The Cleveland Park ballet studio goes silent when Julie Kent enters. Every dancer in the 9:30 a.m. class at The Washington Ballet company is waiting for her direction—some with smiles on their faces as she wears a big smile on hers.
Kent, 49, still looks the part of a quintessential dancer, graceful as ever and wearing a loose pink cropped sweater, flowy pink skirt over black tights, and her hair pulled back in one long braid.
Her presence is warm and encouraging as she joins the more than 20 dancers warming up at the barre. The company is preparing for its September season opening performances at the Kennedy Center. In the far corner near the fully mirrored wall, pianist Matteo Mangialetti sits at a black piano and begins to play.
Minutes pass and Kent walks around the rows of barres, snapping her fingers, examining, coaching, and spurring dancers on:
“Stretch, good, all the way down.”
“A little more abundance in the movement, here we go.”
“Use your abs.”
Then, she says something so compelling that the public relations coordinator writes it down:
“Put the music in your feet,” she tells the dancers.
Kent spent much of her professional career as a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre and retired in 2015 as the longest serving ballerina in ABT’s more than 75-year history. She has danced with Misty Copeland, the first black woman to be a principal dancer at ABT, and became the artistic director of The Washington Ballet in 2016. This year, she received the Dance Teacher Award of distinction from Dance Teacher magazine.
“She just has like an amazing nurturing quality to her and I think it shows through in everyone’s progression as artists,” says company dancer Brittany Stone. “She changes little things so that you shine through. …and she’s accepting of different dancers and how they work and how they perform.”
During class, Kent breezes through choreography in seconds, each dancer mimicking her moves with hand gestures before attempting. “OK, let’s try this,” she says before teaching an exercise. “Now make it extraordinarily beautiful.”
“She’s good at looking at a dancer and seeing right away what they’re capable of, and sometimes you don’t even know you’re capable of so much, and she really believes in you and brings it out in you,” Stone says. “She has an amazing eye.”
That eye is a part of Kent’s identity, a special part of her teaching ability that took years to cultivate. Kent grew up in the area, beginning her training at the Academy of the Maryland Youth Ballet in Bethesda, which is now located in Silver Spring.
Dancing was always a part of her life. The movement was always in her.
“My class is very reflective of most of my teachers in my life, including my mother,” says Kent. “I don’t have any memories of life before dance, it was just always there. My mom, when I was a baby, took me to the ballet studio while she did her adult class. So many of the ladies that were in the adult class all those years ago are still in the adult class. They’re still in there because they love it.”
Every teacher thinks differently, and has their own sensibilities about what makes a good dancer and what is important in a dancer, Kent says. For her, lines, the outline and shape of a dancer’s body while performing, and technique, how a dancer uses their line, are crucial.
“A classical line is really, really important because you can find the parallels to the science, to the architecture of classical architecture and classical line,” she says. “The whole aesthetic of ballet is based on classical art and the architecture of line. So I’m sure there’s some mathematical equation that would line up to what makes a great arabesque. My eye is very sensitive to that.”
Then there’s the dynamics of dancing, how someone uses their physicality to express and combine with the music, and theatricality.
Ballet dancing is beautiful but also incredibly athletic. The debate about whether it’s purely an art form or also a sport still rages on. Copeland, for example, signed an endorsement deal with sportswear company Under Armour in 2014.
In Kent’s world, the formula for great ballet is great dancing plus great theatrical performance.
“I think it’s all about your intention,” she says. “The intention of a dancer is to create art, to create beauty. The intention of an athlete is to win a game or win a contest. So, while the preparation and the actual physical body of work may be very similar, the intentions are completely different. We are artists and we are athletes, but we are artists first.”
No dancer goes home having won or lost, she says. “It’s just what you give.”
The curtain comes down and the next day, the dancer goes to work again, Kent explains. Studying dance is about repetition to get the body to the next level of movement, but there comes a point early on where Kent says, “99 percent of the people that study ballet can’t continue to get to the next level because they just don’t have the ability. That’s the reality. It’s like professional athletes. It’s not like if my son keeps playing football, he will someday be in the NFL.”
Out of the thousands of small children who study ballet, only one percent of them, Kent says, will ever be in a position to be in a professional ballet company.
“The life of a dancer is endless criticism, for lack of a better word,” says Kent. “It’s a constant process of identifying what can be better. Every rehearsal you stand in front of the mirror and basically look at ways you can make yourself better. We’re not looking for perfection, we’re looking for improvement.”
But the costs of that improvement are the exact costs that athletes face. Everyone imagines the mangled feet, and while they are essential, there’s more to the art and science of dance than feet.
Megan Poll, head physical therapist for The Washington Ballet, treats the hypermobile dancers’ musculoskeletal aches and pains. The most common injuries she sees are to the lumbar spine, hip, and pelvis, in addition to foot and ankle injuries.
Poll says dance medicine studies are similar to professional sports, where chronic overuse injuries are a large percentage of the ailments she treats everyday. Part of her job is understanding the movement patterns, and knowing the ballet repertoire to tailor her treatments. The goal is to manage the injuries while still allowing the performers to dance perfectly on the tips of their toes, with hips turned out, and move in the ranges they normally would.
“Ballet is very repetitive and dancing on pointe is a repetitive, unnatural position for the foot to be in,” she says.
Back in class, when barre work is done, it’s time for bigger movements like jumping and turning. Dancers put on their pointe shoes and go dancing in groups across the gray floor. She has them do difficult fouette turns, in which they whip around on one leg. Kent sits to watch the art her dancers are creating. “We’ve got to livestream class one day,” she says. “They look so beautiful, I wish my friends could see this.”
Kent’s dreams for The Washington Ballet are infinite. She spends her time fighting for the company to rise and for her dancers to have the kind of career and opportunities she had.
“What I hope for them is that they will be the great pride of this city,” she says. “That this entire greater Washington community will take great pride and ownership of this company as they do the Caps, the Wizards, and the Nats, and say, ‘This is our ballet company and it is so good, and they are just as incredibly gifted as the other athletes and we’re so proud of them.’”