By Steffanie Casperson, director of Ballet Aligned
When I was performing as a professional ballet dancer, I never imagined that I would teach ballet. I had taught once or twice and REALLY enjoyed it – I compared my experience to sculpting because I loved making bodies better reflect the beauty of ballet. But I knew when I retired that I wanted to be a mom, and I expected that would be a full time job.
I did not anticipate that my kids would be interested in dancing. But how could they not be? We listened to all kinds of music in our home, I encouraged all kinds of performance and was a very enthusiastic audience member for their spontaneous choreographic creations. And of course, I continued to go SEE the ballet (bringing my kids along). So when my second child, a daughter, was 3 years old, I found myself sharing with her some of the basics of ballet: plie, first position, etc.. She wasn’t thrilled to have her mom as a teacher, so I enrolled her in a local “Mommy and Me Class” and saw (for the first time) how instruction of the little-littles was accomplished.
She was enrolled in these classes for a few years, and that might have been the end of that, but three years later, when she was 6, she auditioned for the Nutcracker and didn’t get in. I didn’t expect her to. Her older brother HAD been cast at age 6 (to my shock and surprise), and then was cast again at age 9, the year my daughter was passed over. To help soften the blow for his younger sister, I decided to teach a short class for her and her friends all about the Nutcracker. I taught out of our basement, the class was once a week for four weeks, as part of the class we crafted “set pieces,” and at the end we put it all together in a Nutcracker “performance” all our own. It was a HUGE hit, and I went on to repeat its success a number of times over the years and for other ballets like Cinderella and La Sylphide – each time offering a brief class and basing instruction around the story, music, and themes of the ballet. When my second daughter was old enough for ballet classes, instead of enrolling her, she danced and played in these classes with me.
In the meantime, my nine year old son (who had performed the roll of Fritz when his sister didn’t get in to the Nutcracker) announced, after seeing Ballet West’s Nutcracker later that Christmas season, that he wanted to dance professionally. He had had so much fun performing, and when he saw a professional company and realized it could be a JOB he did, he decided he wanted to go for it. He had our support. Since he was a baby, we noted that he loved music, and had other physical assets required of ballet dancers, so I had actually offered to put him in ballet classes as often as his sister had the opportunity. When he was nine, he decided he was ready.
At first, he was enrolled in a local dance school, same as his sister. We established that he liked it; that after trying ballet, he STILL wanted to be a dancer. But I also noted that the class structure was not suited to his goal, and that after a year (he was now 10) he was not progressing at a pace that would make a professional career possible. So I began supplementing. He would do two classes at his dance school and one with me, where I would fill in some of the gaps and draw his attention to aspects of his training that had been over-looked. I decided to try and help my daughter in similar ways, and in order to make learning from mom more palatable to both of them, we looked for friends to join us.
I organized a series of classes for homeschoolers and started different classes for my oldest three kids. This was my first experience looking after the care and development of dancers on multiple levels: for younger dancers, seeking to nurture movement, strength, and expression through dance; and for older, committed dancers seeking to ensure their training would open doors in the directions of their goals.
When my son began receiving opportunities to train over the summer with major ballet companies, I knew what we were doing was working. I also knew I needed to expand my efforts to increase our family finances to meet these expenses, which was how I came to direct a summer intensive for two years where I worked with other teachers to help more dancers down a path to better ballet.
I loved all of it. I loved teaching, I loved seeing my students improve, but I also loved seeing the younger students improve by focusing the skills of their teachers on the aspects of their development that seemed critical to taking their dancing to the next level.
And doors opened! These students improved, chased bigger dreams and succeeded! It’s been delightful to see these dancers land leading roles in local productions, be accepted into competitive ballet programs in college, be accepted (sometimes on scholarship) to train with America’s leading ballet companies, and LIKE the challenge and the beauty of classical ballet enough to want to WORK at it. The work brings its own reward in the character of those putting in the work: they gain commitment to excellence, focus, dedication, and confidence.
Ballet Aligned was created so more dancers could enjoy these kinds of experiences; because ballet does wonderful things for those who dance it, and when danced well, for its audience too. Ballet ignites the imagination of the young and uplifts and inspires the mature. Pursuing better dancing can be a marvelous adventure, but it makes us stronger for the adventure of the rest of life too. Making a difference in this way is my distinct privilege and pleasure.