Cover Photo: Adeline Dunlap of Elite Classical Coaching © Rhi Lee Photography
Whether you're a student, a teacher, or a company director, chances are you've probably heard of Elite Classical Coaching in Frisco, Texas. Maybe that's because it's the former school of Prix de Lausanne 2020 Silver Medalist, Ava Arbuckle, or possibly because of the numerous, incredible dancers it has helped develop in recent years, earning it the title of Outstanding School at YAGP. But who is the woman behind it all?
We're thrilled to introduce you to Catherine Lewellen: YAGP Outstanding Teacher 2018/2019, ADCIBC Outstanding Teacher 2018/2019, YAGP Outstanding Choreographer 2013, and Founder and Director of Elite Classical Coaching. With the amount of professional and personal success both she and her students have achieved, it's hard to chalk it up to coincidence. Lewellen is clearly doing something different - and something very effective.
We spoke with her about her experience growing up as a tall dancer in the ballet world, her highly individualized style of teaching, the Summer Intensives she offers at her studio, and her superb advice about Summer Intensives - including the top five questions to ask yourself when determining the best intensive for you.
Hi Catherine! Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us. To start, can you tell us a bit about how and when you got your start in dance?
I grew up in Dallas taking ballet from many of the most influential teachers in the DFW metroplex, including Lisa Owen, Denise and Evelyn Brown, Thom Clower, Judy and Brent Klopfenstein, Kathy Chamberlain, Kelly Lannin, and Nancy Loch - many of whom are still teaching the next generation of great artists. I quickly became passionate about having a career in ballet, and by age nine, I knew that I wanted to be a ballerina.
What were your pre-professional and professional career journeys like?
I attended the Harid Conservatory, a professional ballet boarding school in Florida, on full scholarship my freshman year in high school, as well as Booker T. Washington High School where I was in the repertory company and became a YoungArts scholarship recipient. During the summers, I trained as a scholarship student at several prestigious schools including American Ballet Theatre, The School of American Ballet, Boston Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, LINES Contemporary Ballet, and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.
I joined the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre company as a trainee in 1997 after graduating two years early at age sixteen. While there, I met Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson who invited me to work with Complexions Contemporary Ballet. During this time, I also had the pleasure of working with Alonzo King of LINES Ballet in San Francisco and performed his work.
After meeting these legends of contemporary ballet, I realized I felt stifled in my current situation and longed to explore a different style of dance. I wanted to be in New York, so I auditioned for and began my studies at The Juilliard School. I continued working with Complexions during that time as well as guest teaching and performing with local schools in the New York area.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced as a young dancer?
I have always been tall, and not everyone loves a tall dancer, so this was a challenge - to find where I belonged and who would appreciate my dancing. There were directors and choreographers out there that absolutely cherished and adored my height; they focused on my dancing and approach to dancing, not just my physical attributes.
It can be hard to partner in classical ballet if you are too tall. You have to have the right partner that’s also tall, and you have to actually be better than the average dancer because chances are, you won’t fit into the corps where everyone needs to look the same. You have to have the ability to be a soloist or principal dancer. However, in contemporary ballet, being tall is much more accepted and admired, so I began gravitating towards this.
Do those experiences affect your approach to teaching, and if so, how?
I want my dancers to feel confident about themselves and to be at THEIR very best and know that that is enough. I encourage them to be healthy and in shape in their minds and bodies in order to be successful and at the top of their game. I allow them access to physical therapists, nutritionists, mental coaches, and anything else they need to succeed. I also help them to understand that throughout childhood, their bodies are going to change as they grow and become who they were designed to be and that they have to be patient during times of growth so that they can get through any related injuries.
I try to teach to each individual dancer’s strengths in order to maximize those areas and help them find their unique abilities that come with each individual body. In this way, students can identify their talents early and try to make the most of those areas!
Being a tall dancer myself, I do like the long lines of tall dancers, but I also appreciate and accept dancers of all sizes. I have varying heights within my own company. One thing I try to emphasize is that you can be a “tall” dancer, regardless of your size, by elongating your lines and dancing bigger than your physical size. I also encourage my tallest dancers to learn how to move faster than my shortest ones, so that our physical sizes become less important than what we are able to do with our bodies - regardless of size!
When did you first begin teaching?
I first started teaching as a young student when I was a student demonstrator at around fifteen years old. I would assist my director in classes. That same summer, I began teaching my own classes at age sixteen, as well as choreographing and coaching private lessons. I continued this throughout my entire pre-professional and professional career.
What led you to start your own school/coaching program?
I taught and choreographed at ballet and competitive studios around the Dallas metroplex, bringing my love and passion for ballet to young kids who fell in love with it, too. We began taking dancers to the world’s largest student ballet competition, Youth America Grand Prix, where I was awarded Outstanding Choreographer in 2013 for my ensembles that won first and second place. We were also invited to compete in the finals in New York City.
I started to develop my core beliefs about how to develop and train elite dancers; I had so many ideas, goals, and possibilities I wanted to explore, yet, I wasn’t ever able to fully implement them. I was hesitant to step out on my own to see all of these thoughts to fruition, but after many years of designing programs for other people’s studios, I finally made the leap to develop my own program and create a company of my own… and Elite Classical Coaching was born.
