Cover photo from left to right: Olivia Bell, School of American Ballet; Catherine Doherty, Photo by Gene Schiavone; Sasha Manuel, Photo by Jason Lavengood
Attending a year-round dance school can be a giant leap forward in a serious dancer's pre-professional dance education. To anyone outside of the dance world, it's a relatively unconventional path, and it is reserved for the most determined and qualified dancers; being accepted and ultimately attending a year-round program require extreme dedication and focus.
These programs can provide students with full days of dance classes, rehearsals, schoolwork, extracurriculars, and the chance to meet people from some of the most premiere companies and schools around the world. They also have a reputation of producing some of the world's most successful dancers. (Think: Suzanne Farrell, School of American Ballet; Alina Cojocaru, Royal Ballet School; and Isabella Boylston, The HARID Conservatory, to name a few!)
But along with these incredible opportunities comes sacrifice and tough decision-making by both the students and parents. The first and possibly most important choice is deciding whether you are ready to move or leave home at a young age. If it is feasible for you and your family, and you've received acceptance from your desired school, there are many other components to consider when deciding whether or not a year-round program is right for you.
Meet Olivia Bell of School of American Ballet, Sasha Manuel of Royal Ballet School, and Catherine Doherty of The HARID Conservatory. All of these dancers are either current students or recent graduates of their respective programs, and each of them has valuable insight and knowledge to share about their journeys. Read the incredible perspectives of these young and talented dancers, the ins-and-outs of their schools, and their advice on how to set yourself up for success if attending a year-round program is your goal!
Age and/or grade you began attending your school:
Catherine, The HARID Conservatory: 17 years old; 11th Grade
Olivia, School of American Ballet: 14 years old
Sasha, Royal Ballet School: 14 years old; Year 10
Current grade or year of graduation:
Catherine: I graduated in 2019.
Olivia: I haven’t graduated from SAB yet; I just finished my third year.
Sasha: I am currently in the First Year of Upper School; I have been there for 3 years.
What was your mindset during the Summer Intensive or months leading up to the school year?
Catherine: The Harid Conservatory Summer Intensive was the first summer program I had ever attended away from home. Before leaving for the summer, I knew that I had wanted to attend a year-round program, but I was also prepared to be rejected and to spend another year living at home, which was completely okay with me because I was still young. (And, my teachers at Kansas School of Classical Ballet are amazing.)
During the program, I really tried to focus on being the best dancer I could possibly be. Since I knew that I was wanting to stay for the year, I tried to give 110% in every class and show what I was capable of. My family and teachers back in Kansas all supported and believed in me, and knowing that gave me some confidence and helped me to believe in myself, as well.
Olivia: I wanted to be accepted into SAB Winter Term (what we call SAB’s year-round program) from the summer, but I knew that there was a very slim chance of being asked to stay. So, my mindset was to be focused on the present and focused on making the most of the time I had at the Summer Course.
Sasha: I didn't attend RBS’s Summer Intensive. I was attending a SI at Southland Ballet, and Mr.Powney was teaching there. He awarded me a short-term scholarship and invited me to visit during the school year for a short term stay, where I followed a student’s typical schedule. I was very grateful for this, as I could see if I liked every aspect of what the school year would entail - from academics to ballet. When I first started my week there, I knew I wanted to go there year-round immediately. The atmosphere was incredible and very motivating, and I could see myself being pushed and really refining my technique there. I was then invited to the Finals Audition and was offered a spot.
Any specific advice for dancers attending Summer Intensives with hopes of being accepted into the school, year-round?
Catherine: The best advice that I could give anyone is to be yourself and to believe in yourself. It can be very stressful to attend a summer program with the hopes and desires of being accepted year-round. It’s important to remember that summer programs are usually 3-5 weeks long, so the teachers have a lot of opportunities to watch you in classes and rehearsals. It’s okay to mess up and make mistakes. Trust in yourself and in your training.
It's not about going and trying to show off to the teachers. Focus on your technique and being clean. Try and make yourself stand out amongst the others and use your artistry. Just go for it. If dance is your passion, and it is something that you really want, then there is no reason to hold anything back. Give it your all and have no regrets.
