SAMANTHA SHELTON is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at Alma College in the Theatre and Dance Department, where she also co-directs the Alma College Dance Company. She received her professional training from the Joffrey Ballet and the David Howard Dance Center in New York and in Michigan with Rose Marie Floyd. She has also trained in London with Anita Young, former soloist with the Royal Ballet and at the Cecchetti Summer Program in Chichester, England. For the past fifteen years, she has been on the ballet faculty for American Ballet Theatre Summer Intensive, teaching, setting ABT repertoire and choreographing new ballets for the final performance at the Detroit Opera House. She has also taught and choreographed for the professional ballet program at the Walnut Hill School in Boston, directed by former ABT principal, Michael Owen and was on faculty at the Interlochen Arts Academy for three summers. Recently, she was invited to choreograph a new ballet for Wayne State University and to set her ballet “Two Seasons” on the dancers at Grand Valley State University. She has performed extensively in both classical and contemporary ballets, including the Grand Pas from Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, Don Quixote, also principal roles in Giselle and Raymonda. She had been on the ballet faculties at Wayne State University and the Detroit Opera House, where she was the artistic director for the Detroit Opera House’s Civic Dance Ensemble. Samantha holds an M.F.A in Dance from the University of Michigan, where she was awarded a Rackham Thesis grant, and a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Michigan. She has also done graduate work at New York University in Performing Arts Administration with internships in development and marketing at Carnegie Hall and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. Recently, she was elected to the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance Alumni Society Board of Governors and the Executive Board of the Michigan Dance Council. She is certified through the American Ballet Theatre National Curriculum Training Program.
dp: Congratulations on another ABT Detroit Summer Intensive! How many years has the program been running? How many students participate each year, and how many levels do you divide them into? Is the structure of the Detroit program quite similar to the NYC program, and to the others around the country?
SS: Thanks! This year was our 15th Intensive here in Detroit. This year we had 140 students; it hovers around there but has been as high as 165. We run for 4 weeks (the programs in CA, TX & AL are 3 weeks and NYC is 5), and we group the students into four levels now. It used to be five but we eliminated the youngest level, although we still do accept some 12-year olds and even a couple of 11-year olds, but they tend to be a little more advanced for their age. In Detroit the upper age limit is 18.
dp: In 2007 ABT announced the development of the National Training Curriculum. Who are the principal architects, and what was the genesis of it?What is the basic structure?
SS: Franco De Vita and Raymond Lukens developed the curriculum with the help of several others. Alaine Haubert, the Artistic Coordinator for the DSI, and Melissa Ann Bowman who now coordinates all the ABT intensives, both worked on it, and there is an advisory council whose members contributed too.I think there was a feeling that it was time for an American training method. Both men have thorough knowledge of all of the major world methods, and I think their goal was to sort out the various influences and come up with a guideline for American training in the 21st century. They use the Italian arm positions, body positions, and arabesques, but they incorporate information from both the Russian and French methods. It lays out the steps to be covered at each level of training and is very clear and age-appropriate, but does not specify how the teacher should combine steps, and it leaves plenty of room for teachers’ discretion about how to structure the material. It’s not a syllabus, but a set of elements to be taught and mastered at each level. And it does consider the technical evolution of ballet and how things have changed, but one thing that’s really interesting is that they include steps, mostly at the advanced levels, that are kind of rarely seen anymore, things that may have been in danger of being forgotten.
dp: Are there exams?
SS: There are. It is not mandatory, but schools can elect to bring an ABT examiner to their location.
dp: I understand that there is also information in the NTC that goes beyond steps. Tell me about this.
SS: Yes, the Advisory Board includes professionals from multiple disciplines and they have all contributed to the NTC: physical therapists, psychologists, sports medicine specialists, orthopedists. There’s a section on the psychological development of dancers, helping teachers to understand stages of development and how to best support the learning experience at different stages. For example, kids around age 5 respond really well to mimicry; they tune in to that. They also address physical stages of development, and the hazards of doing too much too soon. There’s nutrition information, and injury prevention. So it’s really well-rounded. In fact the title of the Teacher Training manual is ‘Training the Whole Dancer’.
dp: And all of the ABT intensives incorporate the NTC?
SS: Yes, all of the faculty has to be trained in the curriculum. And I think this is great for the students, because we all reference the concepts, there’s a lot of reinforcement. For example there are 10 Training Principles, and they support the work in the classroom, kind of tie it together. It makes for a really cohesive experience.
dp: Tell me about the teacher training
SS: They offer the training in sections every summer in NYC, and also in February. There are three sections: two weeks for the first one, classes 9-5 everyday including weekends. Then the second two sections of, I think, ten days each. You don’t take it all at once, you have to come back separately for the last section. There were maybe a hundred in our group, and the interest level seems really high. A few of us were already ABT intensive teachers, some were former ABT dancers, but mostly it was just teachers from all over the world who wanted to learn the method. Many were already certified in other training methods. There’s a lot of great detail work: for example, how to build the skills needed to execute a good assemblee – what exercises can you give to prepare a young dancer to learn that step. How to strengthen the legs, the feet in preparation for that…what are the components of it. Of course every teacher develops these ideas through experience too, but it’s great to have it all documented; it’s an incredible resource. Raymond Lukens taught most of our classes, and he has so much knowledge about all the steps, their various versions, and historical information about them, and it blends seamlessly; it’s really fascinating. Also, in the development phase they consulted with so many people, did research, integrated ideas, so it’s really rich.
dp: Is there an idea of establishing nationally-known standards, because in the US we’ve never really had our own?
SS: I think so. I think that one of the goals is to increase the general awareness of this training so that the public will recognize it as a valid credential, and its significance. By no means do I want to minimize the credentials and standards of those who teach the Cecchetti method, the Vaganova method, etc. It’s all valid. I think the goal with this work is to reach out to a broad base, make this accessible to everyone.
dp: Is there a revisions process, for periodic review etc., or it pretty much set?
SS: It’s open to that. It’s part of the reason they didn’t put together set combinations; they want it to be useful without being too rigid, so it can evolve.
dp: do you feel that the training has changed your teaching, and if so how?
SS: I think – I hope – that it has made me more thorough, and given me new insights about how to approach certain things. I really appreciated the affirmation of the importance of not rushing the training. Sometimes there’s such a push to do so much with kids, and the NTC is straightforward about this, about how it’s ok to just work for a long time to establish a good passé before working on a pirouette. And this is integrated with the data about physical development, so it’s very clear why there are some things that are inappropriate for, say, an 8-year old, things that could injure them. It’s really kind of a brave voice too, because they’re taking a stand on some controversial stuff.
dp: Thanks so much for taking the time to share this information
SS: Happy to!