Setting the barre
“Right leg higher! Keep your arms straight, ladies! Stay farther upstage, and make sure to stick each plie. Right leg still needs to be higher! No breaks until the piece looks perfect, girls!”
The dance studio is filled with girls dressed in black leotards, perfecting each turn, each plie, each pirouette. Sweat drips down their cheeks, and their legs begin to shake from tension, but they refuse to rest. It’s only the beginning of ballet rehearsal, and they have much more work to do.
Senior Sarah Stay knows this routine all too well. She, among many other Decatur students, has taken ballet classes since she was six years old and currently rehearses five times a week with Decatur City Dance Company.
For Stay, dance is more than just a hobby – it’s become a part of her life.
“Dance pretty much makes up part of who I am,” she said. “I don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t at rehearsal every week. It’s become that engrained in my schedule.”
Stay is one of 13 girls in her class, which is the most advanced in the company. The girls, all high school students, spend around 10 hours at rehearsals each week.
A member of the IB Diploma Programme, Stay has found it difficult to manage her academic work with her rehearsals.
“I really just have had to learn to organize my time,” she said. “I don’t have much time to hang out with friends because I’m either dancing or studying, but dance is something I love to do. I learned that sometimes I need to put certain assignments on the back burner do other things.”
Grace Kim, a junior at Cherokee High School, has also had to balance school and dance.
“I’ve only just begun to realize that I spend too much time and energy on dance, which has taken away from my focus on school,” she said. “Since dance is such an exhausting thing, you learn to prioritize your work and get it all done early so you don’t fall behind.”
Rehearsals themselves can be intense, too. Often, the students will go for hours without breaks.
At Kim’s studio, the Metropolitan Ballet Theatre, students rehearse around six days per week for up to four hours per day. She gets to rehearsal half an hour early to warm up on her own, before spending around an hour doing barre work (or warming up) with her class, an hour at center (the actual class) and the rest of the time rehearsing.
Although they get “a few breaks here and there,” they spend almost all of their time on their feet.
Stay’s classes at Decatur City Dance are similar.
“One of my teachers always says we can’t stop dancing until we bleed out of our eyes or throw up,” Stay said. “It makes us really productive and it gets results, but the classes can be hard.”
The intensity of dance can result in more than just exhaustion. According to the Nationwide Children’s Hospital, about 23 children or teens are treated for severe dance-related injuries per day. Sports like soccer and baseball have similar statistics.
Avoiding injury isn’t that hard, though, according to Kim. As long as students warm up properly, stretch fully, develop proper technique and take care of their bodies, “the likelihood of getting hurt is pretty low.”
“It’s all about knowing how to prepare your body for all the movement,” she said. “If you know what you’re doing, you probably won’t be injured.”
Lorin Dent, also a junior, began ballet when he was six. He takes lessons at the Callanwolde Fine Arts center, one of the top dance schools in the state. Dance makes up a large part of his life, too.
“Callanwolde is like my second home,” Dent said. “I’ve probably spent, like, half of my life there.”
Although he has danced for years, Dent decided to focus on other hobbies – swimming and playing the tuba – at the beginning of his freshman year.
“It wasn’t that I didn’t like [dance] or anything,” he said, “but I just had to make a choice to focus on one or the other because of the time commitments.”
One reason he came back, though, was to experience the joy of performing again.
“There’s nothing like the rush you get after performing ballet,” Dent said. “Not even winning a swimming medal or doing a band concert feels the same way. I just really missed that.”
Dent also took ballet back up because of his mother. She teaches ballet classes at Callanwolde. According to Dent, she has always encouraged him to dance.
“Without my mom, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today,” he said. “She doesn’t treat me better because I’m her son and her student, but she encourages me to work hard and improve.”
Dent’s mother, Kelly Oakes, believes that his hard work is paying off.
“He is focused, enthusiastic and a perfectionist,” she said. “He loves the challenge and strength that the male work requires in classical ballet with partnering, huge jumps and turns.”
Oakes said that Dent began training with her because when he was younger, he had to stay at the dance studio while she worked.
