Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's live-in students balance responsibilities
High school isn't the same for everyone. It's especially different for a small group of very talented and goal-oriented young people enrolled in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School's high-school program.
Most weeks, they work on their academics during a long midday break, between lengthy early morning and late afternoon dance classes, as well as in the evening. Nearly all study in cyber school or are home-schooled.
Twenty-one of the 28 full-time high-school students in the program live at Byham House, which opened in September 2010 as the residence for out-of-town students in the ballet program. At ages 15 to 17, they experience dormitory life, with young men and women on separate floors. There are house rules to obey, such as a buddy system for going out and procedures for checking in and out.
Students are accepted into the program through auditions, mainly through the ballet's national Intensive Summer Program audition tour, which begin every January. Full-time high-school tuition is $6,155. Room and board at Byham House, September to May, starts at $8,825 and includes meals.
Chef Jeffrey Greene prepares family-style dinners Mondays through Fridays and stocks the pantry with healthy foods. The students prepare their own breakfasts, lunches and weekend dinners.
But although these students feel extremely fortunate to be in the program, they're working toward much more fulfilment in the years right after high school. Professional ballet careers often begin in the early 20s, if not sooner.
Cameron Angeleri, 17, came from an alternative school-based education in his native Spokane, Wash. He's now a senior and in his second year taking high school at the ballet.
“It's a really good option to have, especially for younger people,” he says. “I've definitely grown at Byham House. It's about learning how to take responsibility for everything, including doing my own laundry. I'm very comfortable with the people in the house: good interactions, good environment, like a big community or a small town.”
Angeleri's cyber-school classes are in chemistry, civics, digital design, fine arts and elective credit in ballet.
“They have a virtual chemistry lab. We follow the same procedures you probably did in a real lab,” he says. The first part of the class was safety, because you can have a virtual explosion.
But, like all the others, it's the dance work he really values.
“There's so much in this program. You get so strong, so fast, because you're dancing so much,” Angeleri says. “I don't see how you could live in this environment and not see a lot of improvement in yourself. Everyone has good weeks and bad weeks. But my best classes now don't even compare to my best classes a year-and-a-half ago.”
Christian Garcia Campos, from Puebla, Mexico, is in her first year at Byham House. Both her parents are doctors who hoped she would follow in their path. But when her enjoyment of dancing, which started at 3, turned serious, they were supportive, including two previous visits to the United States to study dance.
“I've been an exchange student before, but not like this. Each of the other times I was living with a family, so this is really different,” she says. “Right at the beginning, I was nervous. I didn't know anyone, and there were people who knew each other. But I think I'm pretty good at making friends, so I wasn't too concerned.”
Campos, 17, takes a full course load at Obama Academy, part of Pittsburgh Public Schools — pre-calculus, English, Spanish, history of the Americas and biology. When she misses classes, as she will for the two weeks before “The Nutcracker” opens Dec. 5, she turns in the work later. She's maintaining straight A's.
“We've never had any issues with academics, except about five or six years ago with a boy who was quite young and not mature enough to keep himself disciplined,” says Marjorie Grundvig, co-director of the school with Dennis Marshall.
“If they live in Byham House, house manager Rishala Broughton keeps them on track daily,” Grundvig says. “And the parents, even though they're not here, are still overseeing their children. We're all doing everything so they can graduate and move on to the next level.”
Grundvig and Marshall usually don't get involved in academics unless a problem arises.
Most of the ballet's high-school students are on a professional track, according to Gundvig, and, after graduation, try to get an apprentice-type position where it would be a good fit to join a company, programs like Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School's graduate program. Some go on to college, often receiving scholarships for dance. And some go to college and major in another field.
“I certainly encourage them to take academics seriously,” Marshall says. “I was an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma school of dance for three years. I encourage them to keep a foot in the door academically because of the nature of ballet, with injuries and a number of things.”
Therese Cwenar, who lives with her parents in Point Breeze, has known she wanted to be ballet dancer since she was 9 or 10.
“I looked up to older company members and students and thought, ‘Wow!' I wanted to work toward that,” she says.
This semester, the start of her second year of cyber school, she's taking algebra, sports medicine, creative writing, health and government. A senior at 16, she previously studied at Central Catholic in Oakland.
“I study at the cyber-school studio on the second floor (at the ballet). It can be very hard to manage, especially during ‘Nutcracker' season,” she says. “You have to be very self-disciplined. I think that dancers as a whole, and especially ones living away from home, have to be more mature.”
Annie Martin, 17, has the lightest course load of the students at Byham House, just one English course away from graduation.
“My last year at public high school (in Lubbock, Texas), I took both junior- and senior-level classes,” Martin says. “It was extremely difficult for me, but I ended up with six advanced placements and made the academic decathlon.”
This semester, she's being cyber-schooled through her old high school with a teacher she knew but hadn't studied with.
Martin has lived in dormitories before when she took summer intensives, including at the schools of San Francisco Ballet and American Ballet Theatre.
“This is different because you don't go home after five weeks and regroup,” she says. “This allows for closer friendships. Going through a whole year with these people, you become close really quickly.”
Jack Hawn, 17, from Detroit, is in his third year at Byham House. He's home-schooled long distance, sending his work to his father who reviews it with family friends. He and his brothers are all home-schooled. This semester he's taking literature, mythology, physics and theology along with earning credit for his dance classes. In addition, Hawn is musically talented and gets a music credit. He's a pianist and composer who's written a ballet score for the school and hopes to finish a solo album this year.
He says he finds it “quite difficult” to manage everything.
“I usually have a chunk of time in the middle of the day, depending on how busy the week is, to do some school work,” Hawn says. “I get done what I can then but am thankful the home-school system allows us to work at night when we come home from the studio or on the weekend.”
He likes the freedom of home-schooling compared with cyber school.
“I think it is a more personalized learning experience, especially the way I'm doing it now,” Hawn says. “If I'm reading something for school that is interesting to me, or there's something in the physics text I think is cool, I can study more on it and it's still part of class, still part of the course. There are so many interesting things that are not included in your normal school system. Cyber school is more structured, more laid out, pretty obviously. It gives you a very clear idea where you are in the course and what comes next.”
Hawn is sure that living at Byham House, with all its concentrated academic and dance work, is an easier way to reach his life goals than attending a conventional school.
“I think it's valuable because it serves as a stepping stone from home life going toward living on your own,” he says. “It offers all the securities of living at home, as well as some of the luxuries and responsibilities of living on your own.”
Mark Kanny is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or firstname.lastname@example.org.