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Mar 25, 2014 11:46 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Local Ballerinas Dance Their Ways Into Top Summer Programs

Mar 25, 2014 11:46 AM

Janie Mae Westergard took a deep breath and checked herself out in one of the School of American Ballet mirrors.

Black leotard, pink tights, pointe shoes. Her long mane slicked back into a perfect bun. She was pulled up, turned out and poised—but only on the surface.

The 14-year-old, who trains at Studio 3 in Bridgehampton, had begun to glance around. More than a dozen girls auditioning in the Lincoln Center dance studio looked just like her.

Or even better.

“Oh my gosh, am I okay next to her?” Janie Mae, who lives in East Hampton, recalled thinking at the wintertime audition in Manhattan during an interview last week. “Do I look okay next to her?”

Suddenly, she had an epiphany. And she made a snap decision.

“At the end of the day, you have to stop looking at everyone else and look in the mirror and say, ‘You’re good next to you,’” she explained. “You just have to be confident.”

Janie Mae had every reason to be. Her audition landed her a spot in the The Kirov Academy of Ballet’s six-week-long summer intensive in Washington, D.C.—one of the top, and most competitive, schools in the country—where she won’t be alone.

Two of her fellow Studio 3 ballerinas, 11-year-old Brooke Bierfriend and 14-year-old Chloe Gavalas, will join her at Kirov Academy in the nation’s capital this summer, while 16-year-old Rachael Pepper will pursue a three-week professional training program at The Gelsey Kirkland Academy in Manhattan.

This level of success is unprecedented for the Bridgehampton school, reported Studio 3 coach Meredith Shumway, whose mother, Diane, founded the studio 10 years ago.

“I think the reason this is happening now is because we’re reaching that stage, that level in the history of the studio,” Diane Shumway said.

Her daughter nodded and added, “For me, it’s really sentimental, especially for the girls who got into Kirov because that was my first summer intensive. For them to get in, it was a flashback to my training and my hopes and dreams of being a professional ballerina. It’s very close to my heart.”

Kirov marked the summer before ninth grade for Ms. Shumway, as it will for Chloe Gavalas. At her Manhattan audition, Chloe was more excited than nervous, she recalled. But now that she’s in, it’s the other way around.

“There’s always going to be someone better and someone not as good as you, but it’s a really intense program,” said Chloe, who lives in Bridgehampton. “My teacher got into it when she was my age and she said how it drilled you into being a better dancer. So I can’t wait to go. And get to do what I love over the summer. What I’ve loved for a very long time.”

Not every dancer falls for ballet immediately. Just ask Rachael Pepper, who saw dance as nothing more than “a little hobby after school” for a number of years.

One day, something changed.

“I realized I could be better and push myself harder and have more talent if I wanted to,” Rachael said. “So I started trying a lot harder and taking more classes. I just got really into it.”

To say that the Pierson High School senior is determined is an understatement. She skipped her junior year. She has already been accepted into the New York dance programs at Pace University, Manhattanville College and Marymount Manhattan College. And this will be her second summer at The Gelsey Kirkland Academy—founded by ballerina Gelsey Kirkland, who joined the New York City Ballet at age 15 and is perhaps most famously known for dancing as “Clara” in Mikhail Baryshnikov’s 1977 televised production of “The Nutcracker.”

“She was a really famous ballerina in her time,” Rachael said. “So it’s really kind of intimidating having her come and correct your arm or, you know, say your name. So I better be really good because she’s teaching me more this year.”

The four girls dance together at least 10 hours every week—in the studio every day, or while having fun and just being silly at an apple orchard or pumpkin patch during occasional field trips, Chloe said. Other than Rachael, who first picked up tap five years ago, they’ve danced about as long as they’ve walked, each starting at age 2 or 3.

Brooke Bierfriend, who is now 11, can’t even remember why she began ballet. But that doesn’t particularly matter. These days, the North Haven girl dances everywhere she goes, according to her mother, Annette. This summer, she will attend both Kirov in Washington, D.C., and the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Connecticut.

“I’ve been dancing for eight years,” Brooke said. “I guess the older girls inspire me and I look up to them.”

“She’s a natural at ballet,” Ms. Bierfriend added. “We have a picture of her from when she’s at, like, her second ballet class and she’s just standing in the mirror and she’s in this perfect little pose.”

“I remember doing that!” Brooke said.

“And it’s adorable,” her mother continued. “And she works very hard. She’s very talented.”

Brooke hopped up from her seat and in front of the mirror. “I was like this,” she said, her hand overhead and her left leg stretched out behind her. “My hair was in a ponytail.”

Janie Mae has similar dance memories from when she was younger, the most ingrained being her first “Nutcracker” at Lincoln Center—not far from where she stood 11 years later for her Kirov audition.

“I was 3 years old and it was the most phenomenal experience of my life,” she recalled. “I loved watching the dancers move because it just looked like they were floating through water. And I had this dream of being able to do something like that.”

Now, she is. And someday, Janie Mae could be on her way to that same stage. Next year, she is planning to attend The Nutmeg Ballet Conservatory of the Arts in Connecticut year-round.

“It’s hard to move kids on because we’re a second family to them,” Diane Shumway said. “But as hard as it is, that’s really our job as a training ground for them. It’s our job to say goodbye.”

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Studio 3 is an excellent dance school. Although I am a senior citizens, I take ballet class there regularly, having studied ballet when I was younger. As a kid in Brooklyn, I was incredibly lucky to have an excellent teacher and was also lucky to have studied in Manhattan schools as well. The dance education at Studio 3 is as good as any school I attended. I have been lucky enough to take class with some of these young ladies featured in the article, and I can tell you, over the last years, ...more
By Carole Campolo (46), East Hampton on Mar 27, 14 1:03 PM