Editor's note: This story was sponsored by Cornish College of the Arts.
Serious dance training programs are infamously exclusive and competitive (have you seen “Black Swan”?) but that’s a stereotype that the staff at Cornish Preparatory Dance actively works to change.
“Everyone deserves dance,” says Cornish Preparatory Dance program director Steve Casteel. “We truly believe all kinds of people can dance.”
That means dedication to teaching principles that respect the body rather than striving toward a specific type of body.
“It’s much healthier if you train toward what the body is instead of toward an aesthetic,” Casteel says. “We are not an aesthetic-based school. Our purpose is dance education.”
In practice, that means emphasizing health and anatomy at every level of the program.
“Instead of saying, ‘Don’t let your stomach hang out,’ we teach dancers to ‘Engage your abdominal wall,’” Casteel says. “But we don’t even say that until it’s developmentally appropriate. Very little kids don’t hold their bellies in. It’s too soon.”
Parents see the difference. “It’s all shapes and sizes,” says Andrea King, whose daughter Ainsley has studied at Cornish Prep Dance for eight years and aspires to a career in dance.
"Ainsley is quite curvy [and] it’s hard to know if she was in another program if she would have received the same encouragement to continue.”
Other schools start to winnow students out at higher levels because “they have the wrong feet or body type,” King says but “Cornish encouraged Ainsley for her technique and dedication to performance.”
The program, then and now
When Nellie Cornish opened her school in 1914, dance was the second subject offered (the first, music). It’s a commitment that Cornish has kept up; the current Cornish Preparatory Dance program for children was established around the same time that Cornish became a fully accredited college in the 1970s.
Today, Cornish Prep Dance works with 135 students, ages 4 through 18. Up to about age 8, children are welcome to attend as beginners.
For older children, rather than the traditional step of auditioning to join the program, new students attend a trial class before being placed in the appropriate level based on their experience and skill. As a result, one classroom can have students with a variety of ages, a situation that could feel awkward but that parents say actually works.
“What I appreciate about Cornish is that it has a really nice sense of community among both the parents and the students,” King says. “They work hard to be inclusive and supportive. The kids are at the center and everyone leaves their egos at the door.”
What the kids get out of it
Professional-track students like Ainsley King may spend 11 hours or more in the studio each week, but many students choose to focus on ballet, while a smaller number solely study jazz or contemporary dance (the program includes all three as well as conditioning and choreography).
Some of the older students participate in college classes to earn credit at Cornish, while younger students are encouraged to balance dance with other activities — say, fitting in a dance class around a soccer schedule.
“We’re teaching a strong technical base, so our students can move on to whatever they want to do — whether it’s professional dance or connecting to other careers,” says Casteel. The goal, he adds, is to create “a safe place to expose kids to the world of art that is around us.”
Importantly, Casteel notes, a child doesn’t have to want to grow up to be a dancer to benefit from dance classes.
“Dance teaches kids to stay organized and focused. It helps socially, teaching kids to work with other people, respect their own and others’ bodies and be accountable for themselves. And it gives people a release.”
But ultimately? He says, “Dance is something to enjoy.”
More details about Cornish Prep Dance
Upcoming classes begin Sept. 10, but the program has three cutoff dates for enrollment during the school year (for 2018-19, those dates are Oct. 29, Jan. 7 and Feb. 25). Tuition varies depending on the classes for which a student enrolls. Payment plans are available, and students are encouraged to apply for both need-based and merit scholarships.
Cornish Prep Dance hosts three annual performances; students register for rehearsals as a separate class. For these rehearsals, as in regular classes, students are learning alongside live musical accompaniment in the same rehearsal studios used by the college and professional dance companies like Whim W’Him.
As part of its commitment to community, Cornish has two outreach programs designed to address a specific need for dance opportunities in the local community. One program teaches creative movement to preschoolers at Seattle-based nonprofit Childhaven; the other is a student-run peer-to-peer mentoring program at the Rainier Boys and Girls Club in which Cornish Prep Dance students teach a variety of dance styles to Boys and Girls Club members.