Dancing Through the Dog Days

August intensives can help serious ballet students fill the summer gap.

“If you’ve zeroed in on some place you like, get your foot in the door—physically, literally,” says Kay Mazzo. Here, SAB’s summer course. PC Rosalie O’Connor, Courtesy SAB

Last summer, Tessa Freeman spent five weeks at The School of Pennsylvania Ballet’s summer intensive, and then put in three more weeks of serious training at Manhattan Youth Ballet’s annual August Intensive in New York City. Freeman, 17, has studied year-round at MYB for six years, and started attending other intensives to become more well-rounded. “Going away means meeting different teachers and trying different classes,” she says. “But then I come back to MYB, where it feels like home, to make sure I stay in shape for the next year.”

Summer intensives are designed to be just that: intense. They can foster big breakthroughs in a short amount of time. With four- to six-week June and July intensives giving dancers a sense of forward momentum, it’s no wonder that many pre-professional students opt to continue training in August, as well.

But dancers who go the multiple-intensive route should approach August programs with a clear vision of what they hope to achieve. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach. They need to be prepared to let their bodies—potentially stronger than at the start of the summer but equally more injury-prone—guide the intensity of their approach.

Put Progress Into Practice

Many students register for August intensives because they fear getting out of shape as the summer winds down. They can also cement new corrections while they’re fresh. “I want to hold on to any improvements I gained at my June/July program,” says Alexandra Lopez, who graduated from the Nutmeg Conservatory for the Arts in Connecticut in 2015, and has attended her school’s August program for several years, following midsummer intensives at BalletMet, Ballet Arizona and Bossov Ballet Theatre in Maine. “When I don’t do anything in August, I feel like progress disappears before the start of the school year.”

Teachers at late-summer programs are aware that most pupils have been studying elsewhere. Erin Fogarty, director of programming at MYB, notes that faculty will often ask August students, “What was a correction you learned at program X or Y?” She explains, “We want to continue to work with them on that issue, finding the best way for them to understand it.”

Training vs. Performance

Modern class at Kaatsbaan, PC Gregory Cary, Courtesy Kaatsbaan.

Many—though not all—June/July ballet intensives conclude with a performance. Meanwhile, many—though not all—August intensives are more training-focused. For instance, the two-week August intensive at Nutmeg does end with a studio demonstration, but it’s more about class—variations, pointework, partnering—than the four-week July program, which finishes with an onstage show with costumes, lights and makeup, says Victoria Mazzarelli, Nutmeg’s artistic director.

At Kaatsbaan International Dance Center in Tivoli, New York, each of the summer’s three-week Extreme Ballet intensives concludes with a studio showing, but focuses primarily on study. “When dancers come to our third session after a hard summer at other intensives, they find a low-stress environment where they can work with little pressure,” says Gregory Cary, co-founder and artistic director at Kaatsbaan. “Here, you’re taking class for steady growth, rather than to quickly get work onstage.” By minimizing stressful rehearsals and removing the element of competition for roles, this schedule allows students to home in on technique and artistry. 

New Voices

Part of the purpose of going to a summer intensive is to branch out. Intensives allow dancers to network and encounter new points of view, which can help them plan their careers. But for younger dancers, attending multiple programs in a single summer can mean hearing too many new voices at once. “When there’s been consistency in the training, and when they know the fundamentals, then getting outside that box can be a great experience,” Mazzarelli says. “It’s good for students to grow their roots a little bit.”

Attending summer intensives at two (or more) different schools can put dancers at risk of losing sight of the technical hallmarks of their home studios. For instance, Kay Mazzo, co-chairman of faculty at the School of American Ballet in New York City, points out, “At SAB, we have a very exact syllabus. We don’t want young dancers to learn to turn or jump differently.” Balanchine teachers will have different expectations than Vaganova or Cecchetti instructors.

Dancers who are mature enough to distinguish what their year-round teachers ask of them from what other methodologies demand may be able to avoid this pitfall. Those who are venturing into a new environment for the first time, or who aren’t as confident in their home style, may want to consider one away-from-home intensive, followed by August training in a familiar setting.

Class with Stella Abrera at Manhattan Youth Ballet. PC Erin Fogarty, Courtesy MYB.

The Case for Rest

Spending the entire summer in the studio may not be right for everyone. Students often dance exponentially more at a summer program than they do during the school year. Continuing at that breakneck pace can lead to burnout and injury, putting dancers at greater risk going into the fall semester. And some teachers prefer for their students to do no more than one intensive per summer. Mazzo says, “When you’re young, it’s easy to get back in shape, so we tell our dancers to take the month of August completely off and let their bodies rest. Swim, take walks—but don’t take class!”

Of course, there’s a middle ground between dancing all day, every day and spending August on the couch. Dancers might take a few ballet classes per week, give themselves a home barre each morning, or cross-train with yoga, Pilates or swimming. At Manhattan Youth Ballet, students have the option to sign up for one, two or all three weeks in August. That flexibility frees them up to relax and pursue other interests. “We don’t want our dancers to run their bodies into the ground,” Fogarty says.

With the right attitude and clear goals, dancers who plan a summer packed with training can reap great benefits. “Dancing so much for so many weeks can seem daunting at first,” Lopez says, “but if you use the August intensive to enjoy how you’ve grown, it makes it easy to keep going.” Her bottom line: “You want to be able to look back in the fall and appreciate how far you’ve come.” 


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