A dancer's dream
● By J. Chambless
Paige Young, 18, knew from the age of 3 that she wanted to be a ballerina.
When she was 3, Paige
Young knew she wanted to be a ballerina. Now, at 18, she is putting
in the tough work to pursue her goal.
During an interview at Philter in Kennett Square, Young recalled that she was definitely the one who got the ball rolling with her early career decision. “I was the one who approached my mom when I was 3, and she put me in my first dance class,” she said. Her parents signed her up for dance classes at Longwood Performing Arts, where she loved wearing leotards and having her hair done up, as well as the early dance exercises, such as skipping across the studio. She and her older sister started out, but her sister lost interest after a year.
“Someone gave me a DVD of the New York City Ballet's 'Nutcracker,' and I remember watching that. It's Balanchine's 'Nutcracker,' and that's the same program that Pennsylvania Ballet does now,” Young said. “Watching that was my first experience with real ballet. To be in 'The Nutcracker' now is coming full circle.”
Young was a student at Longwood until her sophomore year of high school, 2014. “I knew if I wanted to pursue a career in ballet, I had to go somewhere I could take more classes and focus on being pre-professional, like The School of Pennsylvania Ballet,” she said. In her family, Paige is the only one with an artistic side. “I'm the odd one out,” she said, smiling. “Both my parents are in the sciences, and my sister, too. Science is something I enjoy as well, but ballet has always been my thing. No one in my family has even been in theater, or anything like that. Dance has always been uniquely me.”
In her sophomore year at Unionville, Paige started commuting to Philadelphia to take part in the ballet training program. Last year, her senior year in high school, she danced during the day, took evening classes through Drexel University's High School Scholars program, and graduated with her class at Unionville in June. While her grades were good enough to get her accepted to Carnegie Mellon, Young's focus is on making her dance dreams come true while she can.
“At Longwood, I had done a little bit of everything – jazz, tap, contemporary, a little bit of hip-hop,” she said. “We got a nice, diverse training, which is pretty valuable in the ballet world. Now, I focus on ballet, but we do get contemporary three times a week, which I really enjoy. Contemporary dance uses a lot of the same technique, but it's much less classical and structured. Having contemporary dance experience makes you fearless when it comes to learning new things and new choreography.”
Dancers are typically hired for a year-long contract, and companies then decide whether to renew the contract at the end of the season, Young said. “I'd love to dance at Pennsylvania Ballet, because I've grown up there, and I think it's a really great company. They have really amazinh repertoire, they bring in different choreographers, they do both classical ballets and newer stuff, which I also enjoy. It would be a really exciting place to dance,” Young said. Young passed rigorous auditions to be admitted to The School of Pennsylvania Ballet, and is now selected as a trainee, which sounds like it's still the bottom rung, but is actually the top level for students and the first step toward becoming a professional dancer. “The hope is to get a job after a traineeship,” Young said. “Usually you're a trainee for a year or two. Then you possibly join a second company or studio company. There's typically a big audition process when dancers go to New York or Philly, or you can also send out videos and resumes and hope that someone has a contract that they can offer you.”
While she has a place waiting at Carnegie Mellon's engineering school when she's ready, Young is seizing the moment, living in Philadelphia, and taking part in the intensive ballet training program this summer. “It was a 9-to-5 day or a 10-to-5 day, depending on the day of the week,” she said. “We had a technique class first, for an hour and a half or two hours, then we had a variety of different classes – a pointe class for the girls, the boys have classes to work on different skills, and then we'd have 'variations,' where you learn short pieces from different ballets. We would have pas de deux class, which is partnering between boys and girls, and we end the day with repertoire, where you learn a piece from a famous ballet. It's a lot of material to learn in a short amount of time, but I really enjoy that rehearsal process.”
Learning and retaining choreography “is a matter of muscle memory when the music comes on,” she said. “A lot of it does come back quickly, like you might remember the lyrics of a song. Learning choreography is a skill you have to develop, because as you get older, they're going to throw it to you faster and see how fast you can pick things up.”
Pain is a familiar companion, she said. “You wake up every morning and there's a different thing that hurts,” she said, smiling. “But it might be gone the next day. It's always something. But we do a lot of maintenance work, rolling out and stretching. There's a certain amount of pain that you have to go through to get better,” she said, adding that “you have to know your breaking point and know when to rest” to prevent a serious injury. As a dancer, Young said she is attuned to how muscles work best. “You spend so many hours a day looking at yourself in a mirror, studying where your body should be,” she said. “A lot of the corrections that teachers will give you in class have to do with specific muscles, like using the muscles underneath your legs rather than the muscles on top. It does become second nature as to which muscles you should be engaging. It gives you insight into your body and how it works.”
As a student, Young has worked with professional dancers. Her favorite memory was doing “The Nutcracker” for two performances last winter. “I grew up watching it on DVD, and it's such a big production – the sets are beautiful, the costumes are beautiful. I did 'Waltz of the Flowers,' with beautiful pink costumes,” she said. The slot opened up with only about 10 days until opening night, although rehearsals had stretched from October through December. “I was lucky to do anything,” she said. “It was very cool to be dancing on stage with the professional company members you look up to,” she added, admitting that “nerves are a part of it when you're in a production that big.”
In the school'sl showcase performance, she paired with a male dancer for a pas de deux. “I had never done a big partnering section on stage with a boy before. It's a different skill, because you not only have to do your part, but you also have to trust your partner, that they're not going to drop you, and that if something goes wrong, you'll work it out together. I enjoyed that a lot.”
She has also understudied other dancers for another Pennsylvania Ballet show, which means learning everything for a role without actually stepping in front of an audience. “Even being selected to do it was an honor. It was privilege to learn,” she said of her work with former dancer Victoria Simon for George Balanchine's “Western Symphony.”
“We had 10 minutes of extra rehearsal time one day, and she said, 'Let's work with the understudies and see what they can do.' That was nice. She didn't have to do that, to give us some attention and be sure we had it down,” Young said. “That was a cool experience, to be there and learn it at the same speed as the company – about two weeks. A lot of times you see the end product on stage and you don't realize how much hard work went into it. To be there and see what obstacles they overcome was great. Even professionals struggle, but it comes out stage-ready in the end.”
The instructors “are definitely tough on us, but that's necessary,” Young said. “That's what is going to make you better. But they're also there to provide emotional support when you're frustrated. We have a variety of teachers in different styles, so it's cool to learn from teachers with different backgrounds. Everyone has a different way of teaching and giving corrections, so there's something to be learned from everyone.”
Young shares an apartment in Philadelphia with two other Pennsylvania Ballet dancers while she's studying, and said, “it's a lot of hard work, but that's one of the reasons I enjoy it. All the discipline and the training that go into it is what makes it such a challenge. It's always a process, and there's always more to improve. It's good to go in every day and get better.
“Perfection is not attainable in ballet, but the time on stage is the big reward,” she said. “A lot of dancers will say that. It's a lot of work for a short amount of time on stage, but if you're making someone feel something while you're dancing, that's a really gratifying experience.”
To contact Staff
Writer John Chambless, email firstname.lastname@example.org.