At long, long last, I have some really superb advice for all the boys attending summer ballet intensives. Actually, any boy attending any type of summer dance intensive will benefit from the advice offered by ballet great Rasta Thomas.
I first “discovered” Rasta after I’d actually seen him perform as Eddie in the national tour of the Twyla Tharp/Bill Joel hit musical Movin Out. I was interviewing Dennis Nahat, artistic director of Ballet San Jose, for my book on mentoring boys who want to become professional dancers, and he suggested I also interview Rasta. He mentioned that while Rasta had not taken his advice and joined a ballet company, he was doing a pretty good job of making a living as a “free agent.” Indeed, he has and still is doing just that. And while he’s gotten more than his share of accolades as a ballet dancer, he does way more than ballet these day–and he encourages other male dancers to do the same. You can see this in the repertoire of his company, ”Bad Boys of Dance.”
Though a Californian by birth, Rasta spent his early years in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Trained at the Kirov Academy in Washington DC, under Oleg Vinogradov, Rasta made dance history as the youngest recipient of the Jury Prize at the Paris International Ballet Competition in Washington DC, the Junior Gold Medal at Varna at fifteen and the coveted Senior Gold Medal at the Jackson International Ballet Competition when he was only sixteen.
Appearing as a guest artist with the most prestigious ballet companies throughout the world, Rasta has appeared with the Kirov Ballet in Russia, The Joffrey Ballet in Chicago, the K–Ballet in Japan, Lar Lubovitch, Complexions and American Ballet Theater in New York, Universal Ballet of Korea, Alonzo King’s Lines Contemporary Ballet in San Francisco, and the Beijing Central Ballet in China to name a few.
In 2007 Rasta debuted his own company, Bad Boys of Dance, at Jacob’s Pillow. This dazzling, high energy, all male company combines the best of ballet, Broadway, Tango, and Hip Hop to showcase male virtuosity at its best. You can read more about Rasta here.
If anyone knows what boys go through as they make there way in the world as dancers, Rasta does. And if anyone can given them advice about a ballet intensive, Rasta can. So, let’s hear what he has to say. (I’ve left his comments in a simple Q & A format, so you can really “hear” Rasta speak.)
What is the first thing you would suggest boys do to prepare for a summer intensive, such as those run by American Ballet Theatre or San Francisco Ballet?
They can prepare themselves mentally. The first step is to approach anything new with an open mind. You are going there to learn, and you are going there to be challenged.
If you are willing to spend your “summer vacation” at a ballet intensive, and this isn’t something against your will, you are already far ahead of pack. That shows your determination and your love of what you do in a profession that is quite painful. It shows that you want to prevail and use your body in a way that thrives and lives in you. So, I think the mindset you are in is already appropriate, because you are agreeing to do this summer program and you want to do this summer program.
Beyond that, the next step is to figure out what you are hoping to get out of the summer ballet program. It will be what you predestine the experience to be. If you go there to learn, if you go there to be competitive, that’s what it will be
Also, if you go there looking for insight into your future, you can get a first hand experience of what the next step may be. This will allow you to find early in life what that yellow brick road is for you. That can be very educational. Everyone at the summer program is just a student, but the next step is an apprenticeship and then core and then soloist and then principle.
A summer program allows for an amazing amount of information to be downloaded if you’re open to it. If you go there being shy and bashful, or whatever your inhibitions are, you’ll need to abandon those. You need to say, “I’m here to learn.” Don’t judge yourself. Don’t think you are not good enough even if there is someone better than you. Think, “I’m going learn. I’m here because my parents sacrificed for me, my teachers sacrificed for me, and I sacrificed for myself. This is where I’m supposed to be. If you go into it with the mentality of “I’m going to benefit from this the most I can every single day, and you live, sleep and eat ballet, you will get tenfold more than other people will.
So, that’s the first step: mental preparation.
What’s the second step?
Before they go, they must get in the best physical shape they can. Whatever their syllabus or regular routine is, just push it even more. Take twice as many classes. Stretch a little longer.
