Interview: Jana and Abby of Ballerinas By Night

Adult ballerinas Jana and Abby created the Ballerinas By Night YouTube channel and blog for adult ballet students. Learn about their journeys in dance, their mission, their advice for struggling students, their dream ballet roles, and so much more!

Abby and Jana of Ballerinas By Night.

Abby and Jana of Ballerinas By Night

Tell us a little about your ballet backgrounds…

Jana: Despite being obsessed with ballet from a very young age (my parents had recorded Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Nutcracker movie off TV), I didn’t start ballet lessons until age 8. My first ballet was a local production of The Secret Garden and I played a beetle 🙂 I went on pointe at age 12 and danced in various local ballets until age 16, when I put my social life on priority over ballet. Typical teenager!

At age 21, I found myself back at the barre, thanks to the encouragement of my then-future husband. At first, it was just a great way to get exercise and lose that college weight, but then I went back on pointe and started performing again! I met Abby at this time and she was in the process of opening her own ballet school. When she opened it, I started training with her and quickly realized how poor my technique actually was. Her teaching really clicked with me and I found myself feeling stronger and more confident with my dancing. The few years I had to train and perform with her before she moved away were some of the best years of my life!!

Abby at age 17

Abby at age 17

Abby: I grew up dancing from the age of 8, and started really taking it seriously in my teens. Alabama Ballet started a school when I was 15 and I traveled there 5-6 days a week for two years. It was amazing because my teachers had been high-level American Ballet Theatre dancers, yet our class sizes would often be 4 to 6 people, because it was the first year. The training I got was incredible, and in a more intimate setting than I could have possibly gotten any other way.

Alabama Ballet offered me a contract with the company my second year. I did correspondence school in my senior year so I could dance full time, but ultimately opted to go to college. Dancing in college was not a fit for me, so I left to get my academic degree.

Stepping back into the studio after 3 years off was like starting over. From there, I have just continued to plug away. I opened a studio, got teacher training, closed the studio, got back in shape, danced more, retired, and now I am teaching fairly full time.

What inspired you to start Ballerinas By Night YouTube channel?

Jana: Abby’s teaching inspired me to start our YouTube channel. There’s this stigma that adult students can’t achieve as much as younger students can. Abby doesn’t care about any of that. If you show up and want to work, she will help you achieve what you want – no matter how old you are or what shape you are in. She just sees potential! She helped me push myself to limits I never thought I could achieve. I got over the idea in my head that if something didn’t happen naturally then I couldn’t do it. If there was a struggle, she would take the time to break it down and figure out what wasn’t working. I learned so much from her and I knew there were other adults out there who feel just like me–no ballet career ahead of them, but wanting to train hard for personal fulfillment! Fortunately, Abby was on board to start the channel as she is passionate about spreading her love of teaching!

Abby: After I closed my studio, I used leftover materials to build a small studio in the spare bedroom of my house. Jana would come over 2-3 times a week and we would do as much class as we could (barre and some center). But, we felt like we needed more ballet in our lives and wanted a project to work on. Jana is very good with a camera and it was basically her getting it all started. All I did was sit awkwardly in front of the camera! Once I moved, we had more challenges–mainly that I am terrible at filming and Jana still has to do all the editing for me! Some people criticize YouTube as a place where people want to get famous, but I think we are both much more guarded. I rarely discuss the channel in everyday life. Our focus has always been to put information out there and hope there are people that want or need to hear it.

What do you find most challenging about ballet?

Jana: Currently, I find it challenging to build strength and technique and maintain it. Some of it is due to being an adult and not being able to make every class. Some of it is because my current classwork is just combinations and nothing building upon itself. I think that’s the hardest thing for teachers of adults–they can’t expect adult students to commit to class like young students, so that makes it hard to figure out what the group needs and how to build technique from day one, when every class is filled with different people. So, it’s challenging for me to remember to apply every correction, past or present, when, in one class we work on those corrections, and then, in the next class, I’m just trying to keep up with difficult combinations.

