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pnb summer course: more than just ballet camp

By Laurel Dix

For five weeks out of every summer, a cheerful commotion descends on the halls of Pacific Northwest Ballet. Approximately 200 boys and girls from around the country come to Seattle to dance at PNB’s prestigious dance intensive, where the schedule is packed with technique classes and informative seminars that give the tools to prepare for a professional career. The signs of summer course are unmistakable inside the Phelps Center. Every single studio is filled with dancers in multicolored leotards; piano and accordion music intermingle in a dissonant duet; and of course, the hallways are lined with chattering dancers all under the age of eighteen.

Despite the challenges inherent in teaching so many students and working with their varied technical backgrounds,

PNBS faculty member Bruce Wells teaching a men’s class
(photo © Angela Sterling)

PNBS faculty members Bruce Wells and Dana Hanson report that summer course is a remarkably smooth, exciting, and fun affair. “Dance is very present here, and I think that has got to be thrilling for a young child. The dream has come true and they get to dance all day…I think they do make life-long friendships,” says Wells. Summer course is an event highly anticipated by both the faculty and the dancers chosen to attend.

The process of selecting the hundreds of dancers begins way back in January, when most ballet students are just recovering from the Nutcracker glut. PNBS sends out a team of teachers to travel around the country and hold auditions at local studios. The audition class can sometimes take hours as the teachers watch the groups of nervous students and decide who would be the best match for PNB’s program. According to Wells, the idea of summer courses is somewhat recent in the dance world. But ever since Balanchine began inviting dancers to study at City Ballet in the ’60s, traveling to a different city to dance has become a mainstream part of the summers. “In the last 20 or so years, this whole summer dance program thing has become quite a business…The first person to ever do a summer course, I believe, was Balanchine—he would fly to, say, Boston, and audition two girls. Three girls. It was not the hundreds of people we see coming to audition. Eventually it caught on.”

Once the teachers have returned from the tour and the dancers have received their letters of acceptance, excitement builds until July (this year’s course began on the 6th). Students from 35 U.S. states and four foreign countries flew into Seattle and are living in the dorms at Seattle Pacific University. Daily buses transport them to the Phelps Center. While most of their non-dancing peers this summer are enjoying sleeping in, these teenagers have already begun technique class at 8:30 a.m., and are mentally preparing themselves for a day of classes that could stretch until 5 p.m.

Bruce Wells says that the 8:30 start time is the best and worst part of summer course, but that it gives the dancers invaluable experience for life as a professional. “It’s an intensive; it’s 8:30 in the morning with at least three or four classes through the day. And that’s what summer course is all about. It’s not just about teaching ballet. It’s about being able to sustain yourself throughout the day, because being a professional dancer is about being injured and ultimately how you deal with your injuries.”

After the daily technique class, the levels (eight total, plus a Men’s Division) rotate studios. Talya K., a returning student from Oklahoma, lists classes like pointe, variations, modern, character, flamenco, jazz, Pilates, and pas de deux, with variations being her favorite.

The number of technical styles these students bring to the program provides an interesting challenge for the teachers. Dana Hanson, who attended PNB summer course during her student years, says that “We get to see a lot of talented students from around the country and they have a new energy, and I think for the most part all of the kids really want to learn. There’s this healthy kind of interest in what others are doing.” Both Hanson and Wells try to focus on basic technical elements in their summertime classes, like the mechanics of a pirouette or the impetus for a tendu, so that when the five weeks are over, the students emerge with clarity and strength in their dancing.

PNBS faculty member Dana Hanson rehearses Professional Division
students (photo © Bill Mohn)

“I always feel like everybody has something to gain by doing a step simpler or slower. You can do very basic exercises, but to do them really well [takes] their total concentration and energy,” says Hanson. Talya also notes that she “decided to come to the PNB summer course because I knew that the quality of training here is very good.” The teachers make sure to challenge each student technically and artistically by setting a high standard and then bringing the class up to meet it. The added bonus of getting to watch PNB’s company during the last two weeks provides motivation and inspiration.

When they’re not dancing, students and their counselors get to visit different Seattle activities like Ride the Ducks and Bite of Seattle. The constant supervision ensures that they stay safe and enjoy the experience of living away from home; doctors are also available if any dancers become injured. Hanson says that “[the teachers] feel this huge responsibility to make sure they stay healthy and that they’re happy and they’re learning. For the most part, they look like they’re having a great time!”

One of the greatest joys for the teachers is seeing the year-to-year progression of students who return. Some, like Talya, choose to stay and train at PNBS year round. Others go back to their home studios with new friends, new energy, and new appreciation for the art form of dance. “They walk away from this experience knowing a greater truth about what being a professional dancer is and therefore making a better decision about their future. There are many paths to success at PNB, but becoming a professional dancer is actually the path least taken,” says Wells.

With a balance of focus and fun, the summer intensive is an invaluable time for growth in the life of a young dancer. The Phelps Center becomes a hub of energy and a temporary home for these hundreds of dedicated students. Bruce Wells observes, “I love the summer course. I love the daytime of it and the energy of it and I love the talent.”

PNB will be putting up a few videos of the summer program on their YouTube channel in the next few weeks. Here’s one that went up last week: