A Chat with Shayna Skal

Q: Could you tell us a bit about your training and career and how they’ve influenced you as a teacher?

A: I started ballet like a lot of young kids do– my mum had an energetic four-year-old on her hands and she wanted to get me into some sort of activity. I fell in love pretty quickly! I trained at the Charlotte School of Ballet under Gay Porter and Bridget Young, following the Royal Academy of Dance and Cecchetti syllabi.  Every year, a set class and proscribed variations would be learned, practiced, and finally performed for an official examiner, who would grade us and determine whether or not we could move up to the next level.  It’s not the most common method of training in the States, and when I presented  for examination I had to travel to Toronto, since I was the only American to try for it that year.  I supplemented this with a variety of summer programs, with the Atlanta Ballet, LINES Ballet, Burklyn Ballet Theatre, and others.  I also danced with the Charlotte Youth Ballet, which each year presented The Nutcracker and a full length ballet in the spring.

While I adored ballet, I’d always been told, implicitly and explicitly, that I would never be a professional dancer– I simply didn’t have the natural facility.  I straight-up failed my Solo Seal exam, for which a “Pass” indicated the examiners’ belief that one could secure a contract in a classical company.  Luckily, I was also passionate about my academics, so I matriculated at Harvard University, majoring in Physics with a minor in Mathematics.  This was actually the turning point for me; as weird as it sounds, I’d have never been a ballerina if I hadn’t gone to Harvard.

While I was at Harvard, the dance program was strictly extracurricular.  I was constantly at the studio, either in class or in rehearsals for the Harvard Ballet Company, a student group.  My sophomore year, I was warming up before class when the teacher, Tai Jiminez, former principal with Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Boston Ballet and a truly beautiful soul, came up to me and said, “You have the spirit of a dancer.  You need to try to do it.”  It was pretty much the first time I’d gotten that support.  My junior year, Jill Johnson, principal of the Frankfurt Ballet, took over as director of the dance department.  She opened my eyes to entirely new ways of thinking about movement, and seconded Tai’s message.  With their mentorship and support, I decided to go for it, and, after graduation, I signed a contract with Teatrul de Balet Sibiu in Sibiu, Romania.

TBS was a small company, but a magnificently international one.  I had coworkers from Brazil, New Zealand, Japan, Israel, all around the globe!  We performed constantly, from the classics to original contemporary works.  I left midway through my second season due to ill health, but have such affection for the company and everyone there.

I came to the New Orleans area, moving in with family as I got well again.  Since then, I’ve been free-lancing in the area and am so glad to be dancing again!

My experience has given me an appreciation of approaching dance from multiple angles.  My early training was English (RAD) and Italian (Cecchetti), while college introduced me to American and contemporary methods of ballet, and Teatrul de Balet Sibiu was heavily Vagonova in style.  Each method has a lot of information to give, and I firmly believe that students should be exposed to it all and figure out what works for them.  Similarly, I’ve come to appreciate different methods of pedagogy– some students respond well to the heavily analytical, discussing anatomy and physics, while others do better with imagery and metaphor.  It all has value and I try to present as much as I can!

Q: What’s your favorite thing about teaching?

A: I love seeing my students progress, making their own discoveries and breakthroughs!  When I harp on some nitpick-y little point and then come back the next class and see how they’ve internalized the corrections and worked it into their own practice, it’s so exciting!!!

Q: What interests do you have outside of dance?

A: I’m pretty nerdy.  I love science, especially physics, and constantly am reading scientific articles.  I also really enjoy listening to a wide variety of music, podcasts, and tons of NPR, being physically active, doing crosswords and other logic puzzles, and just wandering about and exploring places.

Q: What’s been your favorite moment as an artist?

A: It’s really hard to choose, but I remember a particular performance in Romania, dancing a contemporary pas de deux with my best friend in the company, on an outside stage.  We were moving through a lift, leaning over the edge of the stage into the warm spring night in front of this beautiful citadel in Alba Iulia, and I just felt such peace, joy, clarity, aware of and exploring every part of the movement, ever curious and connected with all about me.  It was magical, one of those moments you live for.

Q: Any quick words of advice to your students?

A: Feel free to be stubborn.  If you love something, dance or whatever, if it is worth the time, the frustration, the pain, emotional, mental, or physical, if the blood, sweat, and tears appear as nothing next to that ecstasy of what you love, then work to find a way.  It may not be obvious, it may not be prestigious, it most likely won’t be easy, but I swear to you it will be worth it.