Category Archives: The Academy

The Clara Diaries

By Jessica Pino, Senior Manager of Audience Engagement & Marketing

Ballet Austin has a total of 186 dancers performing The Nutcracker every year. This includes 44 professional, apprentice & training dancers, and 142 student dancers from the Ballet Austin Academy. A role that many little girls dream of dancing is that of Clara. Meet Madeline Casas, a Ballet Austin Academy student, who is dancing the role for the second year in a row as she talks about what it’s like dancing this role alongside Ballet Austin company dancers.

Creative Ballet at the Ballet Austin Academy

by Joan Wolfe, Creative Ballet Curriculum Director

Creative Movement

Group of Creative Ballet students ready for the new school year. (Photo Credit Jessica Pino)

Group of Creative Ballet students ready for the new school year. (Photo Credit Jessica Pino)

What is creative movement? I get asked this question often. With 30 years of teaching experience I have many thoughts on the subject and I’ll get to those in a minute. But recently I’ve been asking parents what they think creative movement is, and what it does for their child.

Parents mention the physical benefits—coordination, balance, and strength. Some feel classes help their child get a head start on becoming a dancer. But what I hear most often is that they are unsure what creative movement is. They simply know their child loves to move and they love Creative Ballet. And by the look on their faces during class, they do!

To this list add social and emotional benefits, children learn best in groups. They connect, interact, learn to share, respect others and respond to what they see. They experience the boost in confidence that comes with, “What a fun idea—I’ll try that again!” and, “I did it!”

There’s also cognitive development, the relationship of movement to intellectual growth. Movement can provide the connection between an idea or problem, and the outcome or solution. This is often referred to as kinesthetic learning and is being modeled in educational settings around the country.

There is another area of movement research that’s in its infancy—the study of movement on neural patterning or brain-compatible dance. The BrainDance developed by Anne Green Gilbert is one such approach. I have included the BrainDance in my curriculum since I was introduced to Anne several summers ago. Ballet Austin has supported me in attending her workshops where I continue to receive information about the mind/body connection. I’d like to share with you what brain-compatible dance education is and how we use it in your child’s class.

Creative Ballet Curriculum Director Joan Wolfe with a group of Creative Ballet students.

Creative Ballet Curriculum Director Joan Wolfe with a group of Creative Ballet students.

The 8 BrainDance Patterns

  1. Breath
  2. Tactile
  3. Core-Distal
  4. Head-Tail
  5. Upper-Lower
  6. Body Side
  7. Cross Lateral
  8. Vestibular

The 8 activities in the BrainDance are based on the 8 movement patterns all humans will experience in the first year of life. These movement patterns develop the foundation of all human movement and hardwire the brain for future learning. Moving through these patterns on a daily basis after the first year of life continues to support brain and body development in the areas of:

  • Sensory-Motor Development; eye tracking, balance, fine motor skills, gross motor skills, focus, sensory integration, and memory.
  • Increased flow of blood and oxygen to the brain.
  • Increased core strength, postural strength, and coordination.

At the beginning of each class, we explore each pattern by integrating dance concepts and using a variety of movements, dance games, songs, and props. This allows for a balance of repetition and imagination that keeps children engaged.


How the Patterns Develop

  • Babies do their own BrainDance very naturally in the first twelve months of life, especially if placed on their tummies as much as possible during infancy.
  • Baby’s first breath starts the wires growing from the brain cells.
  • Tactile stimulation begins with the first touch of skin on skin and is essential for promoting appropriate behavior and emotional and social intelligence.
  • In the first two months of life, the baby will reach into space in order to connect with her environment and curl back into the womb position, demonstrating the core-distal.
  • At two months, the baby has better head control and will lift and turn the head in both directions continuing the head-tail pattern begun at birth.
  • Discovering the upper and lower body halves comes next as the baby pushes with the arms and hands and then with feet and knees.
  • Between five and seven months, the baby reaches with one side of the body, moving the left half of the body as one unit and then the right half. As the baby crawls on her belly she will develop horizontal eye tracking.
  • Between seven and nine months, baby pushes herself up onto hands and knees and begins a cross lateral reach from the upper body. Vertical eye tracking is part of the growth triggered by creeping on hands and knees. The convergence of horizontal and vertical eye tracking is essential for reading. From one year onward cross lateral patterns appear in walking, running and eventually skipping.
  • The vestibular system begins developing in utero and continues to be very active through the first fifteen months as baby rolls, crawls, creeps, sits up, and walks. The vestibular system analyzes movements through the whole body, helps us know where we are in space and links up to all forms of sensory information. This very important system is used when we read, hear, speak, touch, balance, and move. Every movement stimulates the vestibular system which stimulates the brain.

