Ballet as Preparation for Life

co-authored by Ellen Dobbyn-Blackmore
Angelina Massa performing in Grieg Piano Concerto with Ballet Academy East. Choreography by Rex Wheeler, photo by Rosalie O'Connor.

Ballet Academy East is well known as one of New York City's top ballet schools. Its alumni fill the rosters at dance companies all across the country. Less well known is that its students also excel at academics. Darla Hoover, Artistic Director of BAE, and Julia Dubno, the founder and Director, are not content to just train dancers. They measure success in helping to make their students better people. Many BAE students are on their school's honor rolls and they regularly go on to top colleges including Harvard, Columbia University, Vassar, University of Pennsylvania and others.

BAE's recent performances at the Alvin Ailey Center showcased the students in diverse works with original choreography and there was a seamless quality to the shows. From the top students down to the novices, they moved with stylistic unity, confidence and clarity. BWV 1063, choreographed by David Morse, amply displayed the strong talents of the advanced students, especially Zoe Stein who commanded attention with her quiet, composed elegance. This was sophisticated dancing that made the students reach beyond their comfort level and they met the challenge.

A Modest Suite set to Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition was a comedic work made by Kelly Ann Sloan to present the younger students who moved with no less authority and confidence than the older ones. The Amethyst Fugue, by Stacy Cadell was ably led by Marc Pierre and Verity Azaria. Jenna Lavin choreographed the closing Ever, a lyrical piece that gave Arielle Friedman and Cassidy McAndrew their turn to shine. The school, as a whole, has a tremendous esprit de corps and they danced with the sort of assured confidence that is a pleasure to watch.

Among the dancers featured was Angelina Massa who will soon be graduating from Bronxville High School and moving on to college at Harvard. Many little girls start in ballet with dreams of tutus and tiaras, but only a few end up as professional dancers. Learning ballet at the advanced level that can lead to becoming a genuine tutu-wearing ballerina requires a level of commitment that few youngsters are willing to make. For those who don't end up in a ballet company, they find the training is still valuable and changes their lives for the better. Angelina Massa epitomizes the value of ballet training as preparation for life. Following the performances at Alvin Ailey Theater, Massa talked about her experience at Ballet Academy East.

Andrew Blackmore-Dobbyn: To be a dancer means a lot of sacrifice and a lot of commitment -- what do you feel like you had to give up for all these years of dance training?

Angelina Massa: Definitely a lot of sleep. I rarely sleep enough with all the school that I do, too. But probably more, just the normal high school social life. It's such a time commitment. After all these hours of dancing, like on Saturdays, when other people are at parties, you're so exhausted so you can't go to all the usual social events like other high schoolers. There's no sports or clubs or any of that stuff. You have to give it up.

AB-D: What you think about other dance schools and how they run in comparison to BAE?

AM: I think what sets BAE apart is the supportive, fun-loving community. There is a sense of fun competition. Everybody is working together to make everyone else better. You're inspired by seeing other people improve. One of the things that made me feel really welcome when I first came was how, when I improved on a certain step, people would clap. I never see that at other places. It's not very competitive. Some people think that ballet is a cutthroat kind of thing. Here at BAE we are actually genuinely happy for people when they improve or get a part.

AB-D: After all the training, all the time you spend in class perfecting the tendus, pliés and all the sacrifices, what does performing mean to you?

AM: Performing is my favorite thing. After all the hours that you spend perfecting everything, it's so nice to be seen and to show the audience how much you've worked on everything. In this last show, we were backstage talking about how crazy it is that we've been working on a piece since October, and it's only seen four times. Having just those few moments after so long in preparing for it makes it so special. This is what we've been working toward. It gives you something to be proud of. It's your moment to show it to everybody. I love that.

AB-D: As you draw to a close with your BAE experience, what do you think you're going to miss?

AM: I think the people, the teachers, are so amazing here and all of the friends I've made here at BAE are so supportive, and I'm going to miss being with them for so many hours every day. It's so much time that we spend together. We have this understanding with each other from doing this rare art form and we understand how much dedication and discipline goes into it. I'm definitely going to miss that.

AB-D: While you might be at the top of the academic heap, actually everyone at BAE does pretty well in school. Is there something about ballet training or the school culture that makes all of you do better in school?

AM: I think that, first of all, it's time management. We get very good at managing our time because of all the ballet that we do. The other things that you develop, like the great discipline, when you're working on the same things every day and it's very hard, you get really good at pinpointing the things that you need to work on in order to achieve your goals, a little bit each day. Discipline and time management are the biggest things that dancers have to learn to do well.

AB-D: With all the time that you've put into dancing so far, are there opportunities to dance at Harvard?

AM: They have the Harvard Ballet Company. It does really cool ballets... like they've done Balanchine ballets. It's not too much of a time commitment. Not as much as I do now. That will be a bit of a transition, but it will be great because I can continue in ballet while at school.

AB-D: When you were an eighth grader coming in to BAE, were you planning on becoming a professional ballet dancer?

AM: Yes, that was my dream. Now that I've gotten into college, I've realized that it's not a failure at all not to have become a professional dancer because I've managed to keep up with a very rigorous school schedule and a very rigorous ballet schedule. I'm going to a great school that I know I'm going to love, and I've learned so much about discipline and time management, all these things carry into academics as well. I know that it's not realistic for me to become a professional dancer, but I've totally accepted that, and I'm so happy that I came here. I don't regret any of the hours I've spent in ballet. I'm so happy I did it. From the beginning, Darla (Hoover) teaches everyone not to just be good at technique. You have to show your personality and your confidence. Everybody here does that and coming here, I was inspired by the community and the atmosphere.

AB-D: So, it changes the way you walk through the world?

AM: Yes! You have this posture. One of the biggest things is that Darla always wants us to be proud of ourselves wherever we go. In the lower levels, she teaches them from the very beginning to exude energy and confidence. You really develop that here.

I've gotten so much from BAE. Learning to just look at myself and not compare myself to everybody else is huge because everyone has a different trajectory. In ballet especially, because you're always looking in the mirror wearing just a leotard and tights, it's easy to compare yourself to others. At BAE we're all very supportive of each other, and it's taught me not to get caught up in what everyone else is doing. If I just work on myself, I can improve at my own rate.

AB-D: Has it made you more accepting of yourself?

AM: Yes. With ballet in general, it's hard to be accepting of yourself because you don't want to get complacent. This school has made me see how much there is to improve all the time, even though I know I can't be perfect in every way. It's made me more accepting of myself.

AB-D: Has it put you more in touch with your inner self?

AM: I think performing mostly does that. The feeling that you get on stage is indescribable. It's kind of spiritual, I think. Ever since I decided that I was not going to try to be a professional ballet dancer, performing and taking ballet classes took on a different dimension. It takes pressure off. I didn't stop working or anything but it's removed unnecessary doubt in myself or lack of confidence. It's made me think about the big picture of why I do it and why I love it.

AB-D: What will it be like to do your last performance with BAE?

AM: Last year, after the spring performance, so many of our classmates were leaving, and everyone in my level stood on the stage hugging each other and sobbing. They finally brought up the curtain and said: "You guys have to leave."

AB-D: How do you think it will affect you when you leave BAE?

AM: I think it's going to be really hard to make that adjustment because BAE structures my life in so many ways that when I don't have this in my life for so many hours each day, I might not know what to do with myself. I've come to love the teachers here so much and the piano players and the studio itself... I'm so attached. Having it all taken away after this year is going to be really hard for me.

Ballet Academy East Slideshow, all photos courtesy of BAE.

BAE: Ballet Slideshow