Abby: Ballet is hard to keep as a part time thing. If you do it part time, it’s hard to get where you want to be with it. If you spend more time on it, it can start to eat into your personal life.

For me personally, I’ve been a professional, but I regressed so much after being off for 3 years that I didn’t look like a professional anymore. I have gotten caught in between the worlds of being a student and being a professional because I haven’t always fit into a specific mold. I feel this constant struggle between claiming what I am and not feeling worthy of claiming it.

Jana in class

Jana in class

What do you find most rewarding about ballet?

Jana: The thing I find most rewarding about ballet is the feeling of accomplishment. Having the strength to do a difficult combination, be in control, and feel pretty while you’re doing it feels so amazing!

Abby: This is so hard to put into words, for me. It’s like one of those things you have to experience to “get” it. I remember the first time I really applied a correction and saw how much better I got–instantly. I was 11 or 12, and it was about my posture in my pliés. I realized that once I thought about posture, my pliés were so much better. I loved being in control of my progress and craved getting more corrections so I could apply them to every step I executed.

But, as time has gone on, it’s been more about the mind/body/spirit connection. It’s my meditation. Which is good, because, most of the time now my body does not cooperate, so I definitely do not feel in control of my progress like I did as a student. Now I think much less about the steps and the technique, but how the movement is produced. I think about my rib cage, and how it affects my limbs. But then I also think about my emotions and my spiritual life, and how to convey that to the audience (even if it’s just the teacher or other students). I just try to turn myself inside out, and that is now the most rewarding thing for me.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about adult ballet students?

Jana: I think the biggest misconception about adult ballet students is that they want to come to class only for exercise or social reasons. Some of us (probably those reading this blog!) want to build good technique, be challenged, and be pushed to be the best we can be.

Abby: The biggest misconception is that they just want to have fun, and don’t really take it seriously. I find that adults take their dancing more seriously than a lot of younger students because they are really invested in it. Unlike (most) teenagers, they are paying for their classes and are taking time away from something else to be at class. So, it’s serious business for them. I have had so many adults thank me for my teaching simply because I treated the class like they could move forward and would take time to explain things and really give corrections. If they just wanted to dance for exercise, they could go to Zumba (and yes, I have done that too!). They come to ballet for something else. I know that once I returned to ballet as an adult, I felt what it was like trying to find teachers to take you seriously. So, I’ve been there, and I just treat my students like I wanted to be treated.

What advice would you give to adult students who are struggling with their journey in ballet?

Jana

Jana. Photograph by Abby.

Jana: If you’re an adult student struggling with your journey in ballet, first of all, I feel for you. When Abby was living and teaching in the same city as me, my ballet classes were so fulfilling every single time. Since she moved two years ago, it’s been hit or miss with classes. It’s tough. If you can make at least one friend in class who’s on the same page as you, that helps. It’s good to have someone to talk to who understands ballet! That friendship could turn into staying after class to work on things together, or taking private lessons together. Sometimes it’s easier to ask for what you want in class when you’re not the only one who wants it. If you can’t make it to a physical class, give yourself barre at home! Also, hop onto Instagram. There’s a super supportive adult ballet community growing there! (start your search with #adultballerina)

Abby: First, give it more time. Dancing is something that happens a little at a time. Try not to get frustrated if it feels like things are not happening right away. Second, try to find ways to fill in the gaps of knowledge. That’s been a huge goal for our channel and a big part of our mission. Either you grew up dancing, but don’t remember certain things. Or, you were never really taught something. Or, you began class as an adult and got kind of thrown into classes and certain things were never fully explained. Whatever the case, we are trying to deliver content that will bridge any gaps adult dancers may have.

Who are a few of your favorite ballet dancers?