I know firsthand the joy children experience when dancing. Now we can explore the fascinating science behind the dance.   If you would like to find out more, please visit:

Amazing Babies Moving
Creative Dance

Parent Watch Week

To see the BrainDance in action, as well as all the other amazing things your children do, mark your calendars for our first observation day during your child’s regular class time the week of October 19 – 24. Families welcome.

Tips For Ballet Austin Academy Parents

By Bill Piner, Academy Director 

About Page

Ballet Austin Academy students (Photo Credit Travis Tank)

It’s finally here. After a long hot summer—okay it’s still really hot, but go with me on this—the first day of fall Academy classes has finally arrived! Don’t get me wrong, taking a little break is nice, but it’s always exciting to see everyone return with fresh new leotards, enthusiastic smiles and lots of energy. Old friends are reunited, new ones are introduced, and parents and students alike are surging through the building anxious to find their new studio and meet their new teacher. It’s truly a sight to behold.

What to Expect

The main thing parents should prepare for these first couple of weeks is a little anxiety. Getting to know your child’s new teacher(s), and getting comfortable with a new schedule and class dynamic, can be a little stressful for parents as much as children. So breathe and know that Ballet Austin staff is here to help and support you. We want everyone to feel comfortable so that the focused, hard work ahead can be accomplished to your child’s fullest ability. It will take some time for things to settle down, but after the first few weeks, everyone should be acclimated to the new rhythm of the school year, and the apprehension will be replaced with eagerness for the year of learning ahead.

Separation Anxiety

In addition to the usual start-of-year jitters, sometimes our youngest students can experience some separation anxiety. I want to share some valuable insight from Joan Wolfe (Miss Joan☺), our Creative Ballet Curriculum Director…

“On occasion, in my 3-year-old classes, children will have trouble separating from their parents for the first time. It can be traumatic to be apart from a parent, but an experienced teacher will know what to do. I have seen situations where teachers carry the crying child into the classroom with the hope that they will acclimate. I’ve also seen parents get angry and force their child into class. Neither scenario is acceptable. While there is no one correct response in dealing with this situation, there are several things a teacher can do to ease the transition.
1) Have the child sit near the teacher.
2) Have a cute puppet to divert their attention and engage them.
3) Suggest they arrive early to help set up the classroom.
4) If nothing else will work, invite the parent to come into the classroom, and even dance with the child if necessary.
It is amazing how soon a child will be ready to have their parent transition out of the classroom once they’ve gained the teacher’s trust.”

Group of Creative Ballet students ready for the new school year. (Photo Credit Jessica Pino)

Group of Creative Ballet students ready for the new school year. (Photo Credit Jessica Pino)

This is just one example of the level of experience and professionalism that continues to make the Ballet Austin Academy a very special place for your child to grow and learn. I am so proud to work with this dedicated and talented group!

Traffic, Access, and Parking… Oh My!

The elephant in the room, the EVIL WORDS around town, the things we’d love to ignore… but can’t. As much as I, and everyone else connected with Ballet Austin, would like, we simply can’t make the construction on Mopac—or 3rd Street, or any other artery leading to Ballet Austin—go away. It’s just a part of living and working in one of the most vibrant, dynamic, and creative cities in Texas.

An important item I want to stress is to please try make every effort to be here on time. But if you are stuck in traffic, do not stress, or stress your child out about it. We are very aware of this challenge and we’ve instructed all our teachers to allow for late arrival and incorporate late attendees into class in the timeliest and safest way possible. My most sincere hope is that these inconveniences will not keep you from providing your child the quality instruction and professional environment that can only be found at Ballet Austin Academy.