“The early years of his training, along with our family being centered around dance, influenced him greatly,” she said.
Dent is the only boy in a class of 10. He doesn’t mind, though.
“Some people think there’s a stigma against guys dancing, and while I thought that was true when I was younger, I’ve learned that it’s not really that weird,” he said. “I never feel awkward about it.”
Isabel Olson, a senior at Grady High School, also dances at Callanwolde. She didn’t get her start there, though. When she was 3, Olson started gymnastics, and continued that until she was 13.
“I grew up in that atmosphere, which was actually very, very intense, which gave me a springboard to transition into the world of dance,” she said.
Now, she studies ballet, jazz, modern and contemporary dance. Generally, Olson said, she rehearses five to six times a week, with each rehearsal being two to four hours.
“We can go for hours at a time in each rehearsal,” she said. “Even if you’re not actively dancing, you’re always stretching or conditioning or learning someone else’s part – so everybody’s essentially the understudy for everybody.”
The “go, go, go” environment can be exhausting, but for Olson, that doesn’t take away from dance’s worth.
Last summer, Olson spent four weeks studying dance at the Governor’s Honors Program (GHP), an academic and art program at Valdosta State University open to the state’s top students in their area.
“Going to GHP and dancing there was a completely different experience than dancing in regular class or even in a usual summer intensive,” Olson said. “It really pushed me to the limit in terms of quality of my dancing and working with people I hardly knew.”
Kim went to GHP for dance along with Olson. Both girls believe that the short duration of the program created a different atmosphere than they’re used to.
“It was almost hard to make friends at first, because dance doesn’t really let you talk,” Olson said. “We all liked each other a lot, but we just didn’t have as much time to truly get to know one another.”
Kim agrees and wishes that the program were longer.
“Even six weeks instead of four would be amazing,” Kim said. “We all eventually became close, but I almost felt like at the end, I had only just started to get to know the other dancers.”
After going to GHP, Olson decided she didn’t want to pursue dance professionally or even in college.
“I just realized it wasn’t really the thing I wanted to devote all my time to forever or always surround myself with,” Olson said, “which has actually made me appreciate dance classes more now, since I can experiment more and have more fun with it.”
Many girls, however, do decide to continue dancing in college. According to the National Dance Education Organization, around 15% of all ballet students pursue a dance major or minor.
Zoe Bayer, a Decatur alumnus and freshman at the University of Georgia, is one of these students. She is currently pursuing a dance minor.
College dance gives her more options than high school ballet did.
“I don’t have to go to any more rehearsals than I want to go to,” Bayer said. “I have the option to take as many or as few classes as I like, which is a choice I didn’t have in high school.”
Because of these options, college dancers are much more serious. If the students want to take the classes, she said, then they truly want to be there and work hard.
Although she has more flexibility in her schedule, dance still takes up a lot of her time.
“Choosing to do dance means choosing for dance to be my free time,” Bayer said. “It’s easier to manage the time in college, but you still have to put in some hours.”
Kennedy Butterfield, a senior at Decatur, is excited to take dance classes in college. She doesn’t know if she’ll pursue a career, but she “doesn’t know how she’d survive without some form of dance.”
Photo courtesy of Sarah Stay
She expects ballet to be just as intense in college as it is in high school, though.
“Managing ballet class and the IB program is tough, so I’m sure it’ll be just as hard or even harder to manage time in college,” Butterfield said.
She’s not worried about the effort, though.
“I know it’ll still be a lot of work, but I’m excited to see where I can go with it,” she said, “because I know all the effort pays off.”
The pointe of it all
Dance teaches people about more than just flexibility, ballet routines or even French vocabulary.
“When you dance, you experience something so much greater than yourself,” Kim said. “You get to know yourself, your limits, what you’re good at and what you’re not, but you also meet so many amazing people. That’s why we do it – there’s no other experience like it.”
Despite the late nights, painful blisters and sore calves, these dancers agree that they couldn’t live without dance in their lives. Cue the music, cue the lights, and let them take the stage – they’ll show you what it’s worth.