Jana: I adore Michaela DePrince, Ashley Bouder, and Daniil Simkin. Natalia Osipova is freaking amazing, of course. I love to watch powerhouse dancers because I am so far from being a powerhouse 🙂

Abby: Isabella Boylston is probably my favorite ballerina currently dancing. There is just something really special about her artistry and movement quality. I follow Catherine Hurlin because I saw her as a child when I was doing my teacher training at ABT, so it’s been fun to watch her grow up and move up through the ranks. My husband and I are both huge fans of Daniil Simkin. But, I also enjoy a good corps as much, or more, than lead dancers doing solos.

What’s your dream ballet role?

Jana: I feel like I don’t have the typical ballerina answer to this! Because music is what inspires me to move, I desire to dance in works where movement is inspired by music and not so much a story. I would love to dance in Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering or Balanchine’s Serenade. But it would fulfill my childhood dream to be a Snowflake and the Peacock in Sendak & Stowell’s The Nutcracker! I finally got to see it live last year at PNB before they retired it and afterward I got to go backstage and sit in the Peacock cage! So close 🙂

Abby: Oh, so many! Kitri from Don Quixote, Aurora from The Sleeping Beauty, and almost anything from La Bayadere or Le Corsaire. The list could go on and on. But, I also have a deep love for contemporary ballet, and wish I had gotten more chances to do more of that. I’ve never been built like a classical ballet dancer, and often don’t feel like I fit into the traditional roles. Had I known about Complexions Contemporary Ballet as a teen I would have pursued that company and that side of ballet much more.

Abby. Photograph by Jana Carson Photography.

Abby. Photograph by Jana Carson Photography.

Getting Enough Sleep Over the Holidays: REM-Fit Review

Disclosure: I received REM-Fit in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts and opinions are my own. 

It can be really hard for me to get a good night’s sleep — especially during the holiday months, when both my work and life can get pretty hectic. Plus, I really need my sleep now that I’ve stepped up my fitness game: running 3-4 times a week, Pilates, and ballet (although, for now, ballet is on a hiatus for the holidays — more on that later).

So I jumped at the chance when Fitfluential offered me the opportunity to check out the following products to see if they would help with my sleep issues:

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I’ve struggled a lot lately to find the perfect pillow that would help me sleep better (especially since I can get quite grumpy when I don’t get enough sleep!). I’ve bought really stiff pillows to see if they would help (they didn’t), I’ve also had really fluffy pillows that were huge (that wasn’t great either). However, REM-Fit’s 300 series pillow has been great so far, and the perfect combination of the two: the right amount of fluffiness and stiffness as well as the perfect height. I’ve been calling it my “Goldilocks” pillow for being jusssssssssssst right. It’s been the perfect fit for me and has helped me sleep a lot better, whether I sleep on my stomach (yes, I know its bad for you, but it happens), my side, or on the rare occasion, my back.

Things I love about this pillow:

  • It’s adjustable: There’s cute little fiber-fill on the inside that you can leave in or take out to get the pillow to the perfect height for you. I like to leave it all in, but it’s nice to have options, too.
  • It’s cool: There’s a ton of features that help keep this pillow a nice, cool temperature.
  • It helps protect against allergens: Allergies are my worst enemy, pretty much year round, so I love this feature. A lot.

REM-Fit also sent me a sleep/activity tracker that’s been great for tracking my sleeping progress as well as my many activities. I also love that it has a watch face, which my previous tracker did not.

So if you’re looking for a great gift for the athletes in your life and you know they struggle to get the perfect night’s sleep — REM-Fit might be the perfect fit for them. Plus, you can use my code, KG20, for 20% off in the REM-FIT store!

How do you make sure you get enough sleep when life gets busy?

Disclosure: I received REM-Fit in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts and opinions are my own. 

Ballerina Profile: Elizabeth Bell-Perkins

me en pointe NohoWhen did you start doing ballet as an adult?

8 years old?

Did you ever take lessons as a kid?

Yes, but I drifted off to other things as many teenagers do, going back to classes for a few months at a time,

Why did you decide to take ballet as an adult?

