The making of a dancer: Battaglia, celebrating 50 years of teaching, to give CDC lecture

With 50 years of experience in teaching, Maris Battaglia knows a thing or two about dance education.

Battaglia, associate director of the Chautauqua School of Dance, will share her knowledge with the Chautauqua community at 3:30 p.m. today in the Hall of Christ during her Chautauqua Dance Circle “Views on Pointe” lecture, titled “The Making of a Dancer.”

Battaglia became a dance teacher in the 1960s after leaving the School of American Ballet. She took over the dance school her cousin ran out of her basement. The school eventually grew into Buffalo’s American Academy of Ballet, and Battaglia has mentored thousands of students since then. More than 160 of Battaglia’s students have gone on to dance professionally on national and international stages.

The lecture demonstration will take the audience through the training of a dancer with students from the Chautauqua School of Dance and the American Academy of Ballet.

The youngest dancers Battaglia will bring from her studio are about 8 years old. They have only a year or two of ballet experience, showing the audience the start of a dancer’s training.

She will also bring both School of Dance Workshop II girls and boys, who are 13 and 14 years old, to demonstrate a slightly older dancer in the making. Battaglia choreographed a partnering section for these dancers to show the growth of a dancer as they move into partnering roles as well as the difference between male and female dancers.

A career in dance is easier to get into for boys because there are fewer who are seeking a career in ballet, Battaglia said. There are sports and other activities that compete for young boys’ time. The persistent stigma about boys who do ballet also deters some dancers from advancing to a professional level, she said.

“When you go to an audition there will probably be 400 girls, and you’ll be lucky to have 12 to 20 guys,” Battaglia said.

Battaglia will also have the older Chautauqua Festival Dancers and Company Apprentice dancers showing the progression into a professional-level dancer. They will include excerpts from last week’s performance with the Music School Festival Orchestra.

Many dancers begin to study the craft as young children, but few continue on to become professionals.

“At my studio, I have hundreds of kids who start in the beginning levels, but as it gets more complex and more demanding of their time, more of them drop out,” she said.

According to Battaglia, training to become a dancer is difficult because ballet technique often does not come easily.

“Everything we do in ballet is really working against nature,” she said. “We weren’t created to walk with our feet turned out like penguins.”

Battaglia will also discuss the dance world’s changing terrain.

“When I opened up my school 50 years ago, every little girl’s dream was to be a ballerina,” she said. “Now, every little girl wants to be a rock star.”

She attributed these changes to what children are seeing of dance on television, which includes more contemporary and competition-driven shows like “So You Think You Can Dance”  and “Dancing with the Stars.”

This has also caused a change in training for dancers today, Battaglia said. Dancers must be able to do a variety of dance styles, not just classical ballet.

“There aren’t pure classical ballet companies in this country anymore,” she said. “They all have to be able to do contemporary and other things to be able to reach an audience.”

The American Academy of Ballet prepared a celebration in May for Battaglia’s 50th year of teaching, which welcomed distinguished graduates of her school and faculty members of Chautauqua’s Dance Program.

Since she never had children of her own, Battaglia said she is lucky to have a job where she gets to work with them every day.