The alarm rings at 6 a.m. and it makes me jump up. My emotions are all over the place. As I get ready, I think about the day ahead, and how for the next four weeks I will get to dance for six hours a day.
Dance has been a part of my life since I was in the womb. This year I had the opportunity to attend the New York State Summer School for the Arts Modern Dance program for the second time.
NYSSSA is a summer program created to educate young artists who have a dedication to their craft. It is made up of seven schools – Ballet, Modern Dance, Orchestral, Theatre, Chorus, Visual Art and Media Arts. Young artists from across New York State audition and are selected to be trained at a professional level in monthlong sessions each summer.
NYSSSA Modern Dance started in 1989 under founding artistic director Carolyn Adams and Julie Adams Strandberg, co-artistic director. They both had danced during the time when the modern greats were just starting to develop the world of modern dance.
NYSSSA’s goal was to have a professional company in residence and have the students learn from them, as well as see the professionals’ process of creating their art.
The Modern Dance intensive is held at Skidmore College and National Museum of Dance in Saratoga Springs. Students stay at the college’s dorms.
"You’re learning from the best of the best – the artistic faculty is top notch, that’s our biggest advantage," said Molly Hennighausen, executive director of NYSSSA.
"Carolyn and Julie are very nurturing, not just to the students, but to the faculty and guests artist, as well. That nurturing goes outside the studio – it doesn’t just stop there," said Erika Pujic, choreographer and faculty member.
Each faculty member adds something new for the students to learn. Pujic, for example, challenges everyone to go out of their comfort zones and reach new levels in their dancing.
"Stay open and be curious, constantly, don’t let that hunger and that drive stop," she said. "Keep striving, that’s what this business is all about. You’re going to go through ups and downs, maybe more downs than ups sometimes, but if you have that passion and that drive and perseverance, that’s going to keep you going."
Pujic worked with Robert Battle (artistic director of Alvin Ailey) in his company Battleworks. Every year she stages one of his pieces using the NYSSSA students and then Battle watches the piece.
This year Pujic staged an intense, 15-minute piece called "Battlefield" that required a large amount of athletic ability, strength, and passion.
"I like how here they know you personally and they guide you. They know when to hold your hand and when to let go," said Julia Keys, a third-year student.
"Our goal for each year is to take the students to a place of discovery and have enhanced sense of relationship to dance," said Adams. "Each student reaches a place of epiphany – whether that be ‘I don’t want to do this’ or ‘this is my calling’ or ‘I had a great time and I learned.’ Self-awareness, improvement in ways of working, exposure in terms of choreography, knowledge about dance history, experience about how to collaborate, how to look at dance, how to understand choreography, perhaps make it, and to build a sense of community as you would in the actual field," she added.
The Modern Dance program is one of the few programs that allows returning students. This program allows the opportunity for each student to grow in different ways.
Hayley White has attended NYSSSA Modern Dance for four summers, and at the end of this season she received the annual Mae Banner Award given to one student in the dance program.
"I was not confident in dancing. There was so much I didn’t know. I’ve got better, but it’s not about that. I now have a better mindset," said Julia. "NYSSSA taught me to be competitive with myself in a way that’s healthy. It’s been this whole journey where I’ve improved not only physically, but mentally."
Julia is now attending Skidmore College as a freshman.
"This is the first program I’ve been to where I don’t want to leave," said Juliana Goldman, a first-year student.
Dance teaches life skills that will help students in the real world even if they don’t go into dance as a career. It makes dancers well-rounded people with advanced time-management skills.
"Dancers are the most desirable people because of the strong work ethic, and such intent in what we do, we’re such creative people," said Amelia Sikorsky, a first-year student.
"Usually when you don’t get one opportunity, opportunities will rise in the future, most of the time if you don’t get something it’s in your best interest. You might have to grow as a person or something and if you really, really want it, well then work harder till you get it. And don’t stop till you do," said Morgan Bearup, a first-year student.
The dance world is a very selective, but at my time at NYSSSA I soaked in a lot of advice that helped me overcome fear.
"Show up to class, pay attention, question everything, try to do everything that you’re told, but don’t take anything for granted, and ask yourself every day if you really want to do it. It’s for the individual to make that connection or not," said Adams.
NYSSSA is not just focused on artistic improvement – it builds character. It’s a very selective program, but worth the experience of auditioning because you never know what is going to happen.
"Just do it. Do it for experience. Don’t hold back anything," said Hayley.
"Take everything you have and stick it somewhere ... there’s going to be some time in your life you’re going to draw on that thing that you learned, whether it was related to modern dance or to life and you’re going to remember it and say this is when I can unpack it and use it," Hennighausen said.
"You have to listen to yourself and what is good for your body. If you enjoy dancing just go dance," said Elise Mumford, ADA of NYSSSA Modern Dance.
"Sometimes you lose the way you feel about dance, but think back on why you started and what made you want to continue. It’s important to remember why we started in the first place, and bring ourselves back in order to continue forward," said Lily Friedman, residential life staff member.
NYSSSA does not just train you for an artistic craft, it trains you for the professional world. The best thing NYSSSA teaches is that getting a college education in dance as well as another discipline is not impossible.
New York State Summer School for the Arts teaches its students to strive for excellence.
Amelia Waddell is a junior at Mount St. Mary Academy.