The drop-off route for parents. All routes in red are open for through traffic ONLY.

The drop-off route for parents. All routes in red are open for through traffic ONLY.


For parents of students enrolled in Levels 2-8 of the Lower and Upper Schools, being able to audition for Ballet Austin’s professional production of The Nutcracker is a benefit that is available exclusively to you and your child(ren). It’s an exciting opportunity and prepares students to see first hand what it takes to perform on stage. As a parent, it’s important for you to not only be supportive as physically—by accompanying students to rehearsals—but also mentally as this should be a fun learning experience! Click here for more information about the audition process.


Ballet Austin Academy students can audition to play the role of angels in Ballet Austin’s production of the Nutcracker. (Photo Credit Tony Spielberg)

A Special Thank You to Parents

Our students are our most valuable resource and the dedication you as parents show on a daily basis allows us to continue on our mission to inspire the next generation to develop strong bodies, a sound sense of purpose and a passion to excel. Thank you for supporting your child in her or his training, and for supporting Ballet Austin in our effort to supply the best experience possible. Together, we will continue to get stronger, grow and improve. Here’s to another great year at Ballet Austin Academy!

Spending My Summer Vacation With Ballet Austin

By Bill Piner, Academy Director  

Ahhh… Summertime in Austin. The time when everything slows to a crawl. The sun is high in the sky and temps top 100. Everyone heads to the lake, or to cooler climes in northern states. You would think it would be nice and quiet at 501 W. 3rd St. But you’d be wrong.

Summertime is actually one of the busiest seasons at Ballet Austin. Classes at the Butler Center for Dance & Fitness are packed 7 days a week for the entire summer and the Academy’s Senior Summer Intensive Program brings students from as far away as Japan and Panama to Austin for six weeks of intensive study and potential job opportunities.

Ballet Austin Summer Intensive Level 8 (Photo Credit Anne Marie Bloodgood)

Ballet Austin Summer Intensive Level 8 (Photo Credit Anne Marie Bloodgood)

Each summer, after a 27 city audition tour, over 250 students descend on Austin.
They come here to take part in a program that is designed to improve their individual dance skills. For the post-high school crowd, they audition for a coveted position in Ballet Austin II, Ballet Austin’s paid apprentice company, or the Butler Fellowship Program, a nine-month, intensive training program that provides 15 talented students the opportunity to train at Ballet Austin tuition-free.

A Day In The Life

This is a very concentrated and intensive time for the Academy. From 8:45am to 6:15pm the studios are filled to capacity with some of the most focused young adults you will find. From my office I can look into the Armstrong/Connelly Studio. Right now the Level 6 dancers are learning a piece of original choreography from Company Dancer and Academy faculty member, Christopher Swaim, which they will perform at a small performance at the end of the session. Chris’ choreography pushes these young dancers to new limits and challenges them to take risks and find new strengths.

For the highest levels it’s all about learning what’s unique about Ballet Austin and assimilating. Will they be accepted into the year-round program or not? Will this be the next step in their personal and professional lives or not? There is a lot riding on these few weeks and it can be a nerve-wracking experience.

“I chose to spend my summer training at Ballet Austin because I was looking for an opportunity to further my dance career. Having just graduated from high school, I wanted to come to a program where I could possibly stay for the 2015-2016 season, and I knew that Ballet Austin could provide an opportunity for me. Ballet Austin’s summer program has reinforced the technique I know, expanded my artistry and allowed me to think differently about my dancing. Not only have I grown as a dancer in just four weeks, but I have also met new people with whom I have become extremely close. My classmates and I have had different yet relatable experiences. Even though some of us may be competing against each other to get a position as a Fellow or Ballet Austin II member, we all share one similar trait: the love for dance. This similarity allows for friendships to be created which aid the extremely memorable and enriching experience here at Ballet Austin.” –  Kayla Hallman

Kayla will be joining the Butler Fellowship Program in August.


