Ballet for all

Ballet should be made available to anyone who wants to try it. 

That’s the philosophy of the St. Paul Ballet school, a nonprofit organization with a mission to reduce barriers to the art of ballet.

“There can be a financial commitment to train in ballet year-round, and initially parents aren’t sure if their child wants to commit or not,” said ballet instructor Laura C.C. Greenwell. 

To address this, the ballet offers drop-in classes for $9 per class for kids and senior citizens, and $15 for teens and other adults. 

“That’s really rare to find,” Greenwell said of the school, which is housed in an expansive warehouse in the Midway neighborhood in St. Paul, not far from the Metro Transit Green Line.

In keeping with the ballet-for-all mission, the St. Paul Ballet has partnered with Project Plié, a program based out of the American Ballet Theatre in New York City, which brings awareness to the lack of racial diversity in ballet and offers scholarships to eligible dancers. 

In 2018 alone, the St. Paul Ballet offered more than $15,000 in scholarships to dancers in need. 

If you’ve ever attended the free Ballet Tuesdays events for kids at Landmark Center in St. Paul or Toddler Tuesdays at the Mall of America, then you may have seen some of the ballet’s top dancers at work. 

This past December, the ballet put on its most recent large-scale performance — A Nutcracker Story at the O’Shaughnessy at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, including regional-Emmy-winning actor, vocalist, arts educator and community organizer T. Mychael Rambo as Uncle D. 

Summer camps

Another way kids can sample the art of dance is the St. Paul Ballet’s summer camps for kids, offered four days each week for boys and girls. Campers learn the basics of ballet while focusing on spatial awareness and the ability to count music.  

Engaging camp themes are geared toward some of the most popular interest areas in kid pop culture. 

“We just finalized our summer schedule, and it is amazing,” said interim director of operations Liz Heffernan. 

This year’s camp themes include Mary Poppins, Ballet Fairy Tales, Peter and the Wolf, Moving With Dance: Art and Yoga, Nutcracker Story, Musical Theater Adventures, and Intro to Modern and Contemporary Dance (for middle schoolers and high schoolers). 

Camps typically run two hours each day with breaks for snacks and other icebreaker activities. 

Greenwell said campers don’t just learn steps and techniques. They learn to express themselves creatively through dance. 

“The kids get to explore and navigate dance with where they are in their stage of development,” Greenwell said, adding that kids are encouraged to use their imaginations. “When they start to get a little bit older, going into ballet classes, they can bring that with them.” 

Focusing on artistry

While there are many ballet centers around the Twin Cities that offer summer programming, St. Paul Ballet camps are special in that they focus on the body-mind connection, rather than perfecting a final performance, said instructor Mary Coats.

 “We’re trying to develop their sense of art, and their experience in the world,” Coats said. “The holistic way of looking at a child’s dance process, not just developing their skills, is what makes us unique.”

Coats believes the artistry found within ballet is exactly what makes kids want to come back to camps every year. Campers learn how to connect with the music and how to move their body with it. In the process, they develop a love for dance. 

It’s not always easy to keep young kids focused and engaged, of course. 

“One child might have a preference for learning skills, one child might want to play, one child might really want to be with friends,” said Coats, who tries each day to include something to appeal to every type of child.

Coats begins with the energetic and exciting work in the beginning of camp, and later follows up with more of the artistic part of the class, when campers are relaxed and more likely to work independently.

Ballet for boys, too

While the St. Paul Ballet camps are gender-neutral, there is a special Boys Club for ages 7–11 offered in partnership with Element Gym, which is on site. Boys can come by for a free drop-in Saturday class to learn ballet and strength-training exercises. 

Greenwell said it’s a great opportunity for them to learn something new and interact with many other boys their age. 

“We have seen many of our boys go into the pre-professional division,” Greenwell said of the ballet’s year-round curriculum-based program. 

A deeper lesson

When it comes to finding the ideal educational activity for kids, ballet pretty much has it all, Greenwell said. 

“It has art and athleticism; it empowers children to be expressive, be their own leader; it teaches musicality, working with the others in their class and following instructions from positive role models,” she said. 

Dance teaches kids how to be expressive while still being controlled and structured.

It’s also, of course, device-free.

“Screens are a huge concern for child development, but when a child is training as a dancer, they are not in front of technology,” Greenwell said. “When you are dancing, you are unplugged.”

Dance allows many kids to just be themselves. But it also can provide an opportunity for kids to develop a fulfilling long-term creative outlet. In fact, many of the campers go on to take classical ballet classes for ages 7–18.

“We hope the children gain a broad knowledge base of dance in the young-dancer programming,” Greenwell said. “This includes musical rhythms, spacial awareness, who is next to them and what direction they are facing — and especially how the music makes them feel.” 

Ballet, unlike many other activities, Greenwell said, has the power to be an international language that children can appreciate and carry with them their entire lives. 

She said: “It may not be for everyone, but it is global and really expressive.” 

Abby Doeden is a journalism student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has been dancing for 14 years.