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Ballet Talk for Dancers

Age, Physical Development and Training


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I am currently reading "Mao's Last Dancer", which was recommended on this board by someone else. It's about Li Cunxin, who trained in China during the Cultural Revolution and then eventually defected and danced with Houston Ballet.


I am interested in the fact that he seems to describe his greatest years of improvement from age 18 - 21-ish. He began training at 11. It seems as though he always trained intensely, but maybe especially intensely starting around age 17. He especially talks a lot about his development as an artist and how it was difficult to become certain roles when he couldn't identify with the character.


I know that's its different for men than women, but it began me thinking about the students I know who home school and take many classes in a day. These students range in age from 12 to 17.


I am interested especially in the teachers' opinions on this, based on their experience. For girls (because I have a girl), do you think there is an age or a time in physical development when more intense training is especially effective versus a time when there could be some sort of diminishing rate of return?


The dancer in the book trained with Ben Stevenson and it's interesting to read how much he developed and how hard he worked, after he became a professional, dancing with Houston Ballet.


Just out of curiousity, if you were going to recommend a dancer to really kick in the training around a certain age, what would you recommend? The book makes me really appreciate how rewarding it would be to be part of a company who's AD really cared about the dancer's continued development.

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Very simple.


Now as to the age when most dancers make the most telling advances, it varies from student to student, but the modal age - where the most subjects are when it happens is usually 16 and after.

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Actually I've often wondered about this too --- that is, how does the rate of progression of a ballet student when they're young (say 10-14 yrs old) compare to when they become older?


Though I've never took ballet when I was gorwing up, ballet training & technique fascinates me and it's still somewhat mysterious to me as a parent. I would say my own dd is probably "slow & steady" in her progress as a ballet student -- she seems to continuously improve, but maybe at a somewhat steadier & slower rate than some other students.


But I wonder if those that are naturally gifted and progress more quickly when they're young, reach a plateau in which improvements come less quickly, but maybe in more subtle ways? Also, I wonder if the "slow & steady" students start to improve in more noticeable ways later as they become older?


But I'm assuming that these are generalizations, and that each student is going to be somewhat different! :shrug:



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Also interesting because, lets face it, girls seem to be considered "washed up" if they have not hit certain milestones (albeit fairly artificial) by the time they are say 13 or 14. Acceptance to one of the most competitive intensives, being able to dance the black swan coda, who knows.


I wonder how many potential stars gave up at 15 when they may have really shown what they had at 17 - interesting to ponder.

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:ermm: There's many a successful professional female ballet dancer who still can't dance the black swan coda. :blink:
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:ermm: Interesting thread - was having a conversation last night with my DS (age 16) who is now in his third year of pre-pro ballet training in Canada. This year the number of hours has increased with more rehearsals and jazz and modern. He was telling me that this year, he is finally learning "how" to dance on stage - more emphasis on artistry/musicality, how to "work" in class, when to expend energy, when to conserve. He's had almost no exposure to any type of variation class until this past summer -without any detriment to his training and progress he feels. And as sarsdad points out, the 14yr olds who feel inadequate because they can't do some "black swan coda" - which is completely unrealistic. As Ms. Leigh has pointed out numerous times, these variations were choreographed for mature adult dancers, not teenagers.


Another interesting point he made is that he feels that when he graduates HS at age 17 he will need another year or so of training before he would feel confident to audition for a company. Which kind of fits in with the point being made by Li Cunxin in mom1's original post, where he feels that the most development occured for him between 18-20. It may be different for men than women - boys need to develop upper body strength, fill-out, gain confidence that they can indeed partner, because let's face it - all companies need males who can partner.


There are many cases of kids who excel at ballet school who flame out in the real dance world and then there are those students who blossom after leaving the dance school world who go on to have successful careers. But as others have pointed out, are kids giving up too early?

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Very interesting topic. So the question comes down to an investigation of whether students in classical ballet are judged appropriately. Can one really tell the true potential of some kid when they are 14 or for that matter when ther are 12 or even 10. As has been pointed out by many posters with older children that parents of younger ones should remember there are huge body changes still in store at these tender ages. Ballet is a physical discipline that has a relatively short lifetime, but in almost any other career, kids don't feel washed up at 14. Perhaps we have brought this on ourselves by being so convinced there is a "perfect" training path. Professional musicians for example seem to have much more varied courses to the stage. They didn;t all go to Julliard. The only similar complaint one hears is the importance of competitions, but that tends to only be the case for those wanting a soloist career. There are plenty of fine orchestra (or for that matter Jazz) musicians who took far more unconventional routes to their positions.

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I find this topic interesting since my dd is 13 but didn't start ballet until she was 10. She danced at a very small, dinkle-ish studio for two years. We moved to Ohio a year ago and she has been at an excellent studio affiliated with a professional company.


