A Sit Down with Dena Abergel

When one looks back at the Covid-19 pandemic, great sacrifice, isolation, and loss come to mind. I think each of us can recognize this. It was no different for ballet dancers around the world, both professionally and recreationally.

What was seeded in this most difficult time was connectivity that barely existed pre-Covid. Suddenly, through Zoom and Instagram, world class teachers were at our fingertips. On any given day, you could log in from your living room, back porch, or bathroom and take class with teachers you only once dreamed of learning from. Never in my wildest ballet dreams could I imagine one day studying in the direct lineage of George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, the only school in my mind and dreams.

And this is where our story begins. The School of American Ballet, or SAB as it is affectionately called, is the first preeminent professional school of ballet in America. Founded by George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein in 1934 in New York City, it is the school that trains dancers for the New York City Ballet (City Ballet) and over 80 other major ballet companies around the world. The dancers’ speed, musicality, and athleticism are unsurpassed.

I started dancing at the ancient age of 14 in the late 1980s and quickly became obsessed with all things City Ballet and SAB. My age, unfortunately, gave little chance to ever fulfill the dream of dancing at SAB. Fast forward many years and deep in a pandemic that had not touched the world in over a hundred years, and through social media, I found my teacher—a teacher who filled a void, which was a longing to learn to dance like a Balanchine ballerina. Suddenly, I was standing under the watchful eye of Dena Abergel, former New York City Ballet ballerina and current faculty member at the School of American Ballet, as well as New York City Ballet’s Children’s Repertory Director. Journey with me, friends, as I ask Dena a lifetime of unanswered questions…..

I saw you recently perform in a clip you shared on your Instagram. Seeing a pro ballerina perform post-retirement in my mind signals a change in the dance world and a world of more inclusivity in dance.

I love to perform. Even those two minutes with my dancing friends on stage at a summer camp was thrilling. We got a high just from creating the dance, having fun in the studio together, putting on the music, and just moving together. As I get further and further away from my performing days, it does feel like it’s less and less possible for me to really perform, so I don’t have the same yearning. Dancing in pointe shoes is no longer realistic. But I still have the yearning to be swept by my waltzing partner across the room any time, any day. Balanchine’s Vienna Waltzes was like a dream for me. I was in three different gowns with many different partners—from the woods to the ballrooms with chandeliers. I could go back to that world forevermore. I was so aware of what was happening at the time—that I was living my dream. I did it, I loved it, and it’s in my heart and in my memory. Would I do it again? Sure, in a second, but it’s not realistic. I am grateful that I am in the world that I love so much and I feel like I can share my passion with eager children, and that it’s not just tucked under a mattress somewhere.

How old were you when you retired?

Almost 39, 38.

Dancing the First movement Solo Girl in Balanchine’s Brahms Schoenberg Quartet 

Photo by Paul Kolnik 

And 40 is around the average age, right?

Much sooner for dancers in the corps. People don’t usually go past early 30s. I was considered old. If you’re not a soloist or a principal, you’re usually gone after 10 years, because to dance in the corps you have to be doing it because you love it so much, which I
did. I would have gone on and on and on. And once I retired, I was ready in the wings if I ever got the chance to get back on stage. I was lucky because Peter Martins called on me to do some character roles after I retired. I will never forget the first year that I was working with the children at SAB. I was teaching them Sleeping Beauty and then I was suddenly on the stage performing as the queen alongside them. It was so incredible to have these little kids turn to me, present their flowers, bow, and walk off. It was the sweetest thing.

And it probably gave them confidence having their teacher out there?

Yes. I was like, “…and 5, 6, 7, 8. turn one and stand, now breathe.” Just kidding, they knew their choreography but it was mutually thrilling and comforting to be on stage together.

Dancing the Prayer solo in Balanchine’s Coppelia 

Photo by Paul Kolnik

Did you have nerves all the way through your career or was it all joy? I know
everyone is different but for you?

