Dance School Diaries star Sage Humphries talks competitive ballet
By Stephanie Wolf of Dance Informa.
Dance in general has been creeping its way into mainstream media over the last decade. But, in an effort to cultivate new audiences for an art form that tends to attract a demographic of older, more affluent audiences, ballet specifically has made a push to grab the attention of pop culture.
American Ballet Theatre’s Misty Copeland has appeared on major television networks after her release of her memoir, Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, Ballet West worked with the CW Network to create the reality series Breaking Pointe, and ballet dancers like Alex Wong and Eliana Girard were competitive finalists on FOX’s So You Think You Can Dance.
The latest to join the gain is Dance School Diaries, a docu-series on the YouTube network DanceOn that follows four pre-professional dancers and their families as they compete in the Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP).
Sage Humphries, 16, is one of the featured teens in the series.
Humphries trains at the Dmitri Kulev Classical Ballet Academy in Laguna Hills, California and is a veteran to the competition — she has been competing in YAGP since age 11.
The 16-year-old is hopeful the new docu-series paints a different picture about competitive ballet than past television shows, films or common perceptions.
She spoke with Dance Informa about her experience with YAGP, how she keeps her nerves in check and what’s next for the aspiring ballerina.
You first got involved with YAGP when you were 11. What led you to enter the competition that first year?
“When I was 11, my teachers, Michael and Kristine Houston and Terri and Anthony Sellars, encouraged me to compete in YAGP for fun. We never expected anything. But I loved the challenge of learning variations. At that age, I wasn't even nervous. I simply saw the competition as another recital, or large stage to dance on. I placed in the top 12 my first year, and was filled with a new encouragement and love for dancing.”
Six years later, what have you learned from your time at the competition?
“The competition and I have grown alongside each other. Each year, I learn something different about myself, and something new to work on. After that first year, I realized how much influence this organization had in the ballet community. Thus, the stakes were raised tremendously. As I grew older, I suddenly found myself competing against some of the biggest names in ballet, and it opened my eyes to the rising talent in the industry. This pushed me to meet the challenge, making me into a strong, yet poised, athlete.”
Then Dance School Diaries happened. How did you become one of the featured dancers on the docu-series for the web?
“Because I had competed in YAGP for all of these years, I had formed a very good relationship with the creator of the competition, Larissa Saveliev. Larissa's cousin worked in collaboration with LA-based producers to create the show Dance School Diaries. This show is running through a popular YouTube channel called "DanceOn." I was recommended for the show because I was a regular competitor at YAGP, and I have always worked hard and performed well at the competition. I also have a very distinct acting, modeling, and musical background.”
What aspects of your experiences at the 2014 YAGP did the show try to capture?
“An important aspect that the TV show tried to capture was the preparation phase. They wanted to show the public how many months of training and hard calculated work the dancers put into the competition. They also focused quite a bit on how YAGP is a marketing tool — you are introduced to the biggest, most influential names in ballet. The goal is no longer to win, but to meet and impress as many directors as possible.”
You've done a substantial amount of modeling and acting in tandem to your dance training. How did those skills help you prepare for filming Dance School Diaries?
“ In my life, I have come to realize that there are multiple parallels between ballet and acting. The casting process for both fields actually has a lot of similarities. You have to be comfortable talking to important directors and you have to be quick on your feet to answer any questions. You have to be confident and understand that rejection is a part of the process. All of these skills have allowed me to stay very real and down to earth when I was being filmed. I was able to answer questions wisely and with integrity. When you have a humble perspective, you make good impressions and form a good reputation.”
During the competition and filming, how do you cope with the pressure of having eyes on you at all times?
“ The best way to feel comfortable in any situation is to be prepared and focused. You must come into a new experiences with a positive mindset. You also have to be adaptable for when the unexpected happens. It is very important to know how to manage stress and turn it into energy to fuel your performance. I always keep in mind that one competition does not define my career — your attitude towards the competition is truly the most important thing.”
On the show, you are a bit of a mentor to a younger competitor from your ballet school. How did you use your years of experience with competitions to help ease her nerves?
“No two people will have the same experiences competing. But, first and foremost, I tried to be a positive example for her. I would stay with her in the dressing rooms because I know that sometimes other girls can be intimidating. I would also encourage her backstage not to watch other dancers performing — from my experience, I know that it only makes you more nervous and you don't need to compare yourself to others.”
How did being on Dance School Diaries enhance your relationship with the other dancers?
“I have really enjoyed getting to know the other dancers featured on the show. They are wonderful people with amazing futures. Each one of us had something different to add to the show, and we all clicked together. It is extremely hard to explain to others how it feels to be filmed in day-to-day life. So it was refreshing to be around people who knew exactly what it was like. I think we all grew together as artists, and we will continue to support each other throughout the rest of our careers.”
What are some advantages of competing in these ballet competitions?
“I know that many people have different perspectives on this matter. I perform in competitions because it is another opportunity to be onstage. In the end, the scores don’t matter. In competitions such as YAGP, you build up a reputation in front of well-known ballet directors based upon your own performances and repertoire. You also get a close-up look at other up-and-coming dancers from around the world. After every competition, I come home with something new to work on. You learn so much from the corrections given to you by the judges. I always aspire to perform at the best of my abilities, and my main goal is always to move and touch the audience on an emotional level. It inspires you and challenges you.”
First Position portrayed a particular aspect of the competitive ballet world. Are you hoping Dance School Diaries highlights it differently? If so, how?
"First Position was an inspiring movie that educated many people to the hard path that is associated with ballet. It provided a broad picture of Youth America Grand Prix, and the opportunities it can grant to young dancers. I feel like this new show is going to really make that personal connection between dancer and audience member. You will get a look into our private lives, and see truthfully what it takes to make it in this competitive career. I want the viewer to get an inside perspective on who I am, who my family is, and the support it takes to make dreams reality. I am hoping this show will focus on each artist as an individual, and capture the heart and soul of the dancer.”
You wear Capezio Studio pointe shoes. Whether in the classroom, on stage or competing at world-class ballet competitions, how do Capezios help you perform your best?
“I like the fact that they are softer by the heel area. They break higher, so they support my arch and I don't sink into my pointe. The box is also very nice for turning, and they are hard enough in the front to where they don't die as easily.”
Now that YAGP and Dance School Diaries are under wraps, what is next on the horizon?
“In June, I spent the entire month in New York modeling. It is the first time I have ever lived in a model apartment, and I was given a fantastic opportunity to work with high fashion designers and photographers. I also found time to record a song with my band, Lucid Nights. We released our first single on iTunes. The last two weeks, I have been traveling in Europe to explore opportunities there that came out of my experiences at YAGP New York — a German ballet company offered me an apprenticeship. I will then leave for Sarasota, Florida on scholarship from my long-time ballet sponsors, Suzanne and Leonard Kesten. There, I’ll train for several weeks with the director of the Cuban National Ballet, Ramona de Saa . As far as next year is concerned, I was invited in September to participate in New York fashion week. I am planning on auditioning for year-round schools in New York as well, so I can pursue both of my passions equally. I dream of breaking the barrier between modeling, acting, singing, and dancing. I want to inspire young artists that you can do anything you put your mind to, and I plan on working as hard as I can to achieve these goals.”