As a way to feel at-home returning to college as a young adult, I always took class, first at a 2 year SUNY school in NY state taking dance composition, ballet and modern, and then at 4 years colleges, always minored, so to speak in dance.

When I first moved to Massachusetts to attend a 4 year college, I attended a very nontraditional 4 year college and my majors were Political Science and Dance!  Only in the Pioneer Valley of western MA could you do that! It is called the 5-Colleges area- Mt. Holyoke, Smith, (all female), Umass Amherst, Amherst College and Hampshire. Once you are registered at one, you can take pretty much all your other classes at any one of the other 5 colleges.

This allowed me to experience many different dance forms including African (to age myself, we danced to “Free Nelson Mandela”), modern including Labanotation and a smattering of kinesiology, at Hampshire, ballet at Mt. Holyoke, Improvisational at Smith.

Where do you take classes?

After turning 40, I attended a really great local studio called Ballet Soleil in Williamsburg, MA owned by Kelly Torza who studied at Northern Connecticut Ballet, Walnut Hill School for the Arts, Greater Hartford Academy for Performing Arts and Hartford Ballet.  After high school she attended the Hartford Camerata Conservatory receiving certification in dance pedagogy and instruction.

I currently attend Massachusetts Academy of Ballet in Holyoke, Northeastern School of dance under Antony De Vecchi, Artistic Director and Ballet Master who danced with the ABT.  He also appeared in 12 Broadway shows and in the national tour of “Man of La Mancha” which he  directed and choreographed. Nominated for Emmy Award for his work with A Winter’s Tale for WNDT (New York) as well as recipient of the Dance Critics Circle Award for the best Broadway musical on tour.  He has partnered such names as Alicia Markova, Juliet Prowse and Chita Rivera.

When I can deal with the traffic across the CT River, I attend Amherst Ballet, under  Executive Director and Teacher Sueann Townsend who has performed in many places across the U.S. and Europe.

The Massachusetts Academy of Ballet in Holyoke is a wonderful school, founders and directors, Rose and Charles Flachs are active with and committed to, the community and have expanded adult classes in the last few years.

What is your favorite part about ballet?

The traditional continuity, challenge and feeling like you are part of a world-wide group.

While I never attained professional status, it is an artistic, grounding and physically satisfying activity.

What is your least favorite part?

At my age it is very hard for me to look at myself in the mirrors- I never wear leotards- just supportive tanks, briefs, cut-off tights and a top. Getting to class can be difficult- the closest studio still takes a 35-minute drive then a walk up to 4th floor. I have work, kids, an elderly mom and other commitments that I constantly have to juggle.

Who/What is your ballet inspiration?

Dame Margot Fonteyn, Misty Copeland, Martha Graham, Fred Astaire (his talent and skill will never be matched), Gene Kelly and of course, Mikhail. Like many female ballet dancers, the characters in the Red Shoes, Turning Point and now the Black Swan, although I view that as more of a physiological thriller.

What motivates you to keep dancing?

Fills creative need, fitness, and social connections with like-aged fellow dancers.  We are also dedicated to supporting each other in dance and life.

(get’s me out of the house!)

Do you take any other dance classes?

Infrequent master classes that come up in Pioneer Valley and sometimes NYC such as Finis Jung.

What are your hobbies outside of ballet?

Medical research and public health/writing, reading (everything!) baking, designing and selling decorated cookies and going to Maine to our land on a lake for physical and emotional healing.

What advice would you like to give to those who want to start ballet or have just started?

Find a studio that is dedicated to nurturing the adult dancer.  There are more and more adult-only studios opening.  It is important that the teacher can design the class to meet all levels. You will find much support there!

Do you have a blog?

No, but I have new biz making decorated cookies- including ballet themes!

Hilltowncookies.com

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Ballerina Profile: Melissa Kolbeck

melissaWhen did you start doing ballet as an adult?

I started back about 2 months ago (early September 2015) after a 2 1/2 year hiatus.

Did you ever take lessons as a kid?

I did! From age 4 and up through college and beyond.

Why did you decide to take ballet as an adult?