Olivia: My advice would be to not center the whole summer around hoping to be asked year-round. Set goals aside from that, and focus on achieving those goals. The point of Summer Course is learning and improving during the weeks you have at the school, meeting other dancers and making new friends, and enjoying the activities in the city. As long as you grow as a dancer and have fun, anything else that happens is icing on the cake. Around week three, all anyone can talk about is getting asked to stay, and it can become stressful. I tried to stay away from all of those conversations and just focused on dancing and enjoying my time there.
Sasha: Personally, I’ve learned that developing your artistic side of ballet is equally, if not more important, than how high your legs are or how many turns you can do. At Royal, we are constantly reminded that people come to see us express ourselves, and while technique is incredibly important, if we have no emotion, we won’t be able to convey the story or feeling that we are aiming to. That being said, if you are looking to be invited to stay at the school, I would be open to all the advice that is given. Showing that you are willing to take on and apply new corrections, broaden your technique, and take on new things is vital, along with showing your joy of dance.
After you received your acceptance letter, were you nervous? And if so, what were you most nervous about?
Catherine: After I received my acceptance letter, I was definitely nervous, but also so excited and happy. What made me nervous was the thought of leaving home for the first time. I would be leaving behind my two sisters, mom, dad, and even my dogs. Everything that I knew and felt comfortable with was going to change - and that scared me a little bit.
Olivia: After I received my acceptance letter, I was so happy but also super nervous. I wanted to live up to the expectations of everyone who gave me the opportunity of being a year-round student at such an amazing school.
Sasha: After I received my acceptance letter, I was very nervous. Even though I had been to the school before, moving to a new country felt very nerve-wracking. Apart from that, I was also worried about how quickly I could adapt to the English style of training, which was very different to my Vaganova training. However, once I learned the basic principles of the style, it was much easier to put in place with all of my dancing. My teachers also helped a lot with taking the time to explain the English style and essentially it’s “do's and dont's." I also felt much better once I got into contact with some of the other students who were going to be in the same year group as me, and I felt a lot better about that aspect of the school.
Do you experience any homesickness? If so, how do you cope with that?
Catherine: Going to Harid, I did not think that I would experience being badly homesick. I knew that as a dancer, I would have to move away from home at some point, so I tried to mentally prepare myself... but getting homesick is kind of inevitable, and I definitely experienced my fair share of it. There were times where my family would be together in Kansas, and I would see pictures/videos and cry because I missed them and wanted to be with them having fun. I felt left out and alone, like I was missing out on making memories and having quality family time. Luckily, I had a great mentor at Harid and amazing friends. Everyone at Harid, at some point, has dealt with homesickness, so people can relate to each other very easily, which helps a lot when you need some support.
Even today, I still struggle with being homesick. I was living in D.C., dancing with The Washington Ballet as a Trainee when Covid hit, and I then had to move back home. I have enjoyed being able to be back with my family and spend time with them again, but I know the next time I leave and move away I will feel it in my heart a lot. What helps me is knowing that I can always text, call, or Facetime my family whenever I want/need.
Olivia: Luckily, I didn’t have any homesickness because my whole family was able to relocate to the NYC area from Texas. The summer I was asked to be a year-round student at SAB, my sister was also accepted as a year-round student at The Ailey School. My dad’s job allows him to work remotely, so it worked out perfectly!
Sasha: At first, I wasn’t homesick at all. I was so busy with ballet and academic classes that I didn’t have time to think about my friends and family back at home. It wasn’t until the first break we had that I started to experience it. As I am boarding, every four weeks we have a weekend off where we leave the school and go to a guardian’s house. This was a bit of a struggle at first, because I had never met this family that I was staying with before and wasn’t sure what it was going to be like. Now, I don’t really get homesick anymore and really like my guardians; but, to cope with those feelings when I first moved, I would try and keep busy to take my mind off of it.
What are some of the main differences between the summer intensive vs. year-round experience?
Catherine: One of the biggest differences between the Summer Intensive and the year-round program is the amount of free time the students have. During the summer, there is a lot more free time after classes to hang out with friends and do other activities. This is just because during the summer there is no school/homework or study hour to do during the evening. The amount of free time during the year decreases and the students' main focuses are their dance classes and school work.
