Dance Advice

Guide for parents: My child wants a ballet career

Alexandra Cownie working with a young ballet dancer. Photo courtesy of Cownie.

So your child wants to pursue a ballet career. Should you train abroad or at home? What are the big issues, and who can you go to for advice?

Dance Informa spoke to two experts in their field, Anna Tetlow and Alexandra Cownie. Tetlow, a Royal Ballet School graduate who danced professionally with many international companies, is the owner of Anna Tetlow Pilates (ATP). ATP is Melbourne’s preeminent rehabilitation and movement therapy centre, specialising in dance technique coaching, injury management and the transition from students to professionals mentoring young dancers. Cownie is also an ex-dancer and the author of How to Be a Ballet Dancer.

Ballet is different to a traditional sport in terms of clear, defined pathways for progress to full-time ballet, to ultimately a career in ballet. When is the right age to enter full-time ballet?

Alexandra Cownie corrects a ballet student. Photo courtesy of Cownie.

Alexandra Cownie corrects a ballet student. Photo courtesy of Cownie.

Cownie: “There is no ‘right age’ to enter full-time training, as every child is different age. However, it is common for students to join full-time ballet schools between 14 and 16 years old. In terms of physical readiness to handle so many hours of training, I believe that a full physical assessment is needed, the same way as we do a pre-pointe assessment with a physiotherapist, a full body assessment is highly recommended to find out if a student is strong enough to dance full-time.”

What is the right balance between time spent dancing and doing school work?

Cownie: “Again, this is variable and depends on how structured the schooling is. I personally find that with the right ‘learn fast’ techniques, two hours of school work per day is sufficient, while dancing six hours per day in full-time training. The schooling needs to be very focused to be able to keep the hours low. I would recommend for the students to receive help from tutors – either ongoing or occasional – to help them stay on top of their schooling while training full-time.”

Who are the experts to guide you and answer what the correct pathway is?

Tetlow: “People who have first-hand, in-depth experience in the industry you are aiming for. Try to assemble a team of experts in the field of classical ballet, including health professionals and teachers who have worked as dancers themselves. It’s very important for parents and students to feel nurtured with a professional opinion, but an impartial one. 

Young dancers should absolutely understand the importance of managing injuries while young, rather than having to try and fix themselves later in life. It is important also for students to have as much experienced and professional assistance as possible in navigating the complicated psychology involved in elite training at a vulnerable age. This will help ensure a positive experience where their dedication can be directed for a positive future.”

Cownie: “Listen to people who have gone through a path as similar as possible to the one you are entering. They will be able to share their feedback on who to make the best use of your time and energy as you go through full-time training. Anyone else’s opinion might be good, but without a full understanding of what is required of you, no one will really be able to offer the correct guidance.”

What is the correct body type?

Cownie: “For ballet, the typical body type is traditionally a thin body with long limbs, a long neck and delicate features. The body must be strong, dynamic and flexible, too. For girls, between 1m65 and 1m75 is ideal, but the standards are changing, and many companies now hire ballet dancers shorter, taller or bigger than these rather old-fashioned physical perfections!”

What is the requirement of a full-time ballet dancer with respect to additional therapies and training?

Anna Tetlow encourages aspiring ballet dances to practice Pilates, Garuda and Gyrotonic. Photo courtesy of Tetlow.

Anna Tetlow encourages aspiring ballet dances to practice Pilates, Garuda and Gyrotonic. Photo courtesy of Tetlow.

Tetlow: “Internationally, the best schools teaching ballet recognise the significant role that Pilates, Garuda and Gyrotonic play in ensuring the health and well-being of young dancers, who are continuously exposed to the risk of injury and muscular stress-related activities. Regular bodywork such as physiotherapy, massage and osteopathy will also be required to prevent and manage injury.”

Cownie: “This is personal and needs to be assessed every month or term with the dancer’s teachers and support team. Often mindset coaching and/or psychological support is forgotten, as we only focus on the body. I would recommend a full mental and physical holistic approach to each dancer (ideally!).”

Why do so many pursue the international option when looking for international training?

Tetlow: “There are many more options and opportunities in Europe, particularly, than there are here in Australia with regard to professional schools and companies. The individual dancers’ talents may be suited to different styles of training or choreography, and they may wish to align themselves with those schools or scholarships and their connected companies available. However, there are some excellent, world-class places to train in Australia, and a move overseas should be carefully considered, as should the timing of that move and should be an educated decision, which the parents are assisted with.”

Cownie: “The schools lead to companies, which increases the chances for the dancers to get a pro contract. Like The Australian Ballet, but with many many more options. Plus, it’s often exciting and prestigious!”

Internationally there are two competitions, The Prix de Lausanne and the YAGP. Which one should you send your child to?

Cownie: “There are actually many more competitions, just less present on the international media. I would rarely recommend dancers to go to them due to the incredible pressure put on the students. Only children with a very high technique and very strong self-confidence should go, in my opinion. But if they have that, the experience will prove very rewarding.”

Alexandra Cownie with a ballet student. Photo courtesy of Cownie.

Alexandra Cownie with a ballet student. Photo courtesy of Cownie.

When is the right age to begin auditioning for international ballet schools?

Cownie: “Fifteen is a good time to start looking. Some only take students once they have finished their HSC, at 17-18 years.”

If you receive offers from an international school, when is the right time/age to let your child go?

Cownie: “It depends on each child’s independence, maturity and readiness. Between 15 and 18 is usually good. There are enough quality schools here to train up to 17 years without problems and without missing on quality.”

If your child receives an offer at 15, do you take it, as a ‘foot in the door’? Or do you wait another year until they are a little older, stronger and technically more sound?

Cownie: “It really depends on the offer. If the school is part of the program that leads into a dance company, I would probably say yes. If not, I would think hard about it first. Often, they will wait for the child to be ready if parents ask for a delay of one or two years.”

For more information, head to annatetlowpilates.com.au and howtobeaballetdancer.com.

By Rain Francis of Dance Informa.

Photo (top): Alexandra Cownie working with a young ballet dancer. Photo courtesy of Cownie.

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