Mt. Lebanon resident studies at top ballet school in New York City
Anyone with just a cursory knowledge of professional dance should recognize the name of George Balanchine, the choreographer who co-founded the New York City Ballet and affiliated School of American Ballet.
Among his students was Kay Mazzo, a principal dancer for the company for two decades. A few years before his death in 1983, Balanchine invited her to teach at the school, where she now is co-chairman of the faculty.
And among her students is a Mt. Lebanon resident.
Dana Carskadden, 15, attended the school’s five-week summer course as one of 220 dancers chosen from a pool of some 2,600 applicants. From there, her instructors selected her to stay for the full-time winter term, an honor bestowed on only 25 students.
“We liked what we saw, so we thought, there’s potential here for this girl to be a professional dancer,” Mazzo said. “It has to be your passion, because you have to be able to concentrate and work so hard at such a young age. And she’s been able to do that.”
Dana’s passion for dancing started when she was about 4, her interest having been piqued by her older sisters’ participation. She eventually attended the Ballet Academy of Pittsburgh in Castle Shannon, working with directors Lindsay and Steven Piper.
“They were great. I loved my teachers. They really pushed me and gave me a lot of corrections, and helped me get to where I am today, which I’m really grateful for,” Dana said.
The academy has an annual spring trip to the Big Apple, and one such journey gave the daughter of Robert and Lisa Carskadden a sense of direction for her future.
“I went to see New York City Ballet for the first time when I was 8 or 9, and I loved it,” she recalled. “I just knew I wanted to go there.”
Having seized her opportunity to attend the School of American Ballet, Dana has a disciplined schedule. From 8 a.m. to 1:15 p.m., she has academic classes at the Professional Children’s School, a five-block walk from where she is living in New York. Ballet instruction starts at 2:30, and she dances for an hour and a half to three hours, depending on the day.
“It was a hard transition at first, moving into a new city, a new school, a new ballet school,” she said. “But I was able to move past that and get acclimated.”
At her level, the focus is on training rather than performing.
“One thing that makes SAB different from a lot of ballet schools is that we’re very serious about the mission to prepare these kids for a professional career, and that means really focusing most of their time on working in the classroom,” Amy Bordy, the school’s director of public relations, recruiting and outreach, explained.
“So when Dana becomes an advanced student, she’ll have the opportunity her last two years here to be in our year-end show, a fully professional show with live orchestra,” she said. “We want Dana to be able to perform when she’s 25, so the focus is getting ready for that, as opposed to just being onstage all the time now.”
As for the young dancer’s abilities, Mazzo mentioned Dana’s “turnout,” then elaborated on the term for the non-ballet-savvy:
“In ballet, you have five different positions that you work from. And in order to do them, you have to be able to turn your hips out, so that you can get your feet in these very awkward positions.”
Mazzo also recalled aspects of Balanchine’s instruction.
“He really made us all understand that the most important thing about dancing is the music, and you have to be in time with the music. And if you’re not, then you’re not really going to be a dancer,” she said. “You can learn musicality, or it’s just innate in you. I’m not sure which Dana has, but she definitely is musical.”
As both an alumna of and instructor for the School of American Ballet, Mazzo can attest to its rigor.
“It’s not an easy life, but if this is what you have to do and you want to do it so badly, you’re happy to be here.”