Interview with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Dancer Michaela King!

Michaela King(1)This week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michaela King, corps de ballet member with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre! At just nineteen years old, Michaela joined the company in 2014 and performed in Swan Lake, Don Quixote, La Bayadere, and George Balanchine’s Serenade. Michaela is thrilled to begin her second year with PBT next month, and she looks forward to the upcoming performances!

Adult Ballerina Project: Tell me about your dance history!  What made you want to become a professional ballerina?

Michaela King: I was five years old when I first started dancing. My mom enrolled me in classes because she thought it would be a fun creative outlet. She never thought in a million years I would fall in love with it! I took ballet, tap, jazz, and I participated in commercial dance competitions. When I was ten years old, I switched to a studio where the main focus was ballet. I realized that if I wanted to continue to dance and make a career, this is what I needed to do. That’s when I began to discover my real passion not only for dance, but specifically ballet.

A year later, I went on pointe and began to train intensely six days a week. Every summer, I went away from home to train at ballet schools around the country. After graduating from high school, I moved to be a student in the Graduate Program at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. I received my first company contract with PBT at the end of my two years of training there! It was a dream come true. This is what I had been working for my whole life. It is exciting to say that I get to do what I love every day.

ABP: What are your most memorable experiences throughout your career?

Michaela: Last season, I got to be the first shade out on the ramp for La Bayadere. That ballet is so special to me because it’s the first professional ballet I saw. I was 11 years old when I got to watch American Ballet Theatre perform it. It’s crazy to think that years later I got to be one of those girls going down the ramp doing 38 arabesques!

By far, my most memorable moment was being called into PBT director Terrence S. Orr’s office at the end of my second year as a student with the school. He sat me down, we chatted, and he offered me a contract! I couldn’t believe it, it’s a moment I will always remember and treasure.

ABP: Have you experienced any challenges during your dance career?

Michaela: Last year, I sustained multiple injuries to the bones in my feet and I was out for six months and in recovery for another three months. It was by far the hardest and most trying time I’ve had to go through as a dancer, but it made me a stronger person and I learned so much about myself.  I feel like I am more aware of my body and how to take care of it, and more mature as a person. When life throws me curve balls at me I have the confidence now that I can get through anything because it’s just temporary!

ABP: What is your focus for the upcoming season?

Michaela: Ultimately I want to have a long career and be the best possible dancer I can be. It will be my second year in the company so right now my goal is to make the most of every role and opportunity I’m given and put 100 percent into it. I want to prove myself and show my versatility as a dancer. I’m hoping to get cast in some roles out of my comfort zone so that I can push myself and grow in new ways. Ideally, it would be a dream to dance a lead pas de deux on stage.

ABP: What advice would you give to ballet students?

Michaela:

“You may be the ripest, juiciest peach, but there will always be someone who hates peaches.” Stay true to yourself and do not worry or compare yourself to other people. I think that’s what helped me to develop into my own as a dancer technically and artistically. Every dancer is unique in their own way and has their own path. Embrace it!

Image via Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

The Power of Pilates — Using Pilates to Strengthen Your Core for Ballet

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Cross training can sound intimidating: what about time commitment, additional expenses, or  lack of energy? However, don’t let these factors prevent you from adding a new exercises to your daily routine.

During my dance career, I experienced a plateau period when I didn’t notice advancements in my dancing. This was a frustrating time, and I struggled to find a reason why I wasn’t improving and gaining strength. I noticed my most prevalent weak area was my core, so I searched for exercises that would be most beneficial. Over time, I realized that I needed to incorporate some type of cross-training in addition to my usual ballet classes. I found my niche in Pilates, the ultimate core building series of exercises invented by Joseph Pilates. I realized that I needed a strong core, or powerhouse, to get to the next level.

Pilates is a fantastic cross training option that will improve your dancing and overall well-being. Focusing primarily on core strength, Pilates provides the perfect accompaniment to ballet’s core centered exercises. The moderately paced mat classes offer a low impact yet effective workout that will sculpt the body into a long, lean silhouette.

After completing the beginner phase of training, the workout starts with a challenging abdominal series, requiring immediate movement. Not to be mistaken for the series of prolonged yoga poses, Pilates requires swift execution of with rare, brief rest periods between exercises. The movement continues at a steady pace, including targeted leg, arm, and back work. The assortment of exercises prevents loss of interest and provides a full body workout.

Ultimately, the goal of Pilates as a cross training exercise is to enhance the lean muscle mass achieved in dancing. Also, Pilates leads to increased core strength and flexibility, as well as improved posture. For those who are searching for additional ways to improve their dancing, Pilates is a fantastic option for reaching the next level.

Image via Flickr User Migration Museum Project

Misty Copeland: Bringing Ballet Back to the Limelight

From the ballet Coppelia

Photo By Gilda N. Squire (Gildasquire) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

As I pedaled through my workout on the bike at the gym, the television caught my eye when I glimpsed a tutu and pointe shoes on the nightly news. Ballet’s presence in pop culture’s spotlight is rare and fleeting. However, occasionally, the ballet world sneaks into the day’s top headlines. I was thrilled to see Misty Copeland’s smiling face lighting up the screen, and the news banner announced her most recent triumph. On June 30, shining star Misty Copeland continued her rise to mainstream fame with the announcement of her promotion to principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre. Not only is she now ranked as a leading performer, Copeland is the company’s first black female dancer to achieve this commendable status.

