Master Class Time with Principal Dancer Evan McKie: How my Son Got me Over My Scared Adult Ballet Self.

Master class pliés, Walter Carsen Centre, Studio Prima.

Master class pliés, Walter Carsen Centre, Studio Prima.

Ballet can be so incredibly intimidating.

Especially when you start out as an adult. You have to not only learn the technical and artistic side of it - but also sort of “decode” the whole ballet party. Like: Knowing class etiquette. How to stand in pictures. What to wear. How to have conversations. Not to clap between groups during exercises. And so on. Being late to the party means you’re breaking into this whole world of rituals, traditions, manners, conventions, old networks and relationships. You’re basically learning a new language (even literally).

It’s easy and normal to feel lost at times. Or often. It’s hard on the ego to feel absolutely clueless. Sometimes you may not even be sure if you should really be there, among all the other dancers’ skill and grace.

And then you take a masterclass, taught by a principal dancer of one of the most renowned ballet companies in the world.

That’s basically what happened to me last week. Evan McKie from the National Ballet of Canada taught a class “for dancers ages 14 and older with an intermediate level of training or higher”. At the NBC’s In Studio adult ballet program. Not your regular masterclass, though - this one would be in front of a paying live audience!

Well ok, it didn’t just “happen”. When the announcement came out several weeks in advance, I bought my class spot right away, just so I wouldn’t spend weeks trying to decide whether I should go or not. And with so much time before, it didn’t even feel scary yet.

It was only on the day of the class that I started wondering whether this was sane in any way. Whether I was not being a bit overconfident in my abilities. Horror scenarios of slowing down the whole class spiraled through my head.

On the way to the studio, I started recording videos for my Instagram Story. Just so I would really go. After all, I couldn’t possibly post my walking to class and then not have any class pictures to post for later.

Secretly, I was thinking about maybe getting a picture with Evan McKie after class, and then post it on Instagram, too. How cool would that be. But unfortunately, I don’t work this way. The idea of taking a picture with someone I don’t know, just because he is a famous and gorgeous ballet dancer, and just taught our class - I don’t know, it feels so…awkward. Wouldn’t that be a bit childishly fan-girly, for a 41-yr-old? I didn’t see how I would get over my shy/scared/too respectful self and just ask for a picture together.

As it was a Sunday, my 12-yr-old son came along. Which is not really ballet-related, as he is not interested in ballet at all. But little did I know that he would actually teach me one of the most important ballet lessons that day. (Oh, and he would also single-handedly get me that picture.)

Here we go, entering the holy halls of the Walter Carsen Centre, the home base of the National Ballet of Canada. I have taken class here many times before, but never before in such a nervous state. Luckily, first thing I run into Kate Kernaghan, the director of the adult program, and first thing I ask her is whether I should really be here. “Of course!” she says. The way she said it, spontaneously, encouraging, with her usual radiating energy and smile, not flinching at all - I think she was not just trying to be polite. I decide to believe her. So part of my nerves calm down.

We are quite early, which is not typical for me, but with my son in a wheelchair and not knowing the studio/barre situation, I wanted to give myself time. Kate leads us into the studio, and what do I see? Young, perfectly-trained students of the National Ballet School of Canada occupying the first barre spots. The ballet elite of Toronto. Great.

I find a good spot close to my son’s seat in the audience - which basically also means that I am on the outside of the barre closest to the audience. Great way to calm my remaining nerves! But at least I have space for my long body and do not run the danger of kicking another dancer during grand battements - in front of a live ballet class audience.

Evan McKie arrives, and both Kate and him welcome the class. Oh my god. So one of my ballet teachers had told me to expect a really beautiful, tall dancer - and I had obviously seen pictures/videos, and possibly one performance (don’t remember exactly) - but Evan in real life, this close, was, like, Jesus. Picture the most handsome human being you have ever seen. Then double or triple that - and you get Evan McKie. And his whole posture, the way he moves even when not dancing…there was definitely a lot of grace and gorgeousness to process during the preparatory exercise.

Which brings us back to class. So first of all, for all of you who thought about attending the class and didn’t, or those that are considering taking it in the future: I was NOT the only adult ballet dancer in a group of NBS students. It was actually a perfect mix of young students, and then adult ballet dancers of all ages and skill levels. I saw some familiar faces from my previous classes, yay! We are all so brave. The barre combinations were manageable enough for me so that I could actually work on my stuff, finding my body - and not just play catch-up with the steps. If you have a few years of ballet experience, you should be mostly fine.

Center got a bit more challenging. Still mostly simple combinations as far as steps, but more demanding in terms of coordination, strength, balance - or skill in general. I felt a bit more rushed than at the barre, but still in a way that allowed me to work on my “points” (finding hips, back, toes etc).