I thought I was done with ballet because of the emotional toll and having gotten married an started a family. But I simply cannot live without it. It’s who I am, and I knew I needed to get back.

Where do you take classes?

Lois Ellyn Ballet Studio in Fullerton, CA. I’ve also studied at UC Irvine (while in college) and at Maple Conservatory in Irvine, CA

What is your favorite part about ballet?

I love the challenge. I love that you will never attain perfection yet you always work for it. I love the grace of ballet and freedom that comes with movement. I also love the work ethic that ballet taught me growing up.

What is your least favorite part?

The pressure to be skinny and the intense competition. Those are what caused me to take a break for a few years. I needed to grow and mature and realize that I dance for me and no one else.

Who/What is your ballet inspiration?

There have been many over the years, but my current favorite is Misty Copeland. The fact that she is local to Southern California, broke a racial barrier, and does not have the “typical” body yet is a principal dancer with ABT just makes me HAPPY. As a girl who can put on muscle very easily and struggled with not having the “perfect body,” I love seeing dancers with similar bodies to me make it big.

What motivates you to keep dancing?

I took a break already, and I don’t want to do that again and have to come back again. I’ve been lucky this time in that my technique still seems pretty solid and most things have come back to me. But that may not be the case if I ever were to take a break again. I also want to keep dancing and share my love of it with my daughter. She may not end up loving it as much as I do, but if she does she needs the encouragement to stick with it even when it’s hard.

Do you take any other dance classes?

No, ballet is my favorite. Nothing else really compares for me.

What are your hobbies outside of ballet?

I enjoy other types of workouts, especially PiYo, and have also run some half marathon and marathons. But right now it’s all ballet, writing my blog, and working with women to help them get in shape physically and emotionally.

What advice would you like to give to those who want to start ballet or have just started?

Don’t give up!! When you first start, especially as an adult, there is a very steep learning curve. Give yourself some grace and just enjoy learning something that not many people in this world can say they’ve learned.
Anything else you’d like to add?

Try ballet. Seriously, just do it. It’s the best.

Do you have a blog?

www.melissakolbeck.com/blog

Ballet Instructor Profile: Sharon Girard

sharonHow long have you been dancing?

I started ballet and dance at age 2.  I’m 61.  Off and on, let’s say 40 years?

Why do you dance ballet?

I love ballet.  No matter what I keep coming back.  My heart sings when I take class or teach.  When I stand tall at the barre nothing else matters.  The music makes me want to move and I feel whole again. (I have lots of medical issues, chronic pain, fibromyalgia, etc.)

Who/What inspires you to dance?

I am not inspired by outside influences.  It comes from within.  Ballet is not a question , it is an answer.  It is not a choice.  It just IS.

How long have you taught ballet?

I have taught off and on for many years.  I was fortunate to teach my daughter who would have rather danced hip hop but she took my class and stopped ballet when I stopped teaching because she only wanted to take with me.  At 33 she returned to class and still does from time to time now at age 35.

Where do you teach ballet?

Right now I am living at an adult retirement resort community.  I teach women over 55.  Many new to ballet.  They love it.  At this late age they finally get to do something they never did as a child or adult.  Have time to follow a dream and learn ballet!

What other types of dance do you teach (if any)?

I don’t teach any other dance.  I am ballet focused.  It’s all I know.

Why do you teach ballet?

I teach because there isn’t anything better than passing on the knowledge of something you really love.  I had just moved into the community, saw a beautiful unused dance studio and said why not?  Why not me?

What is your favorite ballet step to teach and why?

Something graceful but fun.  This week I’m teaching chasees across the floor.  Should be interesting….

What advice/tips would you give to adults who want to begin ballet for the first time/adults starting ballet again?

Don’t think about the negatives.  Think about how much you will gain.  Take it for yourself.  Give it a try.  You’ll be surprised.  And don’t think you are too old, too damaged, too fat, too short or too anything….It’s your ME time. Just be in the moment.

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