Associate Artistic Director Michelle Martin correcting a student’s position. (Photo Credit Anne Marie Bloodgood)

I choreograph on the two youngest levels in the program, where they are still struggling to find the control over their bodies that will enable them to make the prescribed shapes of classical ballet. The pace is slower, but the sense of accomplishment is just as great. When the entire group performs for an audience of their peers (final rehearsal on performance day is performed in front of the other levels in the program) and the cheers of approval erupt, I’m reminded why I chose this profession. This struggle, this mastery, this acceptance is something they all can relate to and it seals a bond that will stay with these young artists well beyond their six weeks in Austin.

Teaching (Photo Credit Anne Marie Bloodgood)

Bill Piner, Academy Director, rehearsing with Level 4 student for upcoming Summer Intensive performance. (Photo Credit Anne Marie Bloodgood)

These bonds and friendships, challenges and growth, fun and hard work, all combine to make the Summer Intensive experience one that will live with these dancers forever. This is a huge commitment and requires dedication and sacrifice from the entire family. This is another aspect of the program that I find inspiring – the fact that parents will do everything in their power to provide the best for their kids. And the fact that these kids will take that challenge and some of them will become professional dancers. Over 70% of Ballet Austin’s professional company of dancers started right here in the Summer Intensive. For them, and many others, the sweating, struggling, laughing and learning ended with the ultimate goal, a professional contract and the realization of so many dreams and aspirations.

This is how I’ve spent my summer for the past 24 years. It may not be as relaxing as going to the coast, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything!

Ballet Austin Academy Open for Registration

Fall registration for the 2011/12 Academy school year is in full swing, and the Academy has something to offer every student, beginning as young as even 3 years old.

Creative Movement classes, designed for children ages 3-5, take the approach of “creative play” and are designed to hone motor skills, while educating children on movement. Classes meet once a week and offer “movement stories and ballet-based activities” appropriate for both boys and girls.

When children turn 5, they and their parents are given the option of moving onto our Pre-Ballet program, which is open to children ages 5-7. Pre-Ballet is more structured than creative movement, and serves as a transition between Creative Movement and when formal training begins at age 8, in Level 1.

In both our Creative Movement and Pre-Ballet programs, faculty in the Ballet Austin Academy place high emphasis on curriculum and age-appropriate teaching. Through these classes, we provide a place for children to not only have fun, but also take the opportunity to prepare themselves for a quality dance education. We believe that upholding excellence and professionalism starts with providing quality dance instruction at the youngest age possible.

At age 8, students may join Level 1 in the Lower School, marking their first step to professional ballet training. This age and level also mean another very special landmark: the age where Academy students have the opportunity to be cast in The Nutcracker! Each year, over 200 Academy students are cast our annual production exclusively.

If you are interested in enrolling your child, please check the Ballet Austin Academy‘s website for more detailed information, including new student registration forms.

Please note: students new to Ballet Austin but with prior experience, who are 8 and older, are required to attend a placement class. Dates, times and other important details are below.

Placement Class:
August 20, 2011
Ages 8-12 | 2-3:30pm
Ages 13 and older | 3:30-5pm
Note: Please arrive 30 minutes early for check-in

First Day of Class:
August 29, 2011


Photos by Anne Marie Melendez.

Summer Intensive: Week Three… Wrapping Up Session One – Pt. 4

This is the last in a four-part blog series about our annual Summer Intensive program. This week, our Associate Artistic Director Michelle Martin discusses the mindset of students and BA artistic staff during the last week of Session One.

As we move into the third week of our Summer Intensive, there is a noticeable shift in the energy and pace of our studio process. The end of this week marks the close of the first session and there is a heightened sense of urgency, both in preparations for the performances on Friday, as well as the departure of some of our students.

Mr. Mills and I have spent the last 2.5 weeks teaching, rehearsing and observing our students and have started to compile a short list of dancers who we think would be a good fit for our Trainee Program or for a contract with Ballet Austin II. Though the extended audition process is understandably nerve-wracking for the students, it gives us the opportunity, in essence, to “read between the lines” of a dancer’s nervousness. We have begun to recognize which elements, both positive and negative, are most representative of each dancer’s work on an ongoing basis, an assessment that is highly significant when we are considering an extended commitment.