I didn’t know what the future would look like, but I was optimistic and open. I had two dancers on board for this new venture, and soon two more incredibly talented dancers sought me out, also looking for a different approach. I set up a custom training schedule for them geared to help them reach their specific goals and a few select events that would strengthen their professional needs. I created a website and some merchandise, rented studio space, and got to work…a unique program unfolded!
I know you’ve had incredible success both as a teacher and a choreographer at some major ballet competitions like YAGP. Most recently, your student, Ava Arbuckle, won the Silver Medal and the Nureyev Young Talent award at the Prix de Lausanne 2020. What a testament to your teaching! What are some of the secrets to your students’ success at these competitions? Any advice you can share with other young dancers seeking top spots at competitions?
Thank you! I think the secret to my students’ success is not really a secret...honestly, it's hard work, super determined and motivated individuals, perseverance, never giving up, and having faith! It's also about consistency - committing to a schedule, a work ethic, and a plan and not wavering, even when tempted.
When working with talented individuals who improve quickly and work hard, offers come to them/us; part of success is making good choices. You can't take every opportunity presented to you, even if it seems exciting. Each time we have an invitation for something, we have to run it through a check list to see if it will help the dancer reach their end goal.
Goals are important to set and aim to accomplish, both short and long term. Some of those can be placement at competitions, but they also need to be things you have more control over since, ultimately, the judge's choices and preferences are out of your hands as a young dancer. If you are working towards something broader than just placement, you will be more successful. Remember that winning a competition is an awesome goal to have and, of coarse, is exciting and feels amazing... but only a couple of people can actually achieve that goal each year. However, the process to get to that goal is invaluable, and many people can go through that and gain from it.
I have my students set a variety of goals and then set up their schedules and annual outlines to reflect reaching them. That process, in addition to the work they put in along the way, are what will make them successful - not necessarily the award they get at a competition. Some will win and receive exciting opportunities from that, but others will still reap the benefits from the work they put in, even if, perhaps, they didn't win the top award.
With summer right around the corner, what factors should dancers consider when choosing the Summer Intensive that’s right for them?
I ask a few questions when helping my students set up their summers:
1. What are you hoping to get out of your summer?
This is important. If you are a younger dancer, you may need to really reinforce your technique or gain strength and need to pick a program that's smaller in size with more personal attention. You may not need to venture out yet, because you don't want to mix too many styles while you are still trying to solidify your basic foundation.
If you are older, you may need to be building your resume and making connections, so specific growth technically may not be as important as building those relationships or exploring various schools and companies to determine where you want to land. Also, some programs only have a couple hours of dancing each day, so you may get more social opportunities such as building relationships and learning to be on your own and away from home. Other programs are incredibly intensive with six to seven hours of dancing, leaving very little time for anything else.
2. Where are you in your training with your current school?
If you are just joining a school, you would want to stay and train with them in the summer so that you get settled in and learn their style and preferences. Since you are new, this helps you get acquainted with the students and teachers and is a fresh, new experience. You can also get a head start on the year!
3. Are you struggling with any injuries?
If you have been dealing with injuries, have a current injury, or are recovering from an injury, (including if you are prone to injuries), summer can be a good time to get back on track and fix weak problem areas with physical therapy and a strength building program. This will make sure you are in the best shape to start your next season off on the right foot. Going away can be exciting, but you need to make sure you're in top form as you are presented with different training than you are used to, different floors, and maybe an increased work load. All of these can present problems if you are already dealing with an injury.
4. Do you have any deadlines in early fall for next years’ projects or goals?
If you are planning on filming for auditions, scholarship programs, or an international competition that is due in early fall, you will want to plan that into your summer. You'll want to allow time to be home working on that and not gone the whole summer.
5. Where is the family financially?
Do you need a scholarship to go away, or is money not an issue? You may want to go to a program that has offered you a full scholarship, and that may dictate where you train in the summer.
I see that you offer two different Summer Intensives that are age-dependent: Junior (typically 9-12 year olds) and Pre Pro (12-20 year olds). What are the structures of the Elite Classical Coaching Intensives for each age category? What kind of classes are offered, and what is an example of a typical daily schedule?
Both programs are structured similarly, they just move at different paces and focus on different areas. Typically, the Junior Intensive focuses more on placement, port de bras, basic technique, strength and conditioning, and increasing vocabulary of classical ballet. The Pre Pro Intensive includes more polishing and advanced techniques, continued strength in pointe-work, advanced skills needed in variations and pas de deuxs, and other supporting classes like partnering and repertoire.
Both programs offer daily ballet and pointe or pre pointe, character, variations, stretch/conditioning, and contemporary. A sample day might be a two hour ballet class, followed by an hour pointe class or an hour and a half variations class. Lunch breaks up the day, and then there's a character class and contemporary or a pas de deux class, followed by stretch and conditioning. The Junior Intensive typically has about three classes per day while the Pre Pro has four or more.