Olivia: The main difference between the SAB Summer Course and Winter Term is just the environment in general. Winter Term feels more like a family because almost everyone knows each other, even if we aren’t in the same classes. Summer Course and Winter Term are equally intense in terms of dancing. There are lots of activities planned during the summer, but we have fewer of those during Winter Term (especially those of us who don’t live in the dorms).
Do you have the same teachers as you did during the summer?
Catherine: During the summer the classes, levels rotate teachers every so often so that you get a chance to learn from everyone. However, during the year, each level is assigned one teacher. The only other time you would have a different teacher is when having a Pas De Deux class, rehearsals, or if class is combined/a teacher is not there. Of course, there are specific teachers who teach Modern, Jazz, Conditioning, and Character, and those teachers always stay the same.
Olivia: Yes, I have the same teachers that I had during summer... and more!
You obviously received excellent training prior to entering a year-round program. What do you think are some of the benefits of attending a full-time program at a new school?
Catherine: When attending a year-round program away from home, you are really allowing yourself to broaden your knowledge and experience with dance. While being in a full time dance program allows you to focus on your craft with little outside distractions, you are also able to create friendships and connect with so many other amazing students. You will also get opportunities to learn from so many different teachers with astonishing backgrounds and maybe even learn different styles of dance that you have never experienced before. It gives you the chance to learn more about yourself as a dancer and grow.
With a program like Harid, it was so easy to be able to move away at such a young age because while the students are very protected and safe, they still get the opportunity to have amazing dance training and also complete their high school degree.
Olivia: Some benefits of attending SAB year-round are that I am able to learn Balanchine variations from teachers who were directly trained by Balanchine. It feels like we're being taught by Balanchine himself, sometimes!
Sasha: Prior to leaving for Royal, I wasn’t at a vocational training school and still lived at home. However, as difficult as it can be, leaving home to train more was the most beneficial thing I could have done for my ballet and dance skills in general. Being at a full-time program, there is more time to dance, which sometimes is all you need to improve your dancing. I also have studios easily accessible at the school that I can go to for practice.
What were some of the deciding factors in your decision to leave home?
Catherine: Another aspect that helped in my decision to attend Harid was that every meal is cooked and served for the students, which means that students do not have to stress about buying groceries and preparing each meal every single day at such a young age. They also take academics very seriously. The teachers and staff all want to see their students succeed not only in ballet, but in school as well. Another benefit is that Harid counts the students' dance classes towards school credit, which is amazing.
Olivia: Something that helped us all make the decision to move is that my sister and I would both be attending year-round programs in the city, and it would be easy for our family to move so we could both train at these amazing schools!
Sasha: The final decision-maker for me was seeing what the students of RBS looked like when they had finished their training. All of them are incredibly strong and artistic dancers; they are prime examples of how dancers should look, and I wanted that for myself.
Can you share with us some of your favorite or most fun parts of your particular year-round program?
Catherine: Outside of ballet, some of my favorite activities with my friends were getting acai bowls or going to the beach and the mall. Harid also had amazing activities for us to do on the weekends. Occasionally, they would take us to a Miami City Ballet Performance, a Miami Heat Basketball Game, a Hockey game, and once they even took us to an Opera.
One of my other personal favorite parts was the mentor groups. There are a few RA’s (Resident Advisors) that work at Harid, and each RA is assigned a group of students (ranging in ages and levels) to mentor for the year. During the year, the mentor plans fun activities for their groups, and they have meetings at least once a month. At the end of the year, each mentor group gets to go out on one final trip together, and it is a lot of fun.
Olivia: Some fun memories that I have from the year-round program are being able to rehearse and perform with my friends in Lecture Demonstrations, Student Choreography Workshop, and Winter Ball. Some other fun memories have come when I’ve spent the night in the SAB dorms. Since I’m not a dorm student, I don’t usually spend the night there. But, every once in a while, I get the opportunity to sleepover with a friend in the dorms, and when I do it’s always super fun.
Sasha: At Royal, we have so many fun traditions. One of my favorites was called the "Swimming Gala." It involved a bunch of dancers swimming against each other in their allocated Houses, and the House that had the most wins by the end of the gala won house points; house points helped us win a cake at the end of the year.
