who have been there since they were in diapers. I know, I am exaggerating, although the idea of a baby in diaper doing fouettes is kind of amusing right now. In all seriousness though, if your kid has been at the same studio since they were in pre-ballet, most likely, they will get more attention, more respect, will be in better roles and be more pampered. If you are a new kid, well, get used to being in the background. Get used to only hanging out with whoever the new kid will be because the girls who have been there since birth won’t socialize with you. That is the truth. We’ve been to many studios and this observation never fails. No one likes the new kid. It’s the same everywhere isn’t it though? At work, at school, in society. Everything in this world is a reflection of how integrated we are as a society.
Even when we tried to ask for same opportunities ( i.e.doing YAGP ) as the girls who had been there forever we were given lame fake excused like, “oh you’re too young” ( even though younger girls who had been there for years were doing it).

But this leads me to another issue. Money. Even if you were allowed to participate in YAGP, you’d have to prepare for it. YAGP is a competition where a dancer presents a solo in classical ballet and contemporary if she or he wishes as well. In order to prepare for that solo, you need to get privates so you can learn the variation and perfect it. YAGP usually is in winter time, usually January or February depending on which city your audition is. Dancers start getting privates for YAGP in August or September and usually do not stop until the day of the competition. Now, let me break this down for you: depending on which studio you go to, privates will be between $75 and $150 an hour. They usually have one hour a week per solo. Most dancers do one classical and one contemporary. That comes to almost $300 a week just for privates. Add on top of that the tution you pay for classes (which if you are full-time pre professional is between $550 the cheapest to $800 a month or more). Ok. Now add to that shoes. On average, a pair of pointe shoes last 6 classes but most girls make them last longer. They have their ways. A pair of pointe shoes cost between $65 to $120 depending on the brand you get. But it’s not like you can just get the cheapest one. It has to be good for your feet. My dancer wore a $65 pair for 2 years but then realized she was getting bunions because of the shoe so now we spend $120 for one brand and $100 for another and alternate. So, did you have your calculator out this whole time? No. Ok, let me do the math for you. If your child wants to attend a pre professional ballet school that trains you well which requires you to come 4 to 5 times a week minimum, and she is on pointe and she wants to participate in YAGP ( and trust me, everyone wants to because it is exposure and a chance to win scholarship), you’ll end up spending about $2200 a month. You read right, average $1000 a month for classes, shoes and attire, accessories, gas to take your kid there, and if you have a kid who does 2 solos, privates can add up to $1200 a month. Sometimes, you will find studios that offer scholarships. They are rare but they do exist. Of course, scholarships are competitive. I’d love to share which studios I know help out families but I decided when I started this post that I would not name any studios. This blog is not about rating studios. It is a general opinion of the world of ballet education. My daughter was lucky enough to get scholarships twice from 2 good studios in our town. While it didn’t help with everything, it was a start and it is what enabled her to keep fighting for her dance future all these years.
Scholarships for summer intensive are extremely hard to get. After all, companies are in it to make money. We had teachers flat out tell us where NOT to go because of the reputation of the program. Some are really just taking advantage of their big famous name. One company that I will not name only offered 3 hours of training a day and charged an orrendous amount for their program. Most good summer programs will give you an intense training of at least 6hours a day. My daughter attended one where she trained for 8 hours 5 days a week and 4 on Saturday. Again, as a parent, you have to center your child and turn down the volume of the pressure talks. It’s more important to get the correct training than going to a big name intensive and get lost in the process and make yourself bankrupt.

All of this sounds pretty intimidating right? I certainly wish someone had warned me about all this when my daughter was 9 and decided she wanted to be a professional ballet dancer. But we learned as we went. I knew nothing about YAGP but then suddenly because everyone was doing it, we thought we had to do it in order to have a chance in this world. We were depressed when we couldn’t. I felt like a loser mother who couldn’t afford my kid to do something that would advance her and give her the same opportunities everyone else (or rather those with big wallets) had. Not doing YAGP alienates you even more because, everyone is doing it. Dancers show off about how many rehearsals they have and parade around their costumes. Teachers spend hours giving privates, often starting regular class LATE because they’re finishing up with the ones preparing for YAGP.