Everyone is different. For me the performance was the freedom. It was like sigh, this is where I’m free, so I couldn’t wait. There were occasions when I had a big opportunity or solo where I had some nerves before, but normally as soon as I got out there with the music and lights, it dissipated. Dancing is not scary to me, it’s what I feel I should be doing, it’s where I feel I belong—on the stage with the music and the costumes. I had the opportunity to dance in so many Balanchine ballets. Most of these ballets are about dancing with each other to beautiful music. You are literally dancing with your friends. It’s so rewarding.

If you are a principal, you are almost always dancing with one partner or alone. I loved that I had the opportunity to do certain solos, but the fact that I got to do both was a pleasure. When I came back after having my daughter, I always thought about the fact that the principal dancers who had children had to go back into carrying the entire ballet, whereas when I went back I was just dancing with my friends. It was a much less burdensome role.

What made you decide to retire when you did?

The offer of working with the children came. Peter said, “I need someone to do this and I want it to be you.” I was already 38. I was dancing at my peak at that point, my body was in the greatest shape it was ever in, I was enjoying myself tremendously. It was, in a way, hard to leave, but I said to myself, “This is the way to leave—when I feel great, not injured and hurting.” If I didn’t take the position right then, he would have had to find someone else. He really believed this was the place for me, and I trusted him. I believe Peter noticed certain things about me that I wasn’t aware of myself. He had known me since I was 17 years old and over the course of 20+ years he took an interest not only in my dancing but also in who I was, how I approached dancing, and the way I worked.

Teaching at SAB

What an honor to have someone say to you, “Here, I want you to lead the children at SAB.” That’s huge.

Yes, it was huge and I didn’t quite realize it at the time, and I didn’t see myself that way either. Now I can’t imagine doing anything else!

Sometimes it takes someone to recognize something in us before we see it in ourselves ☺ How does post-retirement look for Dena the dancer? Do you have goals and aspirations for yourself?

The truth is I always love to dance. It has been a loss in my life in terms of missing the performing, missing the daily routine of taking class. Especially before the pandemic, whenever I did have the opportunity I took company class. As a performer, my entire day used to be spent on taking care of myself—my physical body, my nutrition, massage,
everything that had to do with what I needed to do to get on that stage. It was all-consuming. I was lucky because my husband was very supportive. As I got older and had a family I was always balancing and juggling.

Kids, career, college. That’s amazing!

That’s how I felt fulfilled—by doing everything. I have had to slow down a bit as I’ve gotten older because I have gotten injured. The first 10 years post-retirement I really was always looking for that opportunity to get back on that stage. I am past that now because my body can’t do what it used to do. I do get that fulfillment now when I teach. When I’m warmed up and I can really show a class, I make up combinations that I would love to dance, and I get that fulfillment by sharing with my students. So much of learning for everyone is by watching and absorbing, by seeing. It’s visual. When they can see a feeling of movement they can replicate and not imitate but they can understand what you’re saying. When Suki [Schorer] was teaching me, which was, I guess, 35 years ago, she was 100 percent full out. So much of my movement quality and musicality I learned from her because she was doing it all. And she pretty much still does at 83. Suki is one of a kind and continues to inspire students and others alike.

And like you said, it’s so important that you move and demonstrate for your students. For me this past summer was the summer of Balanchine. I have been reading Suki’s book all summer, taking classes with you, and watched all
the essays. It’s one thing to read the theory and watch the videos, but it’s another thing entirely to work directly with a teacher whose teacher literally wrote the book.

On one hand I feel that my experience is so narrow because my entire dance life has been going from SAB to City Ballet back to SAB. Since I began teaching at SAB, I have become so much more aware of the building blocks of technique and not just getting to the final
product. I love helping people understand their bodies and achieve positions and movements that will give them the freedom to dance. Watching young people discover themselves and their abilities is so fulfilling, and to be a part of that process is rewarding for me

Teaching at Belvoir Ballet

Do you have a routine every day for yourself?

I took yoga for dancers classes diligently with Hilary Cartwright from the time I joined the company and I continue to do those stretches and exercises most days before I teach. When I have time and the schedule works out, I love to take company class. It feels like a huge breath of fresh air for me. But normally, once my kids have gone to school, I walk the dog, do my exercises, eat lunch and then head to work. Classes at SAB start at 4 and I rehearse the children for NYCB performances until about 9pm.