Those who are departing at the end of this session will have a conference with me before they leave during which I will talk to them about what possibilities are likely for them here. Though our short list is a clear sign that we’ve begun to discern our strongest candidates, definitive offers, particularly for Ballet Austin II contracts, will not be made until we are midway through the second session. This not only allows fair consideration of dancers who we will not see until Session Two begins next Monday, it also affords the opportunity for first session dancers who continue into the second session to assert themselves. Every year there are at least one or two students whose work in the final weeks of the program substantially distinguishes them, and they end up with an invitation to stay at Ballet Austin for the year.

The second round of students will will arrive this next Monday, beginning their registration and placement classes in the afternoon. We look forward to meeting them!

Summer Intensive: Week Two… And Counting – Pt. 3

This is the third in a four-part blog series about our annual Summer Intensive program. This week, our Associate Artistic Director Michelle Martin, took some time to detail what our Artistic Staff looks for from students during the intensive.

It’s hard to believe we’re already half-way through the first session of the Summer Intensive and well into the process of selecting dancers for our year-round programs. Students in Levels 7 and 8 who are, at a minimum, seniors in high school are eligible for consideration for either our Trainee Program or a contract with Ballet Austin II (BAII), our second company/apprentice program. Our Artistic Director, Stephen Mills, and I are committed to identifying and inviting dancers who are a good fit for our programs, meaning that they will benefit from their experience here, and Ballet Austin will benefit from their contribution. There are many factors to consider, starting with a solid foundation in classical ballet technique. Many of the dancers who come here have had training in a ballet curriculum that is different than the technique and aesthetic that we teach. Training is usually quite firmly entrenched in muscle memory and it can be challenging to adjust to the new concepts that we introduce, so much of what Mr. Mills and I are assessing is a dancer’s willingness to explore, and capacity to adapt to other ideas. To help us evaluate this more quickly, all of the Level 7 and 8 ballet technique classes are taught by me, Mr. Mills or our Rehearsal Director, Allisyn Paino.

In addition to strong classical technique, a contract with BAII also requires that dancers have an interest and a developing aptitude for contemporary movement, particularly as it relates to Ballet Austin’s repertoire. This is easiest to assess by having the dancers learn, rehearse and perform some choreographic excerpts from our work. As the dancers learn the material we are able to glean a lot of important information. Beyond capability with a particular movement style, we can get a sense as to how quickly a dancer learns, how they observe and absorb nuance and detail, and how independent they are about refining what they’ve learned. We can also see how they interact in a collaborative environment – with their peers, with a partner – as well as how they approach the rehearsal process.

This process of selection is challenging on both ends, for the dancers who are participating in this ongoing audition, and for those of us responsible for program placement. We are evaluating technical strength and physical conditioning, personal motivations and work ethic, and the subjective considerations of artistry and aesthetic. Though it’s not easy, it’s a method that has created opportunity for many dancers and for Ballet Austin over the past decade, and we are committed to continuing this process for each new group of Summer Intensive dancers.

Summer Intensive: Day in the Life – Pt. 2

This is the second in a four-part blog series about our annual Summer Intensive program. This week, I shadowed summer intensive attendee Nicole Douglas, 18, who joins us from Ashland, Massachusetts. Nicole auditioned for the Ballet Austin Summer Intensive in New York City, and will be with us for the remainder of the summer participating in the 6-week program. I spent Wednesday photographing Nicole during her day at Ballet Austin. Here’s what she had to say about her day:

My schedule at Ballet Austin differs a little every day. We have ballet class each day, and then go into a variety of other classes ranging from Pilates to technique-focused dance classes. Yesterday was an especially long day because I had pointe, Pilates and then a two and a half hour repertoire class all following my daily ballet class. My day started around 9:45 when I arrived at Ballet Austin and found an empty studio in which I could warm up.