Courtesy of Kate Kernaghan

A few mishaps - like, just when I prepared to go for this great pirouette diagonal which started with three piqué arabesques (a beginning which I absolutely adore!) it turned out that I had missed all groups! Or during the grand allegro, when it was a saut de chat after the tombé pas de bourrée - and I remembered the chat, like, half way through my grand jeté. So I ended up with a mix of saut de chat and grand jeté, which of course looked like nothing. Right in front of Evan and the audience. I couldn’t help but laugh after I touched the floor again.

Ok and there was one thing I completely fell out of: 2 piqué turns + 2 counts chainés, four times to one side, then the same to the other side, repeat twice per side. All en manège. Evan refered to it as circus, and that’s how it felt to my brain. But I think he meant “circus” in the skillful way. Anyway, it was too much for me - but I tried to still find something in it. I would just focus on the piqué turns, and then step aside for the chainés so nobody would have to go around me. I also watched Evan’s impeccable and relaxed spotting as he demonstrated the exercise - I am a big believer in learning from observing.

Courtesy of Kate Kernaghan

And the audience…I definitely felt more observed/under scrutiny than in a regular class, but after a while I came to appreciate it. What a great opportunity to practice doing ballet in front people watching! While still trying to focus on your work and enjoy yourself. I would not want this in every class, but once in a while it is for sure a chance to grow. And this audience was definitely a loving one!

I must say that Evan was an excellent choice for teaching this first In Studio master class of the season. He had a calm and warm demeanor all the way throughout class, which helped me not get lost in the grandeur of the master environment. And it seemed to make everyone else comfortable, too. I was actually quite touched by the togetherness of elite ballet students, adult beginners, and everyone in between. I am super grateful that I got to attend class with students who are on their way to become professional dancers - a rare opportunity and another chance to learn from observing!

Courtesy of Kate Kernaghan

Courtesy of Kate Kernaghan

Class was followed by an interesting 30 minutes of Q&A. Evan was really generous with his time - even after the final applause, he stayed around for questions and photos, until we were all kicked out of the studio. But he continued chatting and answering questions, even in the hallway, making sure that he touched base with everyone who wanted.

I went over to my son after the official 30min Q&A, and started layering back up, gathering our stuff, packing his phone and headphones that had gotten him trough class. I had hoped that he would take pictures of me at the barre, for the Insta fame, but his interest in ballet is so underdeveloped, that he pretty much forgot about it. (To be fair, he did record a few random videos before class had actually started. Ok, and one from the preparatory exercise.).

My son and I ended up standing among the group of remaining spectators and students in the hallway. I was thinking about my dream picture with Evan, but still felt way too embarrased to ask. Felt a bit envious of everyone else who didn’t have the same scared adult ballet self and just got their picture. I awkwardly fidgeted with our jackets, sort of packing and unpacking them, unsure whether to put them on and leave or stay and listen to the conversations that were still taking place. My son was calmly sitting in his wheelchair, but getting eager to leave. Evan was talking to some people about his time in Stuttgart….when suddenly my son lit up.

He turned to Evan and with great determination simply jumped into the conversation. He asked about Stuttgart and said with great joy that we were from Germany! Evan turned to him warmly and curiously, and I explained, a bit apologetically, that we were from Munich. Upon which Evan switched to an almost accent-free German, and continued our little chat flawlessly in our mother tongue. (Which, of course, added a bit to his gorgeousness.) We had a really nice conversation, and I could feel how my son’s ease, and his pure joy about the German chance encounter helped me get over my shyness. My son didn’t care about any ballet etiquette, conventions, or that he was talking to a principal dancer - he just saw a super friendly guy who spoke German with him!

And then the little miracle happened: In a way, our little chat hat formed a real connection. And suddenly I knew: This picture needed to happen, and my son needed to be in it. Now it felt absolutely natural and no big deal to ask Evan if we could take a photo, all three of us together! Of course he said yes. A nice lady from the remaining spectators offered to take the picture.

And then my son said no. He just didn’t want to be in the picture! I laughed. I knew I wouldn’t be able to convince him on the spot.

But Evan did. He smiled at my son, jokingly refered to our German connection - and immediately, my son was back in.

Evan McKie and us, completely unfiltered.

Evan McKie and us, completely unfiltered.

I love the picture. Not only as a memory of a special class experience, but also because it reminds how much of ballet’s pedestal aura can be just in your head. After all, we are all just normal people. Some of us got into ballet at a younger age, some later. Mistakes come and go. Sometimes you fail big time, sometimes you rejoice and grow. We all share the struggles, and we all look for connections. On some ballet photos you will stand in a beautiful B Plus position, in others you will more casually gather around a brave boy in a wheelchair.

Note to self: If you can get over yourself juuust a little bit - ballet can be a lot less intimidating.

Thanks to Evan McKie, Kate Kernaghan, all participants, spectators - and my son!

Courtesy of Kate Kernaghan

Courtesy of Kate Kernaghan