If you had to describe Balanchine technique in a few words, how would you
describe it?

I would say one of the biggest things is the musicality of it. You don’t take your time, you dance exactly on the music, but you can also play with the music. Balanchine himself was a musician. That influenced his style and therefore his training. Also clarity. Everything is
crystal clear and precise. Sharp, but also full, huge, the energy and line go beyond the body.

I would describe it as challenging. I feel like an absolute beginner studying Balanchine with you. At what point did you feel Balanchine technique was not challenging? Suki describes in her book that he would push and push and then when the dancer achieved, he would push harder. I assume Suki was the same as a teacher too, right?

Yes, there is no end. I felt that I worked toward goals and in trying, I achieved the best I could at that moment. It was never a final destination.

Does that bring doubt and self-criticism in or do you say I’m on a journey, it’s the journey, not the destination, and I’m on a journey?

That’s the Wendy Whelan idea. It’s about the journey, it’s about the process. There’s always more. The leg can always go higher. The reach can always be longer. I never felt that there was even going to be an end to the journey.

So that was OK? You know how every dancer has something they don’t like about their body or something they want to work on.

Yes, for sure, and of course I have those too, but I think that that has more to do with the person than the technique. Just how you process critical information and corrections. We really have to clarify with students that a correction is not criticism. A correction is a good
thing. It means we are helping you find a way to achieve the result that you want. Plus, even if I got it right one day, it could disappear the next. But knowing I had done three pirouettes the day before, meant that it was possible and achievable. It’s not like you got there and you’re there. I teach these ideas to my students as well—how to think productively about one’s self so that they don’t self-sabotage or become negative.

That’s really refreshing to hear from a professional ballerina. You have the same feelings all dancers have even at the highest level. What is a day at SAB like for you?

It’s different for every dancer and teacher. Because I have two jobs—NYCB Children’s Repertory Director and SAB faculty, both involving the students at SAB, my typical day at SAB is not like other faculty members’. I am creating a whole schedule that has to fit with
City Ballet’s schedule, the kids’ academic schedules, SAB’s class schedule, and studio availability. It’s a huge puzzle so a big part of my job is organizational and on the computer. My mornings are spent arranging, scheduling and emailing, while my afternoons and evenings are spent teaching and watching performances.

How does teaching adults differ from teaching children?

The pandemic gave me my first opportunity to teach anyone above 16. What I loved about it was that I could discuss and explain the workings of the body and artistic ideas in a very different way than I do with children. I can talk so much more freely about everything with
adults. You don’t have the concern about discipline or of hurting anyone’s feelings. I found more freedom for me as a teacher speaking with adults. Adults come to class for a different reason, and I love that they want to learn ballet. They love to move to music and there is
something about ballet that is appealing to them. And I am just so happy to share my passion with people of any age. It’s another kind of fulfillment teaching and working with people closer to my age, a little older, a little younger, to share what I love on a different level. I find it admirable to dedicate part of your day on a regular basis to learning this beautiful art form. I feel that there is so much value and pleasure that one can get out of teaching adults.

And the hope is that the ballet world becomes more inclusive to adult ballet dancers. My last question is whether there is any hope of an adult summer intensive at SAB?
Dena, can you please make it happen? There are so many of us that dream of this!!

That’s highly unlikely at SAB. Maybe City Ballet one day. You never know.

Since sitting down with Dena and writing this, I found NYCB offers a summer adult workshop I am beyond excited to attend and have been kindly invited by Dena to visit SAB to observe classes while there finger crossed the timing is right. This adult ballerina’s dream come true.

Thank you Dena for your time and dedication to this adult ballerina as well as the recognition of the adult ballet world’s rightful place in the world. Your meticulous eye and firm yet kind corrections have fueled the love of this art form for a lifetime. Follow Dena through her Instagram as well as in the Disney documentary, On Pointe.