Around 10:30, I went to ballet in the AustinVentures StudioTheater. I really like our daily ballet class because it provides the opportunity for me to focus mainly on my technique. Stephen Mills teaches a very different style of ballet from what I am used to, but I am really enjoying this new style and am happy to be re-training my body to do new things. We also do center of ballet class on pointe, which at times can be difficult but I know is really beneficial for me. Pointe class is pretty basic, but I like it because it sets aside time for me to focus on really working through my point shoes and articulating my feet more.

In the afternoon after lunch, I went to Pilates. I loved our Pilates class yesterday because I love working my abs! The Pilates class here at Ballet Austin is very intense but it is SO good for my body that I don’t mind.

Until now, almost all of my training has been based in classical Ballet, so going into the repertoire class I didn’t really know what to expect. By the second time I had the class, though, I had fallen in love with it. Yesterday we worked with choreography from Ballet Austin’s 2010 production of Carmina Burana.

Summer Intensive: It Begins! – Pt. 1

This is the first in a four-part blog series about our annual Summer Intensive program. This week we wanted to give you a run-down on how the program works, as well as why it is so valuable – both to us and the dancers which attend. Please check back each Thursday to see more behind-the-scenes coverage including day-in-the-life features, as well as posts by our artistic directors regarding their processes. We hope you enjoy!

Starting next Monday, our halls will be overrun with nearly 300 ballet dancers who will arrive for the first leg of our nationally-recognized Summer Intensive. Ranging in age from 9-22, these serious ballet students are split into either the Senior or Junior Summer Intensive programs depending on their age.

The Summer Intensive program is the culmination of an annual 30-city audition tour which takes place the winter prior to the program. This year, we are so pleased to welcome students from 36 states and 4 different countries into our home!

Ballet Austin Summer Intensive

Summer Intensive is incredibly important to both ballet students and our company. Whether students stay for three weeks or six, they leave the program having greatly improved their skills and technical abilities. Aside from this obvious benefit, however, the program also allows our own artistic staff to select students for our Ballet Austin II Apprentice and Trainee programs. The three and six-week programs allow us to observe the students’ work ethics and styles, ensuring our ability to select dancers who be a great match with our company.

Over half of the current professional Company dancers have been through BAII – a program where dancers come and live year-round and work in-residence at our studios. Dancers may only stay in BAII for a maximum of two years, after which they may be invited to join our Company, or otherwise will move somewhere else to continue their career development.

Summer Intensive 2011 starts this Monday, and we cannot wait to meet everybody! Check back next week for a day-in-the-life feature of one of the participants!

For more information the program, please click here. See you next week everyone!

Who says the telephone party line is a thing of the past?

Ever since Alexander Graham Bell transmitted his voice into the back room of his science lab, the telephone has been a necessity of life. Back in the day, I remember my grandma sharing a phone line with many of the folk from her small town in eastern Washington; the telephone party line. Party lines were not always a party; people could listen in on calls (what we call eavesdropping), and they had to compete for phone time with the entire town. Telephone party lines as they once were known may be a thing of the past, but every spring I experience a different sort of telephone party line.

Beginning the first weekend in January Ballet Austin artistic staff travel all of the United States to audition students for Ballet Austin’s Summer Intensive.  They see hundreds of students from coast to coast. My favorite part of this process is when they come home. I am handed a white binder containing the names of everyone who auditioned. I am the bearer of good news, “you have been accepted…” That’s when the party begins! Who doesn’t love to give good news? I am no exception. This year I talked to about 500 students to let them know that they are invited to attend Ballet Austin’s Summer Intensive. When I share the news with them in a personal conversation over the phone, a simple call becomes a celebration; a party. 

From Dunwoody, Georgia to Kenosha, Wisconsin; from Port Moody, British Columbia to Miami, Florida; from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine; the telephone party line is almost always the same. Screams, tears, and cheers from excited students rejoicing over the news. Some respond in disbelief, some in relief, but all with appreciation and anticipation as they look towards summer. Countless hours of class, miles traveled to audition, passion, dedication, and commitment bring opportunity for summer.  For the student it’s all about dance. For me, these telephone parties are just the beginning of new relationships; an opportunity for Ballet Austin to reach across 50 states. Who says the telephone party line is a thing of the past?