Ballet is hard. Just watch a room packed with 10 and 11 year old aspiring ballerinas trying to execute the same sequence of intricate dance steps in unison. It takes extraordinary skill, talent, artistry, technique, and many, many hours of practice for professional dancers to look as good as they do. So it seems ironic that so many little girls love wearing tutus and dream of becoming prima ballerinas. Only a handful will stick with it. Dedicated young ballet students in Colorado have a unique opportunity to learn and perform, and perhaps earn recognition for their hard work in the studio, at the annual Young Dancers Competition held in central Denver in early March.
The Young Dancers Competition is one of the longest running regional dance competitions in the country. Established by the Denver Ballet Guild in 1981, it is open only to Colorado residents between the ages of 10 and 18 years. Students come from studios located throughout the state to participate in Master Classes and perform in front of a panel of visiting judges to compete for awards. The Master Teacher always is a renowned, highly respected teacher and dancer working outside Colorado, and the visiting judges also are respected authorities in their field.
About 250 students participated in the Competition this year. Students between the ages of 12 and 18 performed a classical ballet variation, and finalists were selected in each age category to perform again in front of the judges and a paying audience at the Finals Showcase. The level of technique demonstrated on stage is impressive. “These are the most talented and gifted ballet students in the state. Ballet doesn’t get a lot of press. It’s seen as an elite activity, but it’s really more than that. It’s a way of life for people who participate. It’s not what they do, it’s who they are,” says 2016 Chair Kathy Konopka.
This year, $21,600 was awarded to the top finalists. Students use these performance awards to contribute to the costs of summer dance intensives or their regular studio fees. Pam Elliott, past Chair of the Young Dancers Competition, notes that “there is no other competition in the US that does what we do. It is also one of the few that gives scholarships for dancers to use directly for their training.”
The Young Dancers Competition is organized and hosted by volunteers from the Denver Ballet Guild, a local organization that supports and promotes all kinds of dance in the community through outreach, youth programs, and grants to professional companies. Pam Gatz, past President of the Denver Ballet Guild, has been volunteering at the Young Dancers Competition for almost two decades. “I keep coming back and doing the competition year after year because it’s such a good program,” Gatz says. “It’s like a family.”
The Competition itself is highly professional. Monica Hill, former ballerina with the Denver Civic Ballet and a 2015 Living Legend of Dance, has been the Artistic Director of the YDC for the past 18 years. Hill prepares the list of variations, invites the Master Teacher and Judges, and makes sure that every aspect of the event runs like clockwork throughout the weekend.
The Young Dancers Competition is an important milestone in the lives of many serious ballet students in Colorado. Isabella Boylston, Principal with American Ballet Theatre, won the Florence Ruston Award for Overall Excellence. So did Chandra Kuykendall, Principal with the Colorado Ballet. Other past winners of YDC awards have trained and performed with dance companies including Colorado Ballet, Boulder Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Boston Ballet, Sean Curran Dance, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Dayton Ballet, Tulsa Ballet, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, and North Carolina Dance Theatre. A few top winners have founded dance studios in metro Denver, including Alison Jaramillo (Littleton Dance Academy), Michelle Dolighan-Rodenbeck (Classic Dance Academy) and Chandra Kuykendall (Denver Academy of Ballet). Many past winners now train their own students to compete in the YDC.
This year’s Master Teacher was Ms. Chan Hon Goh, Artistic Director of Goh Ballet Academy and Youth Company Canada in Vancouver BC. Ms. Goh is a former Principal Dancer and Prima Ballerina with the National Ballet of Canada. She has been called the quintessential classical ballerina, with a long and varied list of achievements and prestigious awards in the arts. Ms. Goh taught five Master Classes at the Young Dancers Competition, and held Q & A sessions with each age group after class.
Presenting Denver caught up with Ms. Goh before the Final Showcase on Sunday. Here is what she had to say about her experience working with Colorado students and what it takes to become a professional ballerina.
What were some of the highlights of the weekend?
When I teach, I get a chance to feel the energy from the students. It’s really positive to see how much they want to learn. Their attitude is inspirational and makes me want to give more. It definitely was a jam packed weekend, but with each class and new group of students coming in, I saw how they were ready and eager to absorb and ready to try it. That in itself is a real compliment to the level of dancing here. What your teachers are instilling is an openness to learn. I really applaud that. Teachers have lots of responsibility and difficult jobs. For me, coming in and just teaching one or two classes at a certain level allows me to see the hard work that they have put in, and it’s very joyous.
What advice would you give to the dancers at the competition?
I always like to instill some realism into their self awareness. I told a group of 14 and 15 year olds how important this is. At every stage, people will tell you what you can do better, how to do it right, what you are doing wrong, even if you are a big, big star. You need that critical feedback and honesty from your coach, teacher, director or choreographer to get better. But we are all human beings and sometimes you can get defeated or deflated. But that’s all part of the process. Remember, they only tell you those things because they believe you can do it. Don’t be smothered by the criticism or lose your self confidence. Everyone goes through this.
I think it’s important to tell students that they are exceptional individuals, having to balance their academics with intense ballet training. They are giving up a lot, but they need to fight and keep going. Believing in yourself is really important. Self motivation and hard work are key. Don’t be too superficial. Have self confidence but remember that self confidence is different from ego. For younger students, self motivation and hard work are key. A sense of realism and perspective and a good support system also are really important.
What do you love about teaching?
I love it when I can make a difference in the quality of a student’s dancing. I try to give as much as I can to each individual, and not give the same correction to everyone. The best part of teaching is when something I have said, or a metaphor I have used, changes something in what the students are doing and helps them to dance better.
Why do you dance?
I dance because I love moving and expressing myself to music. I always needed to dance. My parents wanted me to be a concert pianist. I enjoyed dancing a lot more, and I asked to focus on dancing because of the self expression. I loved being able to make characters come to life and to make interesting things happen on stage. I loved taking the choreographer’s or director’s vision and bringing it to life. I also love to explore and put in something of my own
whether it be syncopation or a deeper meaning or emotion. After I became a more mature dancer, after having been a principal for a few years, it became really fun to revisit my earlier roles and bring something different to the story. Also, the partner you have can help you feel the story differently or shine a different perspective. The coach you have is really important. The people around you who you are dancing with are really important. I have been so fortunate to have tremendous artists to learn from. I always kept a very open attitude. People can sense if you are not open. An open attitude is important and people are more generous about giving you advice if they sense you are open to it.
Is there anything else you want to say about the Young Dancers Competition?
It’s a terrific opportunity. The process of working up to performing a variation is so good for a dancer’s development. To have this platform that the Ballet Guild presents to go out and dance, in front of real professional judges who are current and working and decision makers in the industry, giving this feedback, and marking their work, is a rare opportunity. You can’t find that in many places. This competition is very pure to the original mission. It’s fair and nonbiased and there is no glitter or tiara to hide behind. It’s just about the dancing. It’s wonderful.
Hilary Simons Morland: Hilary is a freelance writer and grant-writer, and writes often about dance. She is a lifelong aficionado of the performing arts, and studied dance through college. Hilary is a Denver Ballet Guild Board Member and Adjunct Faculty at the Colorado Women’s College, University of Denver. In the past, she has done fieldwork on lemurs and monkeys, coordinated conservation programs in Africa, and been a stay-at-home mom to three children, one of whom is a dancer. Hilary is a California native, and has a BA from Reed College and a PhD from Yale.