At age thirteen, Copeland began her training at San Pedro City Ballet and continued to Lauridsen Ballet Center and Francisco Ballet School. She found her home with American Ballet Theatre after attending their summer intensive and joining the junior company in 2000. The following year, she joined the professional company as a corps de ballet member. Six years later, Copeland became a soloist. After her most recent promotion last Wednesday, Copeland is now one of the leading stars of the company.

I hope to see Copeland perform live someday, but until then, I’m amazed as I watch her online videos. Her technique, enhanced by her stunning facility and musicality, is remarkably stunning. Her athletic musculature adds an unstoppable power to her grace, making her a surreal yet dynamic ballerina. Most compelling is her expressive face, which draws the audience in with undeniably pure joy.

As her stunning dancing propelled her higher through the company ranks, it also attracted the attention of those outside of the ballet world. Her television and magazine appearances have nearly made her a household name, a rarity for professional ballet dancers. Most recently, she graced the cover of Time Magazine and was featured as one the publication’s “100 most influential people.”

Her genuine, down-to-earth personality attracts a dedicated fan base, and she serves as a role model for countless young women, whether dancers or not. As she continues to grace the stages of the Met, surely her popularity will continue to soar, and her dancing will continue to make history for years to come.

Back to the Basics: Five Tips for Polished Dancing

5-Tips-For-Polished-DancingBallet is an intricate, complicated style of dance. Whether training begins at a young age or later in life, the technique is challenging and requires not only great strength of the body, but of the mind, as well. Sometimes, successfully memorizing combinations and releasing the distracting thoughts of the day is a triumph in itself.

At times, the details of the steps may overwhelming. However, by focusing on five key points of ballet technique, your dancing will look polished and clean, even if you muddle up the ronde de jambe combination!

Five Tips for Polished Dancing:

Keep your core tight.

In every movement of every combination, keep your core tight. By pulling your abdominals up and squeezing your glutes together, your dancing becomes a strengthening exercise, in addition to artistic expression.

Fix your gaze slightly above eye level.

A small increase in eye level can do wonders! Try to avoid looking at the floor, which creates a shy, unsure effect. Your upper body presentation will instantly improve, as well as your self confidence.

Release tension in your hands.

Achieving a lovely, gentle hand position is tricky, especially when holding muscle tension in your hands. Try this easy fix: touch the tip of your middle finger to your thumb throughout  the combination. The tension leaves automatically!

Use your back to support your arms.

While performing quick footwork at the barre, your arm in second position may gradually begin to droop. Use your back muscles to support the position, rather than letting your arm grow tired. A strongly held arm completes every position.

Relax and smile!

While a giant smile might come off as a little extreme, maintaining a happy, pleasant expression captures everyone’s attention. Remember, dancing is supposed to be enjoyed, so let the joy shine from your face!

Sometimes, tiny changes bring about grand improvements. By integrating these five tips into your class time, your dancing will look clean and polished!

Image by Gabriel Saldana modified using Creative Commons permissions

Daydream Your Way to Success!

4758088139_bc751bedf3_zIn addition to physical practice, visualization can help you overcome those tricky steps

Have you ever been stumped by a specific element of ballet technique? Perhaps you struggle with a bad habit, such as constantly looking at the ground while dancing. Maybe you dread a specific step in petit allegro, simply because you’ve consistently practiced but still can’t perform the step correctly.

Since dance is all about physical movement, practicing is the key to success. However, sometimes constant practice leads to stress and defeat. If a step is particularly tricky, practice can become tedious. However, there is a way to combat this frustration: visualization.

In her book, Dance Anatomy, Jacqui Greene Haas defines visualization as “creating a picture in your mind without doing the physical activity.” This method of practice requires no additional physical movement but includes positive, daydream-like focus on the step in your mind.

Visualization is easily executed, as long as you understand the technique of the step that is troubling you. Carefully watch the teacher in class as he or she performs the step, and if necessary, ask for the teacher to repeat the step. Be sure that you understand exactly what the body must do and which muscles create the movement.

Then, later in the day, spend time repeatedly imagining the step. Picture the teacher executing the step and then imagine how it would feel if you copied this movement. Imagine the muscle usage, studio surroundings from your vantage point, and musical rhythm. Continue this visualization technique for a few days. When you return to the step in class, keep a calm mindset and refer to the images you created while mentally focusing on the step. Generating positive feelings and decreasing stress, mental imagery will help you approach the step from a new perspective and lead you to success.

Expanding beyond a specific movement, this technique is extremely useful in my own career and helps me overcome the effects of stage fright. In some cases, when I was nervous about a specific role, I spent weeks prior to the performance imaging the character’s traits and expressions. In some cases, anxiety inspired by anticipated audience size or family or friend attendance may have inspired negative effects.

When I expected the presence of nervous butterflies flitting around in my stomach, I would prepare with mental visualization. Days before performing, I would imagine the intricate details; specific sections of choreography that I challenged me, the stage view of the full house, or a loved one’s face in the audience. I would increase the detail of my imagery, so that I would be absolutely prepared for the show. By repeatedly thinking ahead to the actual performance, I was able to transform nervous anxiety into bubbling energy. By mentally preparing myself, all the fears that may have overcome me during the performance became useful tools to enhance my dancing!

Whether you are performing for a crowd or enjoying a technique class, I encourage you to try the visualization method for yourself. You can read an excerpt of Haas’s book online.

Image via Flickr User Rodrigo Denúbila

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