For about 3 years I felt like a loser for not being able to afford privates. I kept thinking, maybe next year, maybe your senior year. And one day, it stopped. It was a combination of my daughter not even caring anymore and me hearing moms telling me how the whole YAGP competition was rigged. They literally had stories about parents slipping hush hush “notes” to the judges and certain studios being favored. You’ll also once in a while bump into a successful dancer who had never done YAGP and we’d be reminded that things get blown out of proportion. You could put something terrible in the spotlight, hire a good marketing team, and everyone’d want it. Right? Do I need to give examples? I don’t think so. Not even thinking about doing YAGP just made things more bearable for me. But I must say, I give a lot of credit to my kid who has the amazing ability to brush things off. Trust me, if took years of practice and tears. But these experiences, the “no you can’t do this or that” speeches because she was too tall or didn’t have enough money, just made her stronger. Her attitude now is to show up in class, work her ass off, leave and ignore the noise around. It doesn’t mean things don’t get to her. She just handles it differently.

She’s had to practice that during Nutcracker time too. AH! Nutcracker! Oh you’ve heard of the Nutcracker mania. Every theater in town plays it around Christmas time. It can be a very magical show. If you attend a good studio, Nutcracker is a very elaborate production which requires months of preparation. The end result is magnificent. Be prepared, however, to have no life during the months leading to the magical nights. The first problem is the expense. Yes. You have to pay for it. You will have to pay the fee to participate, possibly a costume fee, then you will be asked to buy 10 to 15 tickets regardless of whether you can resell it or not. Most studios will also require parents to volunteer or you can pay a very high fee if you can afford to not volunteer. It’s a very thought-out thing. You can tell that most studios have done this for years and know how to justify their cost. They also know that parents have a hard time saying no to little Suzy who dreams to be a mouse or whatever role she will get (although there is no guarantee of what role you’ll get of course). So when you add up, depending on which studio you attend, you could be stuck with spending $2000 just to participate. Ok. So now, let’s move on to rehearsals and “tech” week ( the week of the show, you rehearse at the theater). Nutcracker rehearsals usually, at a minimum, will take up all your weekends from September to December. Forget about Thanksgiving vacation. Forget about birthday parties, soccer games, etc. Have fun juggling siblings’ commitments. Tech rehearsals are another problem because they are long, yet necessary. There is no doubt about it. If you are a good studio, you will make sure everything is perfect, and that means, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Remember, the studio pays the theater for the space so they usually ask cast members to arrive fairly early so they can get as much done as possible. The issue with this, however, is that most young dancers have school and missing school is not always a luxury for parents. Some schools are less forgiving than others. Younger kids might not be as worried as a high school junior or senior to miss a class. Then, there is the problem of getting to the theater. Some parents HAVE to work and cannot leave early to pick up their kid and transport them to rehearsals. Some parents CANNOT afford nannies or butler or car services or those not so safe apps.

So imagine all of this combined, the cost, the time, the stress, the school being missed, the transportation, the loss of income if you have no one to help you get your kid to rehearsal…. well you are out of luck.

Even if you are a hard working parent, when you are dealing with studio owners, they are so focused on their production that they completely lose empathy, if they even had it in the first place. They claim they understand but they can’t even make an exception for your kid who  can never  do what others do (YAGP, etc) to arrive late to a rehearsal so that her mom can make a living. The truth is that privilege and wealthy people who do not know what struggle is and won’t walk in your shoes only want to help their kind. It’s to their advantage. The ones at the top need to stay there. They can’t have “those guys” jeopardizing them ruling the world. Think about it, with the amount of wealth in this world (owned by only a handful of people) don’t you think we could have solved extreme starvation and poverty by now? There is no benefit for them to help the little guy. They claim they don’t want to give preferential treatment but in reality they give each other special treatment every single day.