She was never one of the fast learners and feels a bit behind here because the other girls have been dancing anywhere from 6-9 years. Her teachers have told her that she will catch up and is actually only about a year behind those who started at age 8 and have followed the typical schedule at this studio. She's actually in her age group for her jazz class. To me she looks like she doesn't quite have the muscle memory yet that the other students have but she is very graceful. Her teacher has suggested, at my daughter's questioning, to add a class the next level down so that she could have four classes a week in ballet and be able to concentrate on more on technique in that lower level class.


She doesn't plan on becoming a professional, she dances for fun. I have mentioned some of the various comments on this forum to her regarding those who started young but got burned out, etc. to encourage her, and hopefully, as long as she enjoys it, she will continue at her "slow and steady pace" like gogators' dd.


Also another question is regarding the dancer's personality. Most of the kids I hear about on the forum are highly motivated, type-A personalities (more like me). My daughter is the ultimately laid back child (like her dad). I've told her she will never die of a heart attack since she never stresses about anything! But this tendency makes her appear lazy in class, I think.



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Thank you for bringing this topic up! And Mel's comments that 16 and up for girls is so interesting. I think my daughter (and I guess therefore me, too) have been thinking if she isn't one of the best technically by 15 or 16 she is probably not good enough. But that 16 and up is when some real advancement may occur is heartening. She has been getting good training, but she is exposed to some really good dancers that can turn better, jump better, etc, etc. And in her home studio setting of course these girls are chosen to dance in performance pieces again and again. Therefore the questioning comes in: do I have what it takes, I'm not good enough here in high school. I think she really thinks the peak improvement years would be 14 to 16 and sixteen is coming up fast! Although I guess that just doesn't make common sense because ballet isn't like gymnastics or the pro companies would be full of 12-16 year olds!

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Bodies are still changing at 14. A dancer who is exceptional at 12/13 may hit puberty and have it all fall apart. Depending on her genes, her body may adjust itself and she may continue on the path to a professional career....or.....her body may change in a way that will not sustain a professional career.

There are some attributes a girl will have that won't change with puberty. Size of head, length of neck, arms, feet and of course, musicality. I think the rest is pretty much up to the puberty fairy.

During those troublesome/wonderful years while bodies are changing, flexability changes, shapes change, busts develop, a whole slew of metamorphis takes place that can be the determining factor as to the success of a desired career.

Yes, there are those few that were born with it and it stays through puberty. But, they are extremely rare. Then there are those who didn't have it but it develops as they mature. That seems to be more of a common occurance. Then there are those who had it but lose it as time goes on.

It just depends.

That is why I agree with Mel that a dancers strengths and longevity would appear around the age of 16. By that time the dancer has gone through puberty and had the opportunity to work with a body that is pretty much the finshed product.

Good solid training will be the key to any success story but a good body, no matter what age it shows up is very important as well.

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My question, however, is not when does it begin to emerge that the dancer will be successful or not. In the book, the dancer began to turn heads around 14, in his 3rd year of study. After this point, he was always thought highly of by his teachers. However, he became very goal oriented and focused around 17, after seeing a video of Barishnikov. He then went crazy, training gangbusters. However, still, that was not his greatest period of growth. He felt he improved a lot in years 19 and 20.


My question is, if a dancer was going to choose one period of time to really beef up the training, when is it most likely to have the greatest results. I see kids who are 12 and 13 taking at least two and sometimes more, technique classes a day, and I don't see a tremendous improvement compared to when they were taking only one. (These are talented kids, however, any way you slice it.)


I was wondering, if one was going to plan to really train harder than normal at some phase of one's training career, when would most likely be the optimal time.


I assume, Major Mel, that is what you were answering when you said 16.

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I would agree with Redstorm - by 16, most dancers know if they have the total package or not. What I think mom1 was referring to, is given the body and talent, at what age does increased intensity of training provide additional benefits to the dancer. Does it vary between the sexes? From what I've observed at various schools, the senior level have good solid technique - progress seems to be more in terms of artistry, refinement of technique, musicality, more mature partnering.

Part of this is due to teachers who give excellent coaching and technical instruction. It does help if the AD or teachers provide a caring/nuturing environment, wanting to get the best out of the dancers. Just as importantly, the dancer themselves must work hard each and every day - not necessarily Type A people, but people who are driven, who are passionate, who love to dance.


With all of that said, at what point or age does all of this intense training cease to be beneficial? Is it at age 20, 21, 22? Or does the focus of the daily class change? Are there differences between a company member at 20 taking daily class/rehearsal and a dancer still taking class somewhere or in a trainee position? I would like so, but I'm sure there are other opinions out there. Just food for thought.


mom1 - I posted just after you - you pretty well summed it up. I still think like Mel it happens at 16 and up.

Edited by dancemomCA
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