What was the hardest or most difficult adjustment for you?
Catherine: One of the hardest parts for me was having to adjust to the style of ballet taught at Harid. The teachers at Harid were trained in the Vaganova style, which was a big change for me. It was very different, and at first, I found it very, very difficult. Usually, students are accepted into Harid when they are freshmen in high school, but I joined when I was a junior. This made a big difference with my knowledge and experience compared to the other girls in my class who had already been at Harid for a few years. I had to learn and adjust very quickly.
Olivia: The biggest adjustment for me was learning how to commute by myself around the city. I had to learn how to use Google Maps and read the subway maps and schedules. Another adjustment was the schedule. Before Covid, our dance schedule was very spread out to accommodate class time for those students who attend in-person school. I do online school, and it’s very flexible, but with the commuting, dancing, and rehearsals, it was a big adjustment to find time for my schoolwork. I finally realized that I could get large chunks done on the weekend, so I began working ahead so that my academic load would be lighter during the week.
Sasha: For me, the biggest adjustment would probably be getting used to a different style of dancing. Even in contemporary, I was dancing the Cunningham Technique, which was unfamiliar to me. As I had a lot of habits built up through my previous style of dancing, I found that when I started to increase the difficulty of my work, these old habits came back and did not fit with the English style. However, now I am much more confident with the style.
Tell us a bit about the academic (non-dance) component of your school - was it virtual, in-person, or hybrid?
Catherine: Harid uses Florida Virtual School (FLVS). All of our classes were taught online (kind of like a home-schooling program). There is a school classroom at Harid called the Learning Center where all of the students go in the morning to work. Inside, there are lots of desks and typical school supplies. There is an Academic Administrator and an Academic Mentor who sit in the room with the students and are there to supervise and help with any questions.
For each subject in school, FLVS assigns a qualified online teacher for the students; just like normal school, there are deadlines for homework and projects. Since there are deadlines and due dates, if a student is not finished with all of their work by Friday (or if they are behind by a few weeks), they will have consequences and will lose privileges. Staying organized, focused, and on track is very important at Harid.
Olivia: I’ve done online school since 8th grade, and it’s great! As I mentioned, my online school has a very flexible schedule, and I work on weekends to get ahead or sometimes get caught up on school-work.
Sasha: When I first came to the school, I did academics with the other English and international kids and took part in the GCSE, which are big exams that are taken at the end of a two-year course. These lessons were in classrooms with teachers, so it was very similar to a normal school setting. Right now, I am getting a B.A. degree through the University of Roehampton, which is taught to us through teachers at the school. This degree goes hand-in-hand with dancing, as we learn and discuss the history and impacts of ballet/dance and the anatomy and science behind our bodies and dancing. We were in person all year.
What’s an example of a typical daily schedule?
Catherine: A typical day for me at Harid would be waking up at 6:45 a.m., heading to breakfast from 7-7:50, walking to the Learning Center and having school from 8-11:50, heading back to the Residence Hall for lunch from 12-12:20 p.m. (some people took longer for lunch, but I ate quickly so I had time to warm up before class). Next, I would have ballet class from 12:40-2:10, and then depending on the day, I'd either have rehearsals, pas de deux, jazz, modern, or conditioning classes until 5:40 p.m. After dance classes finish on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday we have dinner at 6:00pm. On Tuesday and Thursday, we would have our extracurricular classes from 5:30-6:20. These classes are based on your school year, and you would have classes such as Music, Kinesiology, Dance History and Ballet Methodology. There is also dance class on Saturday from 9:30-10:15 a.m., and this was also based on level (Modern and Character).
During the week, there is a mandatory Study Hour from 7-8:00 p.m. On Monday nights, we had the opportunity to go to the YMCA to work out or even swim. On Tuesday nights, the seniors and juniors had Privileges together. Having Privileges means that you get to skip the mandatory study hour and pick a place to hang out for an hour, such as the mall. This is only allowed for the juniors and seniors, and the seniors had another day of Privileges on Thursday nights. Wednesday nights, we were taken to a local Publix to get any groceries/snacks we needed, and on Sunday nights we were taken to Target.
