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.

Ballet Instructor Profile: Sarah Arnold

402866_2821845154489_388810707_nHow long have you been dancing?

I began dancing 45 years ago.

Why do you dance ballet?

I began dancing classical ballet because my father played Chopin waltzes on the piano and I loved to dance to his music. Whenever I would be with him, there was always wonderful, inspiring and rich classical music.
I continue to dance because that is when I feel most alive.

Who/What inspires you to dance?

Anna Pavlova has always been my inspiration. I love that she was an international ambassador of ballet, devoted her life to the art and believed that art should be taught along with reading and writing. She was the epitome of the first classical ballerina with her slender figure, arched feet and dark intense look. Some of my favorite photos are of Pavlova with her swans. I can just imagine her affinity with nature that translated seamlessly into her signature “Dying Swan”.

A particular memory stays with me of Pavlova’s exhibit that travelled to Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco in the early ’80’s. They displayed her pointe shoes, costumes, photographs, letters and a movie of her dancing. Her pointe shoes were the most dainty and light I had ever seen.

I am inspired to dance in response to the music. It brings forth emotions, a sense of peace and personal expression.

DSC_0015How long have you taught ballet?

I have taught ballet full time for 32 years.

Where do you teach ballet?

I currently teach at Pacific Academy of Ballet in Mountain View, CA. I directed two schools of my own for 25 years and directed a professional company school for Ballet Idaho in the 90’s. I sold the schools and moved back to the Bay Area with the intention of no longer directing, but wished to concentrate entirely on teaching.

Who do you teach?

I have taught all ages and levels but now just teach Intermediate – Advanced pre-professional dancers. Additionally, I teach private lessons for the most serious students. I have taught the Adult classes and Ballet Conditioning as well.

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

(Ballet) Dance conditioning. I love to explore the mind/body connection in dance and conditioning.

No other dance form.

Why do you teach ballet?

I teach ballet because as a late starter, I am on a never-ending constant quest to understand the technique for all bodies and mindsets. This is particularly true in America where students do not audition for entry in most schools. It is challenging and rewarding. I love those “ah-ha” moments, when the idea clicks for me and the student! I believe that the method that works well for you, is the correct one.

If someone tells me there is “one true way”, I run the opposite direction. Seriously.

What is your favorite ballet step to teach and why?

I love to teach jumps because it is something that a lot of people avoid but it is very freeing. As a student, I loved adagio. I find it very useful to teach for two reasons— it shapes the essential form for all the other steps and it develops a sense of artistry in each student. However, jumping is when I see kids smile. They may groan, but they smile!

Jumps are the ultimate fun and I sense that it is natural for me. I am a fast talker and mover, so the movement comes easily.

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

Don’t put limits on yourself but don’t expect your body to be the same one as before. Your mind may know more, your body may catch up depending upon your age and facility; but be realistic. Enjoy the moment because ballet has a way of focusing the present moment. When the plies, start— let your day fade away.

Anything else to add?

My favorite ballet is “Giselle”. My favorite pointe shoes are Freed. I believe that classical ballet is one of the few living arts where dancers express themselves through their bodies and music. Our bodies are the art and both are sacred. Used together to create art, is penultimate.

My least favorite step is any turn. They feel entirely unnatural but I love to teach them because I want to prove that anyone can turn well. Ballet is a science and complex with many exceptions to the rule. (The rule is the student)!

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.

Ballet Instructor Profile: Christina Koinis

Ballet Studio PicHow long have you been dancing?

17 years.

Why do you dance ballet?

I dance ballet because it is good for the body and the soul. I love the movement and structure of taking daily ballet class. I’ve found that ballet requires both strength and fluidity. Ballet has become very personal, giving me a way to express my emotion.

Who/What inspires you to dance?

Both my family and nature inspire me to dance. My family has taught me to set goals with my dancing, as well as teaching. I live in Florida so I spend a lot of time outdoors near the water. I’ll often replicate and integrate movement similar to the ocean waves into the classes that I teach.

How long have you taught ballet?

12 years.

Where do you teach ballet?

I teach at my own ballet academy, Christina Koinis Ballet LLC.

Who do you teach?

Ages 3 through adult seniors.

Why do you teach ballet?

I want to help each individual reach their own personal goals. I have a passion for sharing what I have learned with other people. There are dancers everywhere who have that spark inside of them, but need the right teacher to pull the ability and talent out.

What is your favorite ballet step to teach and why?

My favorite step is rond de jambe à terre (circular movement of the leg on the ground). This one step incorporates so many applicable lessons for body placement. I personally had a breakthrough in my understanding of technique when this step was explained accurately and I understood it. Now when I teach, I love seeing a student’s expression as they begin to find their own turnout and body placement.

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

Do not be afraid! I recommend finding the right teacher who has a good perspective on adult ballet students. We shouldn’t compare ourselves to others. Every dancer has a starting place where they can work from and progress! I recommend getting a ballet notebook. From day one of your lessons write down vocabulary, class notes, and corrections.

Anything else to add?

Follow me here:

christinakoinisballet.com

facebook.com/christinakoinisballet

https://twitter.com/ckballet

Ballet Instructor Profile: Liz Borromeo

Sun King Photo Shoot1How long have you been dancing?

About 30 years.

Why do you dance ballet?

Ballet is where I began my training, and I continue to find new ways to improve my technique all the time. Doing ballet helps my focus and I especially enjoy taking class myself, as after a great ballet class, I feel like my mind and body get centered again…

Who/What inspires you to dance?

My students (of all ages) inspire me. I find that hearing a beautiful piece of music will give me instant inspiration to dance and create as well. When I am feeling emotions deeply, I am inspired to dance.

How long have you taught ballet?

I have been teaching ballet for about 20 years.

Where do you teach ballet?

I teach at my own dance studio as well as in various other studios in Vancouver, WA and Portland, OR. I also am a teaching artist in local public schools, though I focus my teaching more in Modern dance and dance for musical theater in those venues.

Who do you teach?

I teach students of all ages (from 2 to adult-including active Seniors).

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

I teach Modern dance (based in Graham technique primarily), Improvisation (including Contact Improv), dance for Musical Theater (mostly classic Jazz styles) as well as West African Dance.

Why do you teach ballet?

I love to see students make connections from class to class as they gradually master ballet. I like to encourage students who maybe think that ballet won’t be as enjoyable as other dance forms to give it a try and see them become inspired to continue their training.

What is your favorite ballet step to teach and why?

Pirouettes–actually turns of all kinds. Throughout my own training, working on turns has been a constant challenge, and I love to help students discover what they need to do to be successful with pirouettes. I find that for myself as a student, if I have a good turning day, it’s a great class, and if my turns are “off” it really influences how I feel about dance class…helping my students have a good turning day is a great feeling.

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

I would say go for it and let them know that just having the courage to start (or return to) class is a huge success. Taking ballet is a chance to really focus the body and mind, it’s a fun experience with other adults (we have so much fun in our adult classes) and it’s really an accomplishment to dedicate time and effort to something that requires so much discipline. Ask questions, love the amazing thing that your body can do and let yourself enjoy dance class.

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