Catching the Ballet Bug

February 28, 2017

In 2012, the internet exploded over a YouTube clip featuring then–10-year-old Sophia Lucia executing 54 turns in tap shoes. Dance fans fell hard for the record breaker, who quickly rose to comp-world stardom. Fast-forward to 2016, when Sophia gave her Instagram followers déjà vu with 10 perfectly executed pirouettes—in pointe shoes. The comp queen had transformed into a budding ballerina. Sophia isn’t the first competition star to find her way to ballet, trading in a fast-paced life of commercial training and competing for days of quiet discipline at the barre. A growing group of talented comp kids are turning to ballet as their next big challenge.

Bring On the Barre

For dancers who reach the top of the commercial scene at a young age, studying ballet intensively can be a way to keep growing. After Sophia won Junior Best Dancer at the Dance Awards in 2014, she felt stuck. “I’d already accomplished so much in my commercial career,” she says. “I couldn’t just wait around until I turned 18 and could join a company.” Eager to keep learning, she moved away from her family and friends to train full-time at Master Ballet Academy in Scottsdale, AZ.

Kenedy Kallas competing at YAGP (photo by VAM Productions, courtesy YAGP)

Many successful comp kids are also blessed with ballet-friendly bodies. Kenedy Kallas, another Dance Awards favorite, followed her pointe-shoe-perfect feet to the ballet world with a little guidance from her mentors. “A lot of my instructors told me I had the potential to become a principal dancer in a classical ballet company,” she says. To realize that potential, Kenedy started training at Ballet West in 2015, and then enrolled at San Francisco Ballet School last year.

Tricky Transitions

The switch to serious classical ballet presents significant challenges for comp-world stars—which is a not-insignificant part of its appeal. Even if you can pirouette for days and battement yourself in the face, you won’t get anywhere without turnout. “Turnout is definitely a process,” says Sophia, who does daily exercises and Gyrotonic to improve her rotation. Impressive extensions and flexible feet are boons in both the comp and ballet worlds, but learning to harness those assets in the context of ballet, with its focus on precision and control, can be difficult. “I’m working hard to build the strength needed for pointe work,” says Kenedy, whose foot-taming routine includes private coaching and daily Thera-Band exercises.

Stage presence in ballet is also much more subtle, and learning to leave behind the commercial world’s emphasis on full-out, overtly emotional performances is another challenge. “It takes awhile to fine-tune the elegance and beauty required for storytelling in ballet,” says Master Ballet Academy director Slawomir Wózniak.

For many dancers, the emotional transition proves more difficult than the physical. Peter Stark, associate director of Boston Ballet II, points out that ballet lacks the reward system that’s built into the commercial competition world. “These dancers are used to learning hard choreography and receiving applause,” he says. “Ballet is much more introspective—you’re in class, quietly honing your technique.” And while contemporary choreography has enough “give” to mask some technical flaws, ballet’s super-strict technique forces dancers to come to terms with their imperfections. “You can’t fake anything in ballet,” Kenedy says. “You need to mentally accept that you’ll never be 100 percent perfect.”

Made for the Stage

Ultimately, though, strong competition dancers tend to take well to intensive ballet training. Wózniak chalks it up to stage presence, stamina and self-confidence. “These girls start performing at age 4, and they learn to be comfortable onstage in all kinds of crazy atmospheres,” he says. “And when they’re performing 10 times a day at a competition, they learn to maintain an effortless quality when their bodies are exhausted.” Stark also appreciates competitive dancers’ quick grasp of choreography. “They learn viscerally, by mimicking movement, which helps them physicalize difficult steps quickly,” he says. He also finds that their fearlessness translates well to the increasingly athletic style of today’s ballet choreographers.

Unsurprisingly, comp kids tend to perform well in ballet competitions, too. Sophia remembers her first time competing in the ballet world in 2015. “I was so nervous,” she says. But when she arrived, she was pleasantly surprised by the familiarity of it all. “Now, I know I can go to YAGP or IBC with no more nerves than I get at Showstoppers or the Dance Awards.”

Every dancer is different, but these two new ballerinas agree on one thing: It’s all been worth it. “I think it’s the most wonderful thing I’ve ever done for my career, whether or not I end up in a professional ballet company,” Sophia says. And is a professional ballet company the new dream? Not necessarily. While Sophia and Kenedy are open to whatever opportunities come their way, both would love to dance with Nederlands Dans Theater, which fuses classical technique with contemporary repertoire. “Being in a contemporary ballet company like NDT would be the perfect life,” Kenedy says.

Comp Kids in Disguise

Some of your favorite ballet pros got their start on the comp circuit, including New York City Ballet’s power couple, Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild; Boston Ballet’s Hannah Bettes and Dusty Button; and Norwegian National Ballet’s Melissa Hough. “Competitions not only taught me how to manage large amounts of pressure and stress in a healthy way,” Bettes says, “but also how to turn temporary failure into motivation for future success.”