Once back at the dorms, we would hang out in the cafeteria, outside, or in the common area. Once curfew hit, everyone had an assigned chore. Each student was assigned a different chore each semester. Once your chore was complete, you had to go to your own side [of the dorms] and into your room. Each Sunday evening, we had to deep clean our rooms, and the RA's would walk around and check. We had to clean the bathroom, wipe down all of the mirrors, take out our trash, vacuum the floors, make our beds, and put away all dirty/clean laundry. You would be rewarded for a clean room and written up if your room was messy. This may seem a little strict, but I actually really enjoyed this and think it helped teach me how to keep my own space clean and organized. I've carried this lesson with me even after graduating from Harid, and I am very thankful for that.
Olivia: Pre-Covid schedule last year:
- 6:00 a.m.: Wake up, eat breakfast, meditate
- 7:00-8:00 a.m.: Warmup/stretch
- 8:00-8:45 a.m.: Get dressed/do hair/get ready to leave
- 9:00-9:45 a.m.: Commute to SAB
- 10:30 a.m.-12:00 p.m.: Technique class
- 12:00-2:30 p.m.: Break, lunch, school, and change into white leotard for second class
- 2:30-4:00 p.m.: Pointe, variations, or partnering class (depending on the day)
- 4:00-5:00 p.m.: Commute home if there are no rehearsals
- 5:00-6:00 p.m.: School
- 6:00-bedtime: Eat dinner, school, go to bed
- 6:00 a.m.: Wake up, eat breakfast, meditate
- 7:00-8:00 a.m.: Stretch/Warmup
- 8:00-8:45 a.m.: Get dressed/do hair/get ready to leave
- 9:00-9:30 a.m.: Commute to dance (driving instead of using the subway)
- 10:00-11:30 a.m.: Technique class
- 11:30 a.m.-12:00 p.m.: Break
- 12:00-1:30 p.m.: Pointe/variations class (no partnering because of Covid protocols)
- 1:30 p.m.: Commute home (Usually driving, but sometimes taking the subway)
- 2:15 p.m.: Arrive home, have lunch, school
Sasha: Typically, we start our days very early. Breakfast is at 6:40, and at 7:10, I set off for school. I usually do Pilates from 7:45 to 8:15 and then have two hours of academic work from 8:15 to 10:30. At 11:00, ballet class starts and goes on until 12:30. We then have lunch for an hour, and from 1:30 until 2:45, we start another class. This could be pointe/variations, contemporary, or pas de deux. After this class, we have two more dance-related classes, and we usually finish with Pilates or strength and conditioning work. At the moment, because I am rehearsing for shows and have finished the academic school year, we are dancing from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. everyday.
What kind of activities do you do in your free time? How much freedom do you have to do things on your own?
Catherine: During our free time, we would mainly hang out at the beach or the mall. The most free time that we had was on the weekends. Your week days are spent focusing on ballet and school, so there is not much down time to leave the campus. When traveling off campus, you must have an RA’s permission and have them sign a slip that states where you are going, who is going, what time you are leaving, what time you will be back, and who is driving. (The RA’s drop off and pick up the students everywhere they go.) You are also not allowed to leave the campus alone, for safety reasons. To leave, you must be in a fairly large group and have permission.
Olivia: I don’t really have much free time, but when I do, I usually rest and recharge my body and read. I’m also an ambassador for Brown Girls Do Ballet, and I enjoy meeting and getting to know other ambassadors during our Zoom calls and connecting with mentors.
Sasha: We are given quite a bit of freedom and are allowed to do most things as long as we have parental permission. This is really nice because we are in central London where there is a lot to do. However, due to our busy schedules, there isn’t a lot of free time. If we have Saturday class on the weekend, it’s usually in the first half of the day, so we can do stuff afterwards and on Sunday as well. Something I love to do now, especially because of the warm weather, is have picnics in the parks.
What are the housing/living accommodations like?
Catherine: All of the dorms are located in the Residence Hall, which is a building that contains the dorm rooms, leisure rooms, laundry rooms, and cafeteria. There are two sides of dorms, one for the boys and one for the girls. In order to get into your specific side you must use your key card, and the cards only work for your exact side. At the dorms, there are curfews that must be followed. All students must be on their specific sides and in their rooms ready for bed by a certain time. These curfews are extended on the weekends.