Are there any corrections or reminders you always find yourself repeating to students?
Yes. I have my main corrections, which always involve ways to increase turn out, pointe and shape the feet, stretch the knees, lengthen the legs, and perform better by relaxing the hands, shaping the arms, keeping the chin out and relaxed, and lengthening the back of the neck.
What kind of atmosphere can students expect in the studio with you?
We work really hard, and I can be intense, but in general, I think outside students would be surprised to find that we really have a good time and have a relaxed and positive atmosphere in the studio. My students want to be there and give 150% inside the studio, and I do too. This mutual agreement allows us to work hard but also have fun and enjoy what we are doing in the process.
With that, comes waves of more intense work without as much fun downtime while we focus and get work done, and then times of more light-hearted work, discussion and exploration, and vulnerability. Everyone knows each other and knows that they can take risks because it's ok to fail on the way to success; in fact, it's imperative.
If you aren’t willing to give 150% though, or you aren’t serious and want to be there with every fiber of your being, then it just isn’t the place for you, and it won’t work long term. You will find that out quickly. You just can’t be in this environment halfway - it's truly all or nothing.
How can students best prepare for any Summer Intensive, physically and mentally?
I would make sure you haven’t taken a vacation before the intensive, as you wouldn’t want to come not in shape. Make sure you are taking classes regularly and working out, stretching, etc. to be ready for the workload. Mentally...be ready to grow and learn, and be open so that you can get the most out of it. Be ready to try new things and not be stuck in your ways. The point of trying other programs is to learn different things and to find new ways to approach things; make sure you’re actually ready for that.
What will students gain from a Summer Intensive at Elite Classical Coaching?
I believe students will gain an awareness of their own strengths and weaknesses and leave with a deeper understanding of what they need in their own training. They will gain a stronger understanding of the fundamentals of classical ballet and where they are in their own journey to discover the pursuit of excellence. They will be inspired by being around ECC company members and seeing their strong work ethics, and the way they approach their training.
They will learn the importance of turn out, port de bras, shaping their feet, stretching their legs to their fullest in every step, and how to approach each class in a way that leaves them better every time they leave the studio. They will progress in their technique, strength, and flexibility, as well as strength in their minds. Hopefully they'll leave more determined than ever to reach their goals and be the best version of themselves.
While they will leave with stronger technique, (of course hopefully improved in every way), I personally think it’s the overall lessons they will learn that will give them the best return on their investment; learning another approach and improving one’s work ethic is something that can be taken and applied in every situation dancers will face in their careers.
I know that you attended the Harid Conservatory, a year-long boarding school program. Do you have any advice for dancers hoping to continue their dance education and get accepted into year-round programs following their Summer Intensive?
Make sure you have done your research into the programs that you are hoping to attend and really understand what their program is, and why you want to go there. As a young dancer, it can seem so exciting to leave home and attend a boarding school, but going away too soon can be quite detrimental as you leave your family unit. Often, this aspect can not be replaced in a dorm setting.
Research whether you would have to be in a dorm, or if they offer host families where a parent would be more invested in you, or even if your whole family could move there to continue being your main support system. If you have comparable dance training at home, consider staying home a little longer to make sure you are strong enough, emotionally and mentally, and truly ready to be on your own in order to take full advantage of a boarding school program.
Do you have any advice for dancers at intensives who might have habits that take longer to correct than the typical three to six week Summer Intensive time period? (Or advice in general about continuing to apply what you’ve learned post-intensive/after returning to your home studio?)
As I mentioned above, often learning how to work and honing your approach to your studies is more important than what you are actually working on in class. This is the basis of your success. You can have the best coach in the world, but if you are not applying the lessons they are teaching you every day you step into that studio, you won’t improve. Most students will not just miraculously get better in three to six weeks, but rather, they will begin to improve and understand the concepts introduced. It’s just the beginning, and the hope is that you learned enough about how to continue those lessons at home, under the supervision of your coach who knows you and who can continue pushing you.
I believe the main purpose of a summer program is to introduce you to different methods, different classmates’ approaches that may entice you and motivate/inspire you, to show you the talent that is out there and how you fit into that, and to maybe hear the same corrections in a different way that may cause something to click inside. It should be a period of inspiration and growth and of making connections with peers that will grow alongside you and be part of your world for a long time - from school mates, to company members, to directors. Sometimes, it is a time for you to get to know a school and see if it's a good fit for you if it has a company attached or if you are aiming to stay there year-round.
How can students sign up for the ECC Intensive?
We accept video auditions for our summer programs and ask for a video of brief barre and center-work, showing the applicant at their best and including the main combinations of a class. Dancers should include men's technique or pointe-work, if applicable, and can also include a variation and/or contemporary solo, as well as a brief bio with history of training and any special awards, accolades, or accomplishments.
Dancers will hear back within a couple days with instructions on how to register, if accepted. We still have room in all of our programs, but our first of two Junior Intensives starts on June 7th, so hurry if you are interested in attending that one! We also invite select individuals looking to join our program or those who are strong candidates, happy at their current schools but desiring different summer training, to join us for our Company Summer Training Program, as we train year- round.