A lot of times, dance classes don’t prepare you for dance itself. Class is more strength and conditioning training then stretching. I always say, ‘In dance you have to stretch your potential in addition to strengthening your potential.’ There’s a lot that can be done outside the studio. For this reason, I would say stretching, stretching and stretching are the keys. And if you’re flexible already, then spend time strengthening, strengthening and strengthening. If you are somewhere in the middle, then focus on both flexibility and strengthening before you go to the summer program.
Focus on your feet and your legs as well as on the other parts of your body. Know what your weaknesses are as well as your strengths, and specifically practice what you are bad at in preparation for the summer program.
Are there specific things that the boys can do in addition to taking class to get in great shape for a summer ballet intensive, such as cross training?
Cross training is a given. Dancers in general need to cross train. The boys have good weather on their side right now, so swimming is a great activity. Tennis and basketball are good. Even jumping rope is good. Jumping rope for 10 minutes a day will do wonders. Practicing variations is good, too. Strengthening, stretching (or flexibility), cardio, and repetition (of whatever the step is, such as a pas de bourrée, passé, or pirouette)—these are the four fundamental things they need to be doing. In terms of repetition, they need to do every step 10,000 hours each. To become good at anything you have to put in 10,000 hours—not consecutively, of course.
Since their dance programs might have tapered off by this time of year, which means they might not actually have access to as many dance classes just prior to going to their summer ballet intensive, what else do you suggest boys do to get in shape?
[Rudolf] Nureyev used to take ballet class at the back of the airplane. All you need is a little ledge to hold onto. You don’t even need a perfect surface. Don’t do anything that is going to make you hurt yourself, of course. There is always something you can practice. Do the exercises of the dance syllabus outside of class even if it is just moving your arms and your head. You don’t have to be in a structured class with a teacher giving you exercises. That’s the reason you had ballet class for the whole year—so you can do it without the teacher. You are your best teacher. Pull those things out of classes that you want to improve on, and do them in the living room in front of the mirror. Do relevé at the grocery store in line.
Class may have tapered off, but there are many hours in the day to be used—maybe not to take class but to improve your instrument.
Will boys do more jumping, turning, partnering at a summer intensive?
Is there anything they should be doing to prepare for those moves and activities in particular?
For partnering, it’s always about lifting, so they should be doing push ups, sit ups, handstand push ups, pull ups, leg squats, and any resistance exercises, such as using dumbbells for their biceps and triceps.
For turns and spins, it’s just repetition.
For jumps, you need every muscle in your legs to be strong to jump as high as you can. So, exercise all the different muscles.
Are there some particular exercises you would recommend?
You can break down every point of the body and do exercises for strength and flexibility. For the feet and legs in particular, here are a few.
To strengthen the ankle, lie on your back and do 30 circles with your ankle clockwise and counterclockwise. Put your thigh at 90 degrees perpendicular to floor and your shin and foot parallel to floor. Hold knee in place and turn your ankle 30 times in each direction and then move it 30 times like gas pedal up and down.
Stand up and do sets of 16 or 32 relevé and eleve to work your calves. And the same with leg squats. Do this every day and build up to 50. It should hurt every other day. There should be a little soreness and then a little recuperation. Scientifically, you have to damage and injure your muscle for it to grow. If you aren’t sore the next day, you didn’t push hard enough.
Picking up pencil with your toes strengthens the toes [and actually most of the foot]. Use a Coke bottle or Perrier bottle and flex your foot and point your toes, and then roll your toes over and back over the bottle. Keep the toes pointed the whole time, but flex the ankle. That works the arch.
Sit with your feet under the couch to stretch your feet.
Do your splits every day—two minutes a day in each split. If you can do them already, put a phone book or couch under your front leg.
If you don’t have your splits, take a warm or hot bath. When you get out, put on two pairs of sweats, sock and a hoodie, and stretch while the muscles are warm. Massage as you stretch. You can also get up against a wall and in a side split straddle. I also used to lie on my back like a frog and put my legs in a double passé position.
Not surprisingly, there’s more to this interview than what I’ve posted here. So, keep a look out for Part 2 coming soon, in which Rasta will advise boys on what they should be doing once they actually arrive at the summer ballet intensive.