The dorm rooms are very nice and spacious inside. It is typically two people per room, but sometimes seniors who have been at Harid all four years will get their own room. It is an open concept room, meaning that there are no individual bedrooms for the students, but they each get their own desk and bed as well one small dresser, one larger dresser and a closet-like cabinet. The students also share a bathroom in their own room (shower, toilet, and sink).
Olivia: During Summer Course, I lived in the SAB dorms. The housing at SAB is great because the dorms, cafeteria, and studios are in the same building, which is really nice and convenient!
Sasha: The accommodations are great. We are in central London, about twenty minutes away from the school, and have access to anything we need.
What's the food and meal situation like?
Catherine: When it comes to meals, Harid's food service is amazing. Every meal is cooked and served fresh to the students everyday. For breakfast during the week students would typically eat cereal, toast, eggs, or oatmeal. On Sundays, we would have a later breakfast (brunch), where they would serve breakfast potatoes, eggs, fruit, cereal, and occasionally french toast. Lunch and dinner were different each day but a few examples are chicken with rice and vegetables, pasta with shrimp/scallops, turkey burgers, turkey meatloaf, etc. There is also a salad bar available almost everyday for lunch and dinner. Students can also purchase their own food at Publix or Target, but everyone must eat out in the cafeteria during meal times. Eating meals in your rooms is not allowed, this is just a health and safety precaution.
Olivia: I’m vegan and have a severe peanut allergy, so I have to be careful with what I eat. The cafeteria at SAB has lots of great options for both vegans and non-vegans. I love the curly fries and rice bowls with sweet potatoes, asparagus, brussel sprouts, and broccoli. It’s NYC, so there are also lots of great restaurants, food trucks, and even a farmer’s market nearby.
Sasha: Being an international school, the chefs make a selection of different meals. We usually have a staple Sunday roast, but apart from that, the chefs are really good about mixing things up so we aren’t eating the same things. Whenever there is a big holiday in another country, we have a student from there who will make a traditional meal from that country.
What kind of performance opportunities are you given?
Catherine: Everyone has the opportunity to perform, and there are two performances each year: a Winter Showcase and a Spring Showcase. These shows are performed at the Countess de Hoernle Theater in Boca Raton, and it seats about 800 people. For the shows, the students get the opportunity to perform excerpts from many different ballets. They may also get to participate in a modern piece and even a character piece. Students will also get to perform the 2nd act of Nutcracker during their Winter Showcase. In the Spring Showcase, select students will get to perform an original work choreographed by Mark Godden. Students can also ask permission to attend a dance competition, but there is not a 100% guarantee that the student will be allowed to go.
Olivia: Pre-Covid, we had many performance opportunities such as, Lecture Demonstrations, Choreography Workshop, Winter Ball, and end-of-the-year Workshop Performances. Since the pandemic began, we haven’t been able to have as many performances. I hope we can do more performances next year!
Sasha: Throughout the school year, we have quite a few performances. We usually have a choreographic showing of pieces that students have choreographed on other students, and, depending on the season, students are chosen to perform with the company. Then, at the end of the year, we have three weeks where we are performing at different locations. However, due to Covid, we are going to start our first show of the year in two weeks. It’s really exciting because this will be my first time on stage in almost two years.
While at school (and beyond), how do you take care of your body to help you #FeelGoodDanceBetter?
Catherine: To help myself #FeelGoodDanceBetter, I love taking warm Epsom salt baths, giving myself ice massages, and using my massage gun. These forms of self-care work best for my body and muscles and help me relax after a long day/week of hard work!
Olivia: My daily self-care is reading. I love to read because it feels like I’m entering and experiencing another reality. I like to read fantasy novels and crime novels.
Sasha: In order to keep strong emotionally and physically, every night I like to take one hour or more to roll out, stretch, and write my corrections down. This time acts as a way to wind down in an effective way. It can be very easy to let all the things you need to improve or work on get to you, making you feel like you’ll never be able to achieve certain things. However, taking things one at a time will help your goals to become manageable and achievable. Personally, after class, if I practice one thing from class that I felt didn’t go very well, even if it’s not amazing, I feel better because I’m working towards it.