This reminds me of another time when a teacher yelled at me and my kid for calling to let her know we were running late to a competition because I had gotten sick. But who cares about someone’s health right? The ONLY thing that matter is the competition.

Guess what? NO. Nothing matters more than someone’s well being, health and financial security. Nothing is worth jeopardizing someone’s grades when they count on full scholarship to even be able to attend college.

See, the problem with the world of ballet or competitive dance is that everyone seems to forget that kids started dancing because they loved it. They were not stressed about anything. Most likely, they started dancing in their living room or bedroom, at a family function on grandpa’s feet. Then fast forward a few years later, mom or dad takes them to a pre ballet or tap class and they laugh and have so much fun wearing tutus (if your kid is into that) and make noises with their happy feet. But slowly it becomes a competition in one way or another. It becomes a challenge. It becomes work. These kids turn into adults fighting for a job, sometimes being nasty to one another. The parents turn evil or because of peer pressure end up bankrupting themselves or lose focus and think their kid HAS to do what everyone else does. Less fortunate parents might become depressed because they can’t provide for their most precious offspring. Some dancers end up quitting ballet because they don’t love it anymore or because they do not like the politics of it. Who could blame them? Some end up turning into a different style of dance. Some make themselves sick, take drugs, start drinking, have body image problems, weight issues. THIS is a reality that no one talks about. This is hush hush. You might say, well this is the sacrifice to become a Prima ballerina but does it have to be this way? Why does getting anywhere have to be a nasty process. What happened to work hard but having pride, joy and compassion in the process?
We know dancers who work themselves so hard they have absolutely no balance. They live unhealthy lifestyles, drink coffee to stay up until 2 in the morning to finish a writing assignement due the next day at school. They are prone to injuries. No one can sustain this unhealthy lifestyle. Depression, lack of confidence, you name it, this world can create it. It takes a good support system, guidance and role models to have your head on your shoulder. There are, thankfully, programs that will help your dancer remain focus. Many art centers have education programs and offer seminars or free classes. You have to know where to look.

Awareness is very important in every aspect of our society. Every subcategory in our lives need to be looked at carefully and analyzed. Then, we need to talk about what we can do to change things and hold people responsible accountable. We do NOT have to accept these “NORMS”. No kid should be denied possible success and happiness in whatever he or she chooses just because he or she comes from a lower income family who works harder than anyone to provide food, shelter and security.

Society as a whole lets ITSELF down. We do not gain anything by bringing the same people or the same kids of the same rich families up to the top. Nothing improves or inspires by just letting the rich get richer and the privileged always getting ahead. Imagine a world where every kid had the same opportunities, where every child was given the same ballet training no matter how much money their parents had? For one thing, you’d see a lot more diversity. Things would start looking different. But here’s the root of the problem: no one wants that. Ballet is for skinny white girls. Yes, I know how it sounds and I think you all I know I disagree with this but that is what those on top believe and they want to keep it that way. That’s why some companies won’t even consider you unless you are a certain height or weight. It’s not a secret. It’s a catch 22. Of course, things are slowly changing but emphasis on slowly. Some companies welcome tall dancers or people of color but it’s not usually a melting pot, it’s more like segregation. But ok, it’s a step in the right direction. Like in history, eventually it will come to an end and blended companies will be accepted….I hope.

So, I am telling you. As with everything, what makes things change is your voice. Speaking up and exposing the unfairness and nastiness of anything is what creates or speeds upchange. So if you are a mom or dad with a kid in the ballet world and you are unhappy with the things you see and hear, speak up and get together with other who feel the same way. And in the meantime, protect your child and find other outlets. Your child’s health and mental well-being is more important than any grief you will experience. If you need recommendation, feel free to ask me. I’ve been there. I’m lucky because my dancer found ways to work around all of this and still be happy but I